Part I – Legal Topics Relating to Vehicle Accidents
This is the first of a three-part series discussing important legal topics relating to vehicle accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 900 Missourians die in vehicle crashes each year so it is a topic worth exploring and I hope you find it informative. Of course, a much higher number of Missourians are involved in non-fatality crashes annually. In this three-part series, we’ll discuss the steps to take when an accident occurs; important insurance topics related to automobile accidents; and the process of automobile accident litigation if your particular damage dispute fails to settle and requires a trial on the merits.
Steps to take when an accident occurs: Automobile accidents cause even the most levelheaded person to become shaken and unnerved. Some people have a lighthearted saying about vehicle accidents….there are two types….the one you have experienced and the one you have yet to experience. If/when you experience one, your vehicle is likely to be damaged; the contents may be damaged as well; and you and your passengers may be injured. If one occurs, first assess any injuries to you or other drivers and passengers. If medical attention is required, call authorities immediately and provide some assistance only if risk of further harm is unlikely. Some experts suggest you move your vehicle if you can do so safely. I caution you in doing so. If your accident scene is not congested and the vehicles can remain where they came to rest, please exit your vehicle and move to safety without causing the position of your vehicle to change. This cautious decision may assist in the investigation of the accident scene by authorities and prevent further risk of fire or additional damage to the vehicles or their occupants.
Once you have assessed your medical condition and the condition of those around you, you should remain at the scene and begin communicating the event to others. Your initial calls following a crash should be to (1) the police or legal authorities who can investigate the accident and provide an incident report and your family to let them know of your status; (2) your insurance agent in order to secure his/her help with the claim and to avoid an untimely report; and (3) a personal-injury lawyer as it is never too early to secure informed representation to prevent mistakes.
(1) Call authorities and family: At some point in this process, you should contact your loved ones and inform them of the event so they know you are okay. I suggest that call occur after calling the authorities. You should call the police or legal authorities regardless of the severity of the accident or injuries. Some of my clients who thought an accident was minor, or that the other driver would remain around long enough to exchange information, or and that their injuries were few, later came to realize how important this step really is. Never assume the other party will act as reasonably as you will after reading this article. Still other skeptics of calling the authorities think such a call exposes them to additional liability. Sure, if you are completely at fault and the accident was a result of your reckless behavior, the authorities will not be your best friends at the scene. However, for the majority of accident participants, legal authorities offer a neutral examination of the events and secure ample information at the scene; they provide some deterrent from unreasonable damage claims; and still others bring a calming influence to an already heated situation.
Make certain that the police or attending legal authorities have your full statement of the events and the names of each of your passengers regardless of age. If possible, obtain the officer’s name and the location of his/her office or precinct. In certain instances, some insurance policies read that police or other legal authorities must be contacted within a given time if a hit-and-run occurs so if criminal conduct occurred, please call immediately. Finally, no matter how emotional the setting, avoid admitting guilt even if you feel the accident may be your fault. Allow your insurer’s adjuster or a court of law to make that determination later. Again, your statements and conduct at the scene of an accident is unlikely to be rational or in your best interests.
(2) Call your insurer: After you have called the police or 911, call your insurance agent or claims department. Often, their telephone numbers are located on your insurance card. By contacting your insurer immediately, you can argue that you stayed within any time limits for filing your claim and avoid a denial. It is unlikely that your insurer will send someone to the scene immediately. Instead, be prepared to do your own investigation at the accident scene and then report the same to the adjuster later. Take thorough notes and keep a record of everyone you talk to and when you spoke with them. Be prepared to obtain the necessary information with respect to a claim such as the make and model of the other vehicles, the location and time of the accident, the other vehicle’s VIN number, and if possible, record the names, addresses, and license plate numbers of any participants and witnesses. Finally, note any weather conditions such as rain or road conditions such as potholes or a lack of signage or striping that could have contributed to the accident.
If you have a camera on your phone or one in your car, record the scene and the damage to the vehicles. Any good attorney will tell you photographs may prove more effective than attempting to draw the scene of the accident on a piece of paper later. It is easy to forget critical details after accidents, so take photos of any items you think are unusual or particularly relevant to the claim while at the scene such as road conditions, weather, signs, license plates, the other driver and his/her passengers.
(3) Call a personal injury attorney: Now I am not advocating you must call an attorney from the accident site or that you must call my office but when time allows, I encourage you to call a licensed and experienced attorney sooner than later. If you already have an existing relationship with an attorney, I suggest you make the call right away. What if you make a mistake at the accident scene that could have been avoided by calling your attorney such as not exchanging necessary information or making statements to the wrong parties? Such mistakes could prevent you from obtaining a reasonable damage award in the future.
More importantly, if your accident resulted in physical injuries, it is in your best interests to consult with an attorney. A personal injury attorney can help you maximize your recovery if you were injured or better defend yourself if you were at fault. Most accident attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. That means that your lawyer only receives a fee if you are awarded damages or receive a settlement. Most lawyers typically charge a rate of 1/3 to 1/2 of any gross settlement or jury award. Find a lawyer who you feel is trustworthy and experienced, or contact an attorney recommended by a friend or family member.