Maybe you had just stopped for your morning coffee and were on your way to work. Maybe you made a quick run to the store for the missing dinner ingredient. Perhaps you just dropped your child off at soccer practice or were on your way to pick up a friend for a night out. No matter where you were going, the last thing you likely anticipated was getting into a motor vehicle accident. Then you hear the sound of tires squealing, metal crunching, glass breaking, and people screaming. Your whole world turned upside down in an instant. What do you do now? What do you do tomorrow? What do you do next week or next month?
Even though car accidents aren’t extremely common in our individual lives, they do happen, and you need to know what to do after you are in one. No matter how minor or severe your accident was, the steps you take immediately afterward, and in the days, weeks, and months to come could impact your future. Small, seemingly innocent mistakes can potentially lead to health problems, economic ruin, and other complications.
United States Car Accident Statistics
Motor vehicle collisions are often serious. They injure and kill millions of people each year on American roadways and cost billions.
Consider these alarming statistics reported by the Association for Safe International Road Travel:
- Over 38,000 people lose their lives in crashes on U.S. roadways annually.
- The U.S. traffic fatality rate is 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 people.
- 4.4 million are non-fatally injured severely enough to need medical attention.
- Car accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages one to 54.
- Car crashes cost U.S. citizens $871 billion per year.
- Over $380 million of these expenses are in direct medical costs.
- The U.S. suffers the most road traffic accident fatalities of any high-income country, about 50 percent higher than similar countries like Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan.
If you’ve become one of these statistics, you need to know that you can hire a car accident attorney who will guide you through this sometimes overwhelming and confusing process.
Immediately After the Accident
The first thing you need to do after an accident is to stop. Even if you think the accident is minor and don’t believe there is any harm or damage, you must stop. When you stop, you must identify yourself or render aid to anyone who might need assistance. In many states, this applies even if you simply hit an animal.
Failure to stop and exchange information with another driver or property owner after an accident is illegal in most states. If you leave the scene of the accident without doing so, it is now a hit and run accident. You could face penalties of fines between $5,000 and $20,000 and up to 15 years in prison, depending on the nature of the accident. You don’t want to complicate your accident even more by facing criminal charges. Even if you are the victim, you must stop.
Be Sure You Are Safe
When you stop, be sure that you and the other vehicles involved are in a safe area. Depending on the type of road you are on, some state laws require you to move your vehicles from traffic whenever possible. Leaving your vehicles unnecessarily in the line of traffic can put you and other motorists at risk. You and others in the area could be involved in a secondary accident, potentially worse than the first.
Call for Help
If anyone is hurt, call 911. You want paramedics to arrive on the scene as soon as possible to assess for any injuries. Sometimes this can mean the difference between life and death.
When you call, provide the 911 dispatcher with the following information:
- The location by using street names, highway exits, mile markers, as well as recognizable landmarks
- What side of the road you are on, and what direction you were traveling at the time of the accident
- If there are obvious injuries, anyone is in pain, or if anyone is unconscious
- If the accident scene is dangerous, if a vehicle trapped anyone inside, if there are known hazards like leaking fuel, downed power lines, or traffic problems
This information will help assure emergency personnel arrive quickly and help prepare them for what types of heroic actions and life-saving measures they will need to take when they arrive.
Even if there are no apparent injuries, you will want to call the police. Sometimes police authorities will respond to every accident scene. Keep in mind that some law enforcement agencies will not come to the scene if the accident is on private property such as a parking lot. However, it’s always best to attempt to notify the police. If you are the victim of a hit and run accident, most jurisdictions require you to notify the police within a specific deadline.
If you don’t call the police for whatever reason, or the police will not come to the scene of your accident, you might need to report your accident to your state’s department of motor vehicles. Some states require this if the accident involved injuries or if the property damage totaled a specific amount.
Whenever possible, you will need to exchange information with the other driver and any of their passengers. You can do this while you are waiting for the authorities to arrive or with them in person if need be. Get the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and driver’s license numbers from all involved drivers.
Don’t forget to get the license plates and vehicle identification numbers (VIN). Ask to see driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations to confirm the information is correct. If you cannot find the owner of a damaged car or other property, it’s best to leave a note with the names and addresses of the driver and owner(s) of the involved vehicle. Doing so shows that you made an effort to contact all involved parties.
