You just got into an accident. Your adrenaline is pumping, and in the grips of “fight or flight” response your instincts may be telling you to drive away, to get out of your car and run, or to scream at the other driver. You may be furious, scared, or confused, but it’s important to keep your wits about you. What you do at the scene can have a critical impact on the success of your claim. This chapter provides you with a guide to what to do in the event of an accident. Not only will we discuss what to do at the scene, but we will also cover important steps that you should take in the days that follow.
It’s an unfortunate irony that there are few circumstances less conducive to thinking clearly-but few where it is more important-than the scene of an accident. However, the more familiar you are with the best course of action under these circumstances-the more you rehearse these steps in your mind-the more likely you will act appropriately and effectively despite the shock and daze that inevitably accompany a crash.
Of course, the extent of your injuries will determine whether or not you are able to follow the steps described below. This chapter is written with a moderate accident in mind, including damage to both vehicles, but whose drivers are able to safely get out of the car, despite possible IIlJUnes.
The first thing to do is stop your car, if the collision has not already forced you to a stop. The law requires that you stop if you are involved in an auto accident, no matter how minor. If you drive away, you can be charged with a “hit and run” even if the accident was not your fault. Hit and run penalties can be severe, including loss of drivers license, fines and jail, depending on the damage or injuries involved. If possible, move your vehicle to a safe location, out of traffic, so as to avoid further collision. Turn on your hazard lights and set flares or cones if you have them. Check yourself, your passengers and the other car’s occupants for injuries
Take a second to tune in to your body, noting any pain, discomfort, numbness or tingling. Nothing is more important than your physical well being, and in a serious accident this should be the first thing you do. Moving your car, or yourself, may be impossible, and may exacerbate any injuries. If there are other people in the car, check to make sure they are okay. If you are able to get out of your car, and if you are at a location in which it is safe to do so, check the other car’s occupants as well. Do not attempt to move a person who is seriously injured, as it could cause permanent damage or paralysis, unless their lives are in immediate danger.
Call 911, if necessary
New Jersey law requires that you call the local, county or state police if the accident caused a death or injury or damage in excess of $500.00. In all but the most minor accidents, it’s also a good idea to call the police from the standpoint of building a successful case: the police report provides insurance companies with proof that the accident took place, and it can be a tremendous asset in your claim if the police officers’ account of the facts are on your side. Once an operator picks up, speak clearly and calmly. Help can be delayed if the location is not clearly communicated. Use landmarks, road signs or mile markers to specify the accident location. Be sure to mention any injuries you or anyone else has suffered.
Keep calm, do not admit fault
As much as you possibly can, remain calm while talking to the other driver and don’t say anything that could be construed as an admission of fault. A harmless apology, made in an attempt to placate the other driver’s anger, can be twisted by an insurance company lawyer into a confession that the accident was the result of your negligence.
How you feel towards the other driver after the accident enraged, indignant, sheepish or remorseful-isn’t necessarily a reflection of who was actually at fault. I’ve heard of drivers who were clearly in the wrong but acted as though they were innocent v1ct1ms of another’s recklessness. And I’ve known others who apologized profusely in spite of having done nothing wrong. Regardless of who you feel is at fault, it’s best to avoid discussing with the other driver the details of the accident and how it happened, no matter how much you may be tempted to do so. Do not argue with another driver or passengers-nothing good can come of it. At the same time, keep an ear open to what the other driver says and write down any admission or apology as quickly as possible.
Whether or not an officer is called to the scene and files a police report, it’s critical for you to collect your own information. At the end of this chapter, I’ve included forms that you should photocopy and put in your glove compartment. Filling out these forms following an accident will ensure that you record the important information that we’ll consider below.
From the other driver: Make sure to write down the other driver’s name, address, driver’s license number, license plate number, insurance company name and policy number. And provide your information as well. Also take a moment to observe the other driver’s demeanor, and look for any signs that he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs: the smell of liquor, slurred speech, flushed face, or bloodshot eyes. Also note whether the driver is wearing eyeglasses. If it turns out that the driver needs prescription glasses, but wasn’t wearing them at the time of the accident, this fact can help you establish fault.
