Car accidents are the leading cause of personal injuries in the United States. There are about 6,500,000 automobile accidents each year, resulting in some 3 million people being injured and approximately 42,500 deaths every year. Every 13 minutes someone dies of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The two most common accidents are rear-end crashes and failure to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic while making a left turn. Injuries can range from a few scrapes and bruises to broken bones and paralysis to severe burns to death. Regardless of how careful you are as a driver, there is a good chance that you will get into an accident at some point during your driving days.
Question: What do you recommend that I keep on hand in case I’m ever in a car accident?
Answer: There are some things that you should always keep in your glove compartment to use in case you’re ever involved in an accident. These include:
- A small notebook or pad of paper
- A sharpened pencil/pen
- A disposable camera (or cell phone with camera)
- Your insurance card
- Your current vehicle registration
Question: What should I do if I have just been in an accident?
Answer: There are a number of things you need to do. As hard as it may be, the first thing to do is to keep your cool and your wits about you. The most important immediate thing to do is to determine the severity of your injuries. If you have suffered serious head, neck, or back trauma or injuries, it is important for you not to move, unless your car is in danger of burning, falling down an embankment, or some other emergency, or it is necessary to move you so you can receive first aid before the paramedics arrive. If you suffer a broken neck or back in the accident, moving it incorrectly may exacerbate the injury and lead to permanent paralysis. Have someone dial 911 immediately and ask them to send the paramedics and the police right away.
Question: Should I move my car to the side of the road?
Answer: If your car is drivable and is blocking traffic, and you have not been seriously hurt, it may be a good idea to move it to the side of the road. You may have to be moved so first aid can be given before the paramedics arrive. However, before you move your car, take pictures of the vehicles before they are moved. Many cell phones have the ability to take pictures. If your cell phone does not take pictures or was broken in the accident, ask a witness or bystander to take pictures and exchange information (name, address, and telephone number) with the witness. You should carry a disposable camera that you can purchase at a supermarket or drugstore for six or seven dollars in your glove compartment.
Question: What information should I get from the other driver?
Answer: Ask the other driver to see his or her license. Ask if the address on it is current. If it is not, ask the driver for his or her current address. (But just to be safe, write down the address on the license as well.) Write down the other car’s license plate number. Ask for his or her home and work telephone numbers. Also ask for the name and address of his or her employer. If the other driver doesn’t know his employer’s address, ask for the name of the city it is in. Get the name of the other driver’s insurance agent and telephone number, the name of his or her insurance company, and the policy number. Ask to see the driver’s insurance card. California law requires every driver to have insurance, and insurance companies issue each policyholder an insurance identification card.
Question: Should I ask to see the other driver’s car registration?
Answer: By all means, ask to see the current registration for the vehicle. If the registered owner is different than the driver, write down the registered owner’s name and address. Ask the driver if he or she knows the telephone number of the registered owner. The registered owner of a car can be liable under California’s “permissive user” car, or lending the car to a known poor driver or someone he knows is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Question: The accident I was in was minor. Should I still call the police?
Answer: Except in the most minor of cases, it is always a good idea to call the police to the scene. Even if the police officer does not make an official report of the accident, he or she can get the information from the parties and identification and contact information for witnesses.
Question: Do I have to file a report of the accident with the Department of Motor Vehicles?
Answer: California law requires you to notify the DMV within 10 days of the accident if there is any personal (bodily) injury or the property damage exceeds $750. The form for reporting the accident is known as an SR-1. You can obtain an SR-1 form from your insurance company, a police station, or the DMV.
Question: What should I do if the other driver says he’ll pay for the damages to my car, and not to call the insurance companies because he/she doesn’t want his insurance rates to go up?
Answer: There is usually one of two reasons the other driver may not want to go through his/her insurance company. One is he/she doesn’t want his/her insurance premiums to go up after a minor accident. But many insurance companies now offer a “first accident free” policy in which a driver’s insurance premiums will not go up after his or her first accident. The second main reason a driver doesn’t want to call the police or get the insurance company involved is because or he or she doesn’t have any insurance. Even if you don’t seem injured or your injuries appear small and the damage to your vehicle minor, get the other driver’s insurance information. If he/she still hesitates or refuses to give it, tell him or her that you have no other choice than to call the police to take an accident report.
Question: Is there anything I should not do at the scene of the accident?