Gather Evidence When Possible
If you are physically able, get the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of other passengers and any witnesses. It may be necessary to contact them in the future to provide an account of how the accident occurred.
If you have a camera or a cellphone, get pictures or videos of the damage and the accident scene. Be sure to include:
- Traffic lights
- Road signs
- Visual obstacles
- Weather conditions
- Road conditions
- All vehicles from different angles
- Skid marks on the road
As Soon As Possible After the Accident
These actions need to be taken as soon as possible after the accident but not necessarily immediately. Be sure to attend to your immediate and medical needs first.
Report the Accident to Your Insurance Company
You are contractually obligated to report the accident to your insurance company as soon as possible after your accident. If you fail to do so, they could deny your claim or even cancel your insurance policy. With today’s technology, you may not have to call to make a report. Depending on your insurance company, you can report it online or through an app.
When you call or otherwise report the accident, it’s a good idea to have the information you collected from the other drivers involved with you as well as the accident report.
Expect several information-gathering questions, such as:
- Do you have injuries?
- Did you require medical care?
- Did anyone else suffer injuries?
- How did the accident happen?
- Where did the accident happen?
- How much damage has your vehicle sustained?
See Your Doctor
If you haven’t already received medical care, now is a good time to make a doctor’s appointment. Many injuries aren’t readily apparent after a car accident but begin to show symptoms in the days and weeks after. Seeing your doctor can help catch these symptoms early on and help you get the treatment you need. Having a doctor document your physical assessment, injuries, and plans for follow-up care will help ensure that you receive the compensation you deserve after your accident.
Be sure that you continue getting the medical care and therapies recommended by your doctor or other medical care providers. If you fail to comply with their recommendations, your inactions could decrease the value of your claim.
Seek Any Necessary Follow-Up Treatment
If an emergency room or another healthcare provider saw you for diagnosis and initial treatment, be sure you get the follow-up care and treatment you need. Not only is it the best course of action for your help, but it helps you build a strong legal claim as well. Whether you need to get additional tests, treatments, or get your injuries rechecked, follow those instructions exactly to the best of your ability.
Be Wary of Insurance Adjusters
Within a few days of reporting your accident to the insurance company, you may receive a phone call from the insurance adjuster assigned to your case. More often than not, adjusters will seem genuinely concerned for your wellbeing. They will chat with you and act like your friend. Adjusters do this to make you feel as though they are on their side, which allows them to give you unsolicited advice without questions. They may say the insurance company will accept responsibility for the accident or tell you not to hire an attorney since they will just take more of the benefits insurance will provide. Insurance adjusters aren’t looking out for you or any other injured car accident victim. They are looking out for themselves and their employer.
While you always want to be cordial and respectful, don’t fall for these tactics. They want you to believe that they have your best interest at heart. If they befriend you, you are more likely to speak freely about the accident, your injuries, and anything else that might benefit them. Perhaps you will tell them about an old injury you had, how you lost your job a few months back, or how you had just left a barbeque before being in an accident. It may all seem like friendly small talk. However, they will take every morsel of information they can and twist it for their purposes.
For example, according to them:
- Your old injury is what is causing your new pain and mobility issues, not the car accident.
- You lost your job, so now you are taking advantage of this accident to get money.
- You came from a family barbecue, so you must have been drinking.
You are best off politely referring any adjuster who calls you to your car accident attorney. Once you have legal representation, you won’t have to talk directly to the insurance adjuster. Your attorney will do that for you, which can protect you from saying something detrimental to your claim.
Never Provide Recorded Statements
The insurance adjuster will likely ask you to give a recorded statement about your account of the accident over the phone. They may even make it seem like it is a requirement or that it will reflect poorly on your claim if you don’t. However, this is not true. You don’t have to give a recorded statement.
Providing a recorded statement might seem innocent enough, but that’s precisely what the insurance company wants you to think. The problem with recorded statements is that insurance adjusters are well-versed in what to ask and how to ask questions during this time. Since the adjuster will record your statement, there is no denying what you said. Adjusters take advantage of this time to trick you into saying things you don’t necessarily mean or twist what you say.
If you decide to go through with a recorded statement, prepare for questions such as:
- You had a little to drink at the barbecue, right?