From witnesses: It’s hard to overstate the power of an eyewitness account, especially from an impartial person. There’s a brief window of time following the accident in which you’re likely to find a witness who is willing to get involved-most people who saw the accident will leave the scene fairly quickly. When talking to potential witnesses, emphasize how helpful their involvement would be, and collect contact information-name, address, phone number-from to anyone who would be willing to offer their testimony. If the witness cannot remain on the scene, make sure you give their information to the police officer so he can interview them at a later date.
From the scene: Paying careful attention to the scene of the accident can alert you to decisive factors that could easily be overlooked, including by the police officer. If the accident occurred at an intersection or on a city street, make note of any malfunctioning traffic signals or missing, damaged, or obscured stop signs. You may also want to observe the other vehicle to see if any obvious mechanical problems are apparent. Malfunctioning headlights, blinkers or other car parts could later prove to be significant. If you have a camera on your cell phone-or if you had the foresight to put a disposable camera in your glove compartment-take pictures of the damage to your vehicle and any relevant factors at the accident scene, including any objects with which the vehicles collided. If you don’t have a camera, return to the scene as soon as possible to take photos.
Cooperate with the police
Once the officer arrives, be courteous and cooperative. It’s important to keep in mind that one of the officer’s primary duties at the accident scene is to fill out a report. From the perspective of an insurance company, the police report represents the authoritative record of the accident. The facts that find their way into the police report, as well as those that are left out, can prove significant in terms of you and your lawyer’s ability to secure fair compensation for your injuries. So, as before, do not say anything that might be construed as an admission of fault. Give the officer all the information that you feel may be relevant, and be sure to include why you think the accident happened, what you think the other driver did wrong, and what, if anything, you did to avoid the collision.
The police officer will ask you whether you’re injured. If you suspect injury, make sure that you say so. How you answer this question can powerfully shape the future discussions you have with the other driver’s insurance company regarding the nature and extent of your injuries. Although insurance companies recognize that many injuries sustained in an auto accident don’t manifest symptoms until hours or days after the incident, they may still use your original statement of no injury against you.
If you feel you require medical attention, don’t be shy, and don’t let concerns about the cost sway you. Tell the police officer to call for an ambulance immediately. Your physical well-being may be at stake, and toughing it out may have devastating consequences if your injuries are not properly diagnosed and treated. Finally, before you leave the scene, ask for the officer’s name and for any information you will need to secure a copy of the police report.
Call a tow truck if necessary
If you have any suspicion that the damage to your vehicle renders it unsafe to drive, have your vehicle towed to your home or to your chosen repair facility. You do not want to risk further injury to yourself or others by driving a vehicle that is potentially unsafe.
Write an account of the accident
Your memory of the accident is a valuable source of information, but it becomes less and less reliable as time passes, and important details can be forgotten. So, as soon as you can, sit down and write a detailed account of the accident, being careful to leave nothing out. To help you do this, I’ve created the Diary for the Injured: A Workbook for Recording your Injuries and Losses, an easy-to-use tool designed to ensure that all critical information regarding the accident is recorded. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend acquiring a copy. This record could make an important contribution to the success of your case.
You may have gotten into an accident that you feel was clearly the fault of the other driver, and it’s tempting to assume that because the truth of the situation was so obvious, there’s little need to be so meticulous in collecting information and making records. The reality, however, is that claims can be denied for virtually any reason, no matter how unmistakable the other driver’s negligence was at the time of the accident. It’s impossible to know exactly what will later proved to be significant in the success of your claim. By taking these steps, you are helping to ensure that you will be able to obtain the financial resources you need to fully recover.
See a doctor
If you sustained an injury in your accident, no matter how minor you think it is, see your doctor immediately-this is one of the most important pieces of advice I can offer, not only for your health, but also for the success of your claim. As I mentioned, many of the most common injuries from auto accidents don’t become symptomatic until hours and even days later. Damage to soft tissue occurs immediately, but you may not feel it for some time. So, if you suspect an injury, even if you’re not sure, see your family physician at once, and in person. That way the doctor can give you a full evaluation and document your injuries.
