When You've Had a Car Accident: Ten Things to Know

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You’re driving along, minding your own business, and wham! At best, you’re feeling a rush of adrenaline and maybe a bit of shock. If you get into an accident, there are a few things to remember.

1. Need we say this? Don’t just drive away (some people do). Check for injuries, then call 911 and ask what to do. Move your car? Wait for police? Ask the operator how to document the accident if police are not dispatched (you may need a police report later). Exchange license plate numbers and contact and insurance information with other involved drivers.

2. Insult to injury. If the other party was at fault and doesn’t have insurance, get their contact information anyway. If you can’t collect from your own insurance company, you may be able to sue the other driver in small claims or regular court.

3. Accident report? Check with your insurance company or your department of motor vehicles (DMV) to see if you are required to file one with the DMV.

4. Take notes. Write down all the circumstances of the accident and the effects of any injuries—large or small.

5. Who’s at fault? The person who was careless or violated traffic laws. If you were partially at fault but the other driver was more careless, you may still be paid a percentage of your damages based on relative blame.

6. What’s the magic number? Insurance adjusters calculate what to pay by adding up vehicle damage, medical expenses, and lost wages, then using a multiplier to account for pain and suffering. Minor accidents get a multiplier of 1.5 or 2; serious accidents get a multiplier of 5 or more. The resulting number is the insurance company’s starting point in negotiating a settlement.

7. Heads up. You or your insurance company must notify people in writing before filing a claim with their insurance companies. Any claim should then be filed immediately, stating the facts of the accident, the value of your losses, and evidence of pain and suffering.

8. Don’t be chatty. If the other party’s insurance company calls you before submitting your claim, take the name of the person calling, the insurance company he or she represents, and the insured; give limited personal information; refuse politely to discuss the accident or your injuries (just say you’ll be filing a claim); resist any pressure to settle immediately; and set limits on future phone contact.

9. None of their business. The settlement amount should not deduct any amounts covered by your own health insurer or any paid time off you may have enjoyed. However, your own health insurance provider may require you to reimburse it out of any settlement.

10. The awful truth. We at Nolo try to provide do-it-yourself resources, and we hate to say it, but... you may need a lawyer. If your injury was severe or resulted in a long-term or permanent disability, or if the insurance company refuses to pay, find an experienced personal injury lawyer.

Store Emergency Info in Your Cell Phone

If you carry a cell phone, program personal information and an emergency contact’s name and phone numbers into your phone address book under "In Case of Emergency" or "ICE." Police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and emergency room staff are now trained to look in cell phones for this information.

The article was excerpted from Nolo's Little Legal Companion. You can get a free copy by signing up for one of Nolo's Legal Newsletters.