Answer: First and foremost, do not admit fault. Avoid saying things such as “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” Don’t say you weren’t hurt. Injuries from automobile accidents may not show up for a couple of days, even months. You may think you were at cause and admit liability when in fact you were not wholly or partially responsible for the accident. For instance, you may think you were the cause of the accident when in fact it was due to a dangerous roadway or intersection.
Question: I was seriously injured in an automobile accident that was partly my fault. Does this mean I can’t sue the other driver for my hospital bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages?
Answer: Not at all. In California, the legal doctrine of “comparative fault” or “comparative negligence” applies. Suppose the total amount of your damages was $100,000, but you were 40% responsible for the accident and the other driver was 60% at fault. In that case, the amount you could recover from the other driver would be reduced by 40%, so instead of getting $100,000, you would recover $60,000. Car accident cases in which both parties were at fault can get complicated, as the other driver’s insurance company will try to place all or most of the blame for the accident on you. It is critical that you be represented by an experienced personal injury lawyer in situations such as this. Especially if your injuries are serious.
Question: I was a passenger in a friend’s car and was seriously injured when my friend caused an accident. Do I have any rights?
Answer: Yes. You have the right to seek compensation from your friend’s insurance company. Your friend has an obligation to drive safely not only to prevent hitting other vehicles, but also to prevent injury to his or her passengers. Sometimes injured victims don’t want to seek compensation from or sue their friends for their injuries. But the fact is you are really suing the insurance company, not your friend.
Question: It’s been two weeks since the accident and this morning when I got up, I had a severely sore and stiff neck, back, and shoulders. Could this be due to the accident?
Answer: Yes. It is not at all unusual for injuries from a traffic accident to show up several days, even weeks, after the accident. You should make an appointment with your physician for evaluation. Your primary care physician may prescribe muscle relaxants and pain killers, and/or refer you for physical therapy. Alternatively, you may wish to call an experienced personal injury lawyer, who often may be able to steer you to a physician who specializes in this type of injury.
Question: A couple of months ago, I was rear-ended by another car while I was stopped at a red light. I wasn’t injured and the other driver’s insurance company paid to repair my car. But now I’m starting to get afraid of driving or even being a passenger. I keep thinking about all the ways I could get into an accident. Is this normal?
Answer: After a person has been in a traffic accident, it is not at all unusual for him or her to be apprehensive about driving for a while. If the accident was relatively minor, those fears usually go away in a couple of months. But it is not at all uncommon for a victim who has been injured in an accident to suffer psychiatric or psychological injuries. The victim at first will suffer mild anxiety when driving or riding in a car, and this mild anxiety can turn into severe, even crippling anxiety that makes the victim deathly afraid of riding in a car. Also, a car accident is a traumatic event and the victim may have nightmares reliving the accident or cringe at sudden, loud noises. This is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and may require months of expensive psychiatric and psychological treatment to deal with his or her disabling fears.
Question: The other driver’s insurance company has been good about paying my medical expenses and car repairs. They’ve told me not to hire a lawyer, as the lawyer will just take a large chunk of my settlement and I’d do better without one.
Answer: An insurance adjuster is employed by the insurance company, and his or her only concern is settling a case as quickly and cheaply as possible. Studies consistently show that car accident victims who are represented by a competent and experienced personal injury law firm end up with significantly more money in their pockets even after the lawyer’s fees are paid than accident victims who are not represented by a lawyer and try to handle their own claims.
Question: How soon after I’ve been injured in a car accident should I get legal representation?
Answer: If you have been seriously injured—or a loved one has been killed—in a car accident, you should retain a lawyer as soon as possible. The insurance company will assign an adjuster to the case as soon as it is reported to the insurance company and usually the adjuster will want to take your statement as soon as possible. Do not give the adjuster a statement until you have talked with—and preferably retained—an experienced personal injury lawyer. The adjuster is trained to ask questions that are biased in favor of the insurance company and designed to trip you up. You should never give a statement to an insurance company adjuster or other representative without the consent and presence of your attorney.
Question: What type of losses can I seek compensation for?
Answer: You are entitled to recover money damages for all losses reasonably connected to the accident. This includes medical expenses, lost wages, the cost of a rental car, money for damaged or destroyed property you had in the car, and damages for pain and suffering.
Question: Do I have to pay the lawyer a part of his or her fee up front?
Answer: No. Personal injury attorneys representing victims of others’ careless acts work on a “contingency fee” basis. This means that the lawyer’s share of the fees comes out of the ultimate award. Generally the lawyer is entitled to a fee only if the case results in a settlement or verdict favorable to you. If you lose the case, you owe the lawyer nothing.