And don’t just see a doctor, but listen too. Your condition can become chronic and permanent if not properly treated, and your physician is the best judge of the necessary treatment. If your physician recommends physical therapy and on-gomg care, listen and follow those recommendations. Sadly, I’ve seen a great many people ignore their doctor’s directions, taking the attitude of “it’ll heal on its own,” only to find that their injury becomes more painful and debilitating as time wears on.
Document your injuries
When it comes to rece1vmg fair compensation from insurance companies, documentation is everything. Records, we might say, are the language of insurance adjusters, and to get what you need to fully recover, you have to learn to speak their language. But now, more and more, the work of insurance adjusters is being delegated to computers, and in a later chapter we’ll discuss the computer programs currently being used by the industry to evaluate your case. If the required documentation is not entered into the program, and in terms that the computer can understand, the program will not properly evaluate your injury and you will be denied fair compensation.
Keeping in mind the way these programs “think,” I’ve created forms that you should ask your physician to fill out, and forms that you should fill out yourself. Both you and your doctor are responsible for documenting your injuries, but each of you is looking at the situation from somewhat different, though equally important angles. Your physician is responsible for recording the nature of your injury, any diagnostic procedures you undergo, and all care and treatment you receive-in other words, from a medical perspective. Your job is to record the ways in which your injuries impact you from a personal perspective: the pain you feel, the activities you can no longer engage in, and any other ways in which the injuries have impacted your life.
To help you, your doctor and your attorney ensure that the full extent of your injuries are understood and well documented, I urge you to use Diary for the Injured: A Workbook for Recording your Injuries and Losses, which I mentioned above. In addition to helping you record important details of the accident, it is also designed to help you document your injuries. It contains both specific questions regarding your symptoms and a convenient format for tracking them over time.
Report the accident to your insurance company
You have an obligation under the terms of your automobile insurance policy to immediately report, truthfully and completely, any automobile accident you are involved in. However, in the event of a serious accident, involving injuries and extensive property damage, I suggest that you immediately consult with an experienced personal injury attorney before contacting your insurance carrier. Why? Because your insurance company is not always on your side. It all boils down to money. If you are seeking compensation under the other driver’s insurance policy, then your own insurance company can be a powerful ally. If, however, the situation requires that your insurance carrier cover some of your losses, then suddenly their interests are counter to your own. While still honoring the terms of your policy, they are now looking to pay you as little money as possible. And when your insurance company is no longer on your side, you need someone who is, someone who can level the playing field, someone who can advocate for you and protect your interests. The problem is that it is not always clear ahead of time which insurance company is going to pay for what, and that’s why I recommend consulting with an attorney in the event of a serious accident.
I also recommend speaking with an attorney before discussing the accident with the other driver’s insurance carrier. Think about it. You intend to show that the other driver was at fault and that their insurance should pay for your medical treatment, property damage, and pain and suffering. The other driver’s insurance company wants nothing of the sort. They would much prefer to show that you were at least partially at fault in the accident, and that they should therefore only pay for only a certain percentage of your losses.
However, if your injuries are minor and you feel that you can represent yourself without the benefit of legal counsel, you will want to begin communication with the responsible party’s insurance carrier as soon as possible in order to facilitate the resolution of your claim. Later in this book, we will discuss the most effective approach and the most helpful mindset to adopt when dealing with the responsible party’s insurance carrier. For now, suffice it to say that the adjuster’s job is to limit the compensation you receive, a fact that you would do well to keep firmly in mind.
Make a report to the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC)
According to NJ Law, every driver involved in an accident resulting in injury or death or property damage in excess of
$500.00, regardless of fault, must make a report to the police by the quickest means possible and within 10 days of the accident.
Involved in an accident? Contact Joseph M. Ghabour & Associates, LLC to discuss your case.