- You did see the other car coming, didn’t you?
- So, what you are saying is that you were feeling tired that day?
- You didn’t do everything you could to stop on time, did you?
Some insurance adjusters may even use a tactic of getting you a little upset to see how you handle yourself or if you will mess up explaining what happened. Suppose they suspect you are carefully choosing your words when speaking to them. In that case, they might start to drop negative comments and wait for your reaction. If the adjuster is successful, this will get you talking.
Keep in mind that you have the right to end the conversation or a recorded statement at any time. If you are going to hire a lawyer, let them know they can talk to your attorney if they want further information from you. An attorney can help protect you from these well-known but still successful tactics meant to deny your claim or pay you less than what it is worth.
Check Your Auto Insurance Policy Coverage
Even if you weren’t at fault for the auto accident, you might need to rely on some of your auto insurance coverage to pay for your damages. Now is an excellent time to review your policy to see what coverage you have available and their limits. You may also want to change your policy coverage and limits going forward based on this experience. What follows are coverages on which you might need to rely.
Uninsured & Underinsured Motorist Coverage
If a driver without auto insurance hits you or you are the victim of a hit and run accident, you will need to use your uninsured motorist coverage to help pay for your damages. Underinsured coverage applies if you are in an accident. However, the other driver’s insurance policy isn’t enough to cover your damages. For example, the other driver’s liability policy limit is $10,000, but your medical bills are $20,000. You could file a claim on your underinsured policy for the additional $10,000.
Medical Payments Coverage
Some states require medical payment coverage, also known as Med Pay, and some states do not. Med Pay pays for medical-related expenses in the event of a car accident. If you live in a no-fault car accident state, you are required to have Med Pay coverage and will rely on that to pay at least some of your medical bills.
Collision coverage is optional. However, suppose you have this coverage on your auto insurance policy at the time of your accident. In that case, you could file a claim on it. Some drivers prefer to file a claim under their collision coverage instead of filing a claim with the other driver’s insurance.
Although you will have to pay your deductible to use this coverage to get your car replaced or repaired, your auto insurance company will work to get it back for you in a process known as subrogation. Your insurance company will seek to get the amount of your deductible back from the at-fault driver’s insurance company and then refund it to you.
Rental Car Coverage
While certainly not required, rental car coverage can be nice to have. If you do have this coverage, you can use it to help pay for a rental car while your damaged car is being looked at or fixed. Most policies will pay a set amount per day up to a set amount total per accident.
Hire an Experienced Car Accident Attorney
Meeting with an experienced car accident attorney after sustaining an accident-related injury is one of the most essential steps to take. You won’t know your legal rights and how much your case could be worth it unless you do.
It is best to meet with one as soon as possible, otherwise:
- Valuable evidence could be lost or destroyed in your claim. An attorney can help you gather and preserve evidence that will support your car accident claim. Such evidence might include pictures of the accident scene, your injuries, and your medical bills. The sooner evidence is collected, the lesser the chances are that it will be lost, damaged, or destroyed.
- You could miss the lawsuit filing deadline. Each state has its own statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time injured individuals have to file a legal claim. In many states, this deadline is as little as one to two years, whereas, in others, it is up to five years. In some situations, victims have a longer deadline. However, it is always best to consult with an attorney to determine the statute of limitations that applies to your specific circumstances. The statute of limitations is often different for claims involving minors or those against government entities.
If you don’t file your lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations, you no longer have the right to pursue compensation through the civil legal system. Meeting with a lawyer as soon as possible helps ensure that you will file a claim on time and within the statute of limitations.
Avoid Detrimental Mistakes
The sooner you have an attorney on your side, the less likely you are to make seemingly innocent mistakes that could have a substantial negative impact on your case (such as not following up with your medical providers when you are supposed to, saying something to the insurance adjuster that they can use against you, or posting on social medial about your accident or injuries).
How to Find the Best Car Accident Lawyer Near Me
Many people injured in a car accident have never had to contact a lawyer before in their lives. The prospect of finding the right lawyer can be overwhelming, and they may not know where to start. Here are some tips about how to find the best car accident lawyer near you.
