This article will discuss a routine auto accident, but many of these principles apply to other kinds of accidents as well. I’m going to avoid the obvious things like staying calm, first aid, etc., and get to the things many people don’t think about.
Get names, addresses, phone numbers and driver’s license numbers of anyone who is involved in the incident or who may have witnessed it. If they have a vehicle, note its make and model and license number. All of these things will help find those responsible or who may help us determine what happened. Don’t assume they are telling you the truth, look at a license or other ID if you can (even witnesses). You can say, “Why don’t I just take a picture of your ID instead of writing all this down?”
If you have a cell phone or camera, take lots of photos. It’s not a bad idea to keep a disposable camera in your car, but remember that heat and cold can affect them. Take pictures of any car involved, before they are moved, if possible; their license plates; other people; traffic lights, signs, cones, road markers, etc.; Driver’s licenses of every one involved; insurance cards;
Don’t admit fault or apologize! It can be used against you.
It’s not only ok to give your information to the other divers, if anyone is injured, or if there is more than $750 in property damage (cars, fences, buildings, etc.) you are required by law to provide your name and address and insurance information to the other divers before you leave the scene. It’s a crime to leave without giving them this information (you can be arrested).
Call the police (but see below regarding drugs or alcohol use). They often will not come unless someone is hurt, so be sure to tell them if you are hurt, or that you think someone else is, or they may not even come to the scene. Neck and back pain are common effects. They may not show up until later. It is almost impossible to prove the existence or absence of neck or back pain, so if you are experiencing any, it is important to tell the police so that it gets into the report. You do not have to pursue a claim for pain later if it just goes away or if you never seek treatment. One of the most important things an officer does is get the identifying information and statements from the parties involved and any witnesses. People often see and report things differently after they have had advice or think about what is best for themselves, so getting a statement at the scene can be critical.
If you think you are at fault, do not admit it. It would be better for you to remain silent. Being silent can make things difficult if you later try to offer some explanation you could have said at the scene, but it’s usually better not to admit something you did wrong.
If you have been drinking or using drugs, you should not answer any questions from a police officer. You do not have to submit to any “field sobriety test” (walking a line, touching your nose, reciting the alphabet, or other physical or oral actions). You may decline to take them with no adverse legal consequences (other than perhaps angering the officer). You do not have to submit to a Breathalyzer at the scene. But you should say you would prefer to do it at the station if you are going to allow it. California has a “implied consent” law: If you apply for a license, you consent to a blood or breath test (urine test are now only used if no blood or breath can be collected). If you do not allow them to take a breath or blood sample at all your license will likely be suspended.
If you are injured, or think you might be, get medical attention right away. Delay in getting treatment is a big red flag to insurance companies. They will argue that you were not really hurt if you wait. See a doctor first, then see an attorney. If you do it the other way around, an insurance company will argue you only sought treatment because the attorney told you too.
If you do not have medical insurance, go to the emergency room. The other guy’s insurance company will almost never agree to pay for anything nor “authorize” you to get medical treatment, so do not wait to talk to them. In fact you should never talk to any insurance company, even your own, before talking to a lawyer. The other guy’s insurance will not pay or promise to pay unless you agree to settle your claim for a specific amount. Until you get treated and you and your doctor know exactly what treatment you will need, its too early to settle. Once you settle a claim, you cannot go back and reopen the claim or get more money for treatment even if twelve bishops testify you really need it.
You should consult an attorney right away. There are crucial decisions to make and information to gather and mistakes can be costly. An attorney may also be able to help you get treatment with someone who will wait for payment. This is usually done on a “lien” basis, but you do not want to sign any lien agreement without the advice of an attorney. They are not all the same, and some can cost you a lot of money.
After the accident, you should report it to your insurance company within 48 hours. If you do not do so, or do not cooperate with your insurance company, they may deny you coverage for the accident. But again, talk to an attorney first before making any kind of statement. If you can’t see an attorney first, go ahead and report the accident, but tell them you want to speak to your attorney before making a statement about it. Only give them the date, the time, the location, your name and address, your policy number, a police report number (if there is one) and other identifying information. Do not say anything about how it happened. If you are injured or think you might be, let them know, and tell them you have seen [or are going to see] a doctor and are waiting for the results.
I have been handling injury claims for people for over 26 years. There is a lot more specific advice I can give, but it depends a lot on what happened. Let me say this, insurance companies are not your “good neighbor”, nor your “friend”, and you are not in “good hands” with them. You are, or will be, in a fight. An insurance company is only interested in paying you as little as possible on your claim and so making their stockholders more money. They will use every trick in the book to weaken your claim and they are good at sounding like they care about you while they do it. Protect yourself and get a good attorney. John L. Gorman III is an experienced, personal injury attorney with offices in Modesto, California. He has been voted “Modesto’s Favorite Lawyer” in the Modesto Bee Poll three years in a row. He can be reached at (209) 548-4000.
This article represents only the general opinions of John L. Gorman III. It is intended only for general information and not as legal advice for any particular situation. If you want legal advice, you should contact a lawyer.