Car accidents are never a pleasant experience. Emotions are often high and you may be confused, distracted, or in pain soon after an accident. But you can take steps to protect yourself and prepare for a car insurance claim or car accident lawsuit.
Step 1: Do not leave the scene
Do not leave the scene of an accident until you have communicated with others involved in the accident. If a law enforcement officer is investigating, do not leave without the officer’s permission. If you take off before that time, you risk being charged a one-time fee.
Step 2: Check for injuries
Find out if anyone was injured, starting with you and your passengers. Then, if it’s safe, check other drivers and passengers. If you discover any injuries, call 911 immediately. If you are unsure whether making a call is necessary, call 911.
Do not provide support beyond your training. And unless someone is in imminent external danger (like a fire), avoid moving anyone. Learn more about car accident injuries and why it’s important to get prompt medical attention after a car accident.
Step 3: Call the police
If you had called 911, a police officer may have been dispatched to the scene of the accident. If no one is injured, you must call the police if the property damage exceeds a certain amount set by state law (usually around $1,000, but less in some states). It’s impossible to know the exact cost of damage at the scene, so it’s best to call the police.
An officer will talk to everyone involved in the accident and prepare a police report. The presence of a law enforcement officer can also be extremely helpful if it turns out that another driver is driving an affected vehicle or driving without car insurance. Get the first responder’s name and number and police report number if possible.
Step 4: Move the vehicle
If the accident is fairly minor and there are no serious injuries, try to get all vehicles to the side and out of traffic. This will help prevent greater traffic jams and will assist first responders in their efforts to reach the crash scene.
Step 5: Exchange insurance and contact information
Identify other drivers involved in your accident and get their names, contact information, driver’s license numbers, and car insurance details (company, policy number). If the person driving the car is not the owner of the vehicle, get the owner’s information. To avoid transcription errors or information loss, take a picture of another driver’s insurance card and driver’s license and email or text your own.
If there are witnesses, get their names and contact information. Your insurance company or attorney may need their testimony to confirm your account of what happened.
Step 6: Gather Potential Evidence
In addition to identifying any witnesses to the accident, try to gather evidence. Note the details regarding the vehicles involved in the accident, including:
- license plate (even partial is useful) and
- general description (such as color, padding, and indentation).
Take photos of any vehicle damage, skids, traffic signals and area conditions. For example, if an accident occurs at a four-way stop, but your stop sign is face down in the grass or is missing, take a photo to show this. This can be an important piece of the liability puzzle.
Look around for any cameras nearby, such as surveillance cameras or doorbells. Record their location and who you may need to contact to get a copy of the footage.
Step 7: See what you say
Regardless of how you feel or what you think may have caused the accident, observe what you say at the scene of the car accident. Do not admit fault to other drivers. Even if you do believe you were at fault, facts may emerge later that show you were wrong. But if you admit responsibility at the scene of an accident, your words can be used against you.
Do not make promises to other drivers, especially when the police or insurance companies are involved.
Step 8: Write down what happened
When you can find a quiet moment, write down exactly what happened, as best you can remember, including:
- specific accident location, time and date
- the direction you are driving
- your location on the road and what you were doing at the time of impact, and
- What was the other vehicle doing at the time of the accident?
Step 9: Notify your auto insurance company
Your car insurance company will have a number to call to report the accident. You can also call your insurance agent, who will ask certain questions on your behalf and report the accident to the insurance company.
It is important to notify your car insurance company as soon as possible, regardless of who is at fault in the car accident. Your policy requires you to immediately notify your insurance company of any incidents that may trigger coverage. Failure to promptly notify your car insurance company could jeopardize your insurance.
Remember that reporting an accident to your car insurance carrier doesn’t mean you have to file a claim. Talk to your attorney or representative about the pros and cons of filing a claim, such as whether it could affect your car insurance premiums.
Step 10: Notify the Department of Motor Vehicles
Depending on where you live and the severity of the accident, you may need to file an accident report with your department of motor vehicles (DMV). Each state has its own criteria. For example, in California, you must report an accident to the DMV within 10 days if there is more than $1,000 in damage to any person’s property, or if anyone is killed or injured (any mild degrees).
Check with your state DMV to find out the reporting criteria in your state.
Step 11: Partner with your auto insurance company
You are generally obligated to cooperate with your car insurance company’s investigation of the accident. That means you should answer their questions and provide them with evidence or information you gathered after the accident.
But if you feel like your car insurance company is wrongly denying your claim or you could be held criminally responsible for the accident, consider contacting an attorney. You may still need to answer the insurance company’s questions, but your attorney can make sure you don’t say anything that could lead to bigger problems later. An attorney can also help you find out if you can make a “bad faith” claim against the insurance company.
Step 12: Keep records carefully
If you have to get medical treatment or repair your car, record everything. Even if you don’t plan to file a claim, you can change your mind and you’ll need records to show your accident-related losses (called “damages”).
Car accident attorneys recommend keeping a car accident log to support your claim. Take note of your injuries and how they affect your daily life. You should also jot down who you talk to and what you say. Make sure not to delete any emails you exchanged with anyone about the crash.
For more tips, check out this checklist of records to collect after a car crash.
Step 13: Talk to a Lawyer
If your accident involves serious injury or major property damage, don’t sign anything that comes from another driver’s attorney or insurance company without first talking to an attorney. Learn more about how to talk (or not) with another driver’s insurance company after a car accident and how an attorney can help resolve your car accident case. You can connect with an attorney directly from this site for free.
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