Word of Mouth
Ask around in your social and work circles for recommendations. Your friend, family member, neighbor, coworker, or someone else might know of an excellent car accident attorney near you. If so, you can ask them about their experience and what they liked about their attorney.
It’s okay to use Google or other search engines to find a car accident attorney. However, don’t merely choose the one that comes up at the top of the list. Take your time to read through several of their reviews to see what current or previous clients have to say about the lawyer, their law firm, their services, and their staff.
Check With Other Attorneys
Perhaps you recently used a divorce, business, or estate-planning attorney. They aren’t the ones to look to for legal help after a car accident, but they can likely recommend lawyers they know and trust personally for these services.
Use Online Lawyer Search Resources
Several online lawyer databases exist to help people like you looking for legal help on which they can count. With many of these online tools, you can sort by specialty, location, or legal topics. You can also see what states they are licensed to practice in, any special awards or certifications they have received, and other reviews and information.
Be sure to check out:
- Legal Zoom
- Find Law
- Legal Match
- Super Lawyers
- Law Info
- Best Lawyers
- Lawyer Legion
Tips for Selecting the Right Car Accident Attorney
When researching lawyers, consider these tips:
- Think about your comfort level with them. Do you have a good rapport? Your car accident attorney will likely find out some very private details of your life while handling your case. You want to be sure that you trust them and feel comfortable talking with them. Do you feel like they take your questions and concerns seriously?
- Ask what the best way to reach them is. Some attorneys might give you their personal cell phone number or email address. Other attorneys might request that you contact their secretary or paralegal at the law firm to get in touch, which is also an excellent time to ask how long you can expect it to take to hear back from them. Throughout your case, you have a pressing question at least a time or two. Waiting a long time for an answer to a pressing question can induce stress and cause other problems.
- Remember, as you interact with the person you speak with initially, they likely won’t be your primary contact going forward. Consider all of the staff, not just the partners or people who make up the public face of the law firm. Ask who will manage your case.
- Find out about the firm’s age, experience, and size. Leadership roles in organizations and awards can also be good indicators of their ability to meet your needs.
- Do they have good judicial connections? Find out if they are members of the local bar association and contribute to campaigns.
- What is their comfort level with going to trial? How many of their cases go to trial? What is the success rate of those that do? Sometimes attorneys have this information available on their websites.
- Do they have an office location near your work or residence? Will they meet with clients in other more convenient locations?
- Do they have experience with cases very similar to yours? Perhaps not just car accident cases but even more specific to yours, such as those with multiple drivers at fault or government entities at fault.
- How are their negotiation skills? What settlements have they obtained? With approximately 95 percent of personal injury cases are settling instead of going to trial, they should have no problem telling you this. Some car accident law firms will also have this information available on their websites.
- Do they have time to work on your case now? Are they too busy to devote enough time to your case? How long are their cases generally taking?
- Has the attorney previously been censured or disciplined by any legal or ethics committees? It’s a good idea to look this up before getting in touch with them. This way, you won’t waste your time or theirs.
- Find out how they charge. You might be relieved to find out that most car accident attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. Under this type of arrangement, you don’t need to pay them any type of retainer or other upfront fees. You enter into a contract agreeing to pay them a specific percent of any settlement or court award they obtain for you. Typically, this is around 30 to 40 percent, depending on the complexity of the case, if your case settles or goes to trial, and where you live.
- When discussing payment and finances, you will also want to determine the handling of other expenses, such as:
- Postage charges
- Filing fees
- Court Costs
- Computer research related costs
- Secretarial and staff time
- Paralegal Time
- Private investigator fees
- Deposition and court reporter costs
- Messenger and process server fees
- Experts, consultants, and witness fees
- Travel expenses
Some larger law firms will absorb these fees. Others will charge the fees or a portion thereof upfront; still, others may take them out of your settlement or court award at the end of your case. It’s essential to know from the beginning how these fees will get paid. You will want to know if you will need to pay any of them upfront when you retain your car accident lawyer or if they will reduce the amount of compensation you will receive.
Remember that the steps you take after a car accident can have far-reaching impacts, whether positive or negative, on your life for a long time to come. The sooner you contact an attorney and get the medical care you need, the better the chances are that you will recover both physically and financially from your injuries. By meeting with a car accident attorney as soon as possible, you will take the first of many steps to maximize your compensation.