What to Do After a Car Accident That Is Not Your Fault
You may believe you’re not at fault in an accident, but everything you do after the accident, at the scene and beyond, can have an impact on whether you’re compensated.
Getting into a car accident, even a minor one, is a traumatic experience. Even if the accident is not you’re your fault, it’s important to stay calm and follow certain steps in order to get the compensation that you have coming to you.
This is not only important at the scene but in the days and weeks following the accident. Who you talk to, what you say, when you seek medical help and what kind you get – even how soon you contact your insurance company – all may have an impact on how much you can collect for damages, or if you can collect at all.
Fault is a tricky concept in a lot of cases, and knowing what to do after a car accident makes all the difference.
How Fault Works in a Car Accident
There are three factors that determine fault in a car accident:
- One or more of the drivers did not exercise the required caution.
- The negligence of the driver caused the accident.
- The accident caused losses to the non-negligent driver, whether it be property damage to the car, injury, loss of income and more.
While that seems simple, it can get complicated, depending on state law, whether you – even if you believe you’re not at fault – did anything to contribute to the accident.
Most states are “at-fault,” which means the driver of the at-fault car pays for damages. But many of those states divide up the fault in various ways. For instance, if another car ran a stop sign and hit you, but you were looking at a text and didn’t see him in time, you may be found to be bear some of the fault if you were violating distracted driving laws.
In the 12 no-fault states, driver’s insurance pays for their own damage and injuries, to a point. Both drivers are required to file a claim and rules are strict, including the type of insurance a car owner is required to have.
Fault is often complicated, and even if you think you are not at fault in the accident, the professionals will sort it out regardless of your opinion.
» More about: How to Prove You Are Not at Fault in a Car Accident
Steps to Take While at the Accident Scene
There are steps you must take at the scene of an accident – as well as some things you must not do! – to make sure your health, safety and compensation are protected.
Don’t assume someone else will call 911, and don’t assume the accident is too minor. You will want a police report of the accident for your insurance company. Police can help at the scene of even a minor accident, and it ensures medical help arrives quickly, if needed.
In large population areas, police may not respond to every accident, but call anyway. In less populated areas, no accident is too small for a police response.
“The best step that you can take at the scene of an accident is to call 911,” Don Wruck, an auto accident lawyer and founder of Wruck Paupore PC Injury Firm, said. Doing so “accomplishes several critical steps at once.” Besides getting ambulance and police to the scene, it can protect you if the other driver is at fault.
“If the other party involved in the accident tries to talk you out of calling 911, they may attempt to flee the scene if you make the call,” Wruck said. While on the 911 call, provide a description of the location as well as all vehicles and parties involved to the dispatcher.
Check for Injuries
If you’re seriously hurt, don’t move. Check your passengers, as well as checking the occupants of any other cars involved. If anyone is seriously injured, don’t move them, but wait for paramedics to arrive.
Move the Cars Out of the Way
If it can be done without putting anyone in danger or further hurting an injured person, get the vehicles involved out of traffic. “A lot of people think that you should leave the vehicles where they are for the police to see, but the opposite is true,” Tony Rens, founder of MotorSpider.com, said. “In many states, including Florida where I live, it is a traffic violation to not move the cars out of the way.”
Document the Scene
Memories and impressions can be faulty, especially with the shock that comes after an accident, but the camera doesn’t lie. Use your cellphone camera to document the damage and the scene, before you move the cars, if possible.
“Show where the vehicles came to rest,” said Bryon Bromley, a former insurance adjuster who blogs about driving safety and accidents at AdjustYourDrive.com. “Back up and photograph overall views of the scene, showing any traffic controls, lane markings, and all vehicles involved.”
Documentation should be the focus, not trying to prove your case. “You need to document as many facts as you can. Don’t worry about opinions on fault yet. You need to document the people and vehicles involved in the accident,” Bromley said
And don’t stop there, said Steven Katz, of Katz, Pryor & DiCuccio LLP. “Be sure to include the license plate and VIN number in the photos and videos,” he said. “If you can, include the other driver and passengers in the photos and videos in case you need to later identify possible witnesses.”
Exchange information with the other driver such as insurance, license and contact information. Katz says taking a photo of their license and insurance card is a good way to do it. Another asset of having police at the scene is if it’s volatile, they can handle this duty.
Get Witness Information
You want witnesses who can support the fact you aren’t at fault. “Look for witnesses immediately,” Bromley said. “I’ve had countless people tell me there were witnesses at the scene, but they didn’t get their contact information. All you need is a name and a phone number. Don’t waste time trying to take their statement or get their opinion. Let the insurance companies contact them for a statement.”
Francis X. Young, of Law Offices of Francis X. Young PLLC, said getting that information is vital if you seek damages in court. “A single witness can make or break your case, especially if a jury would consider the witness an independent witness,” he said.
Do Not Discuss Fault
Don’t talk about who is at fault, either with the other driver or with anyone else – this includes on social media.
“The most important thing to do at an accident scene is to be careful what you say – both in-person and on social media,” Louis Patino, of Patrino Law Offices, said. “Even if you’re not at fault, it’s easy to apologize to another driver or second-guess yourself. You may say, ‘I didn’t see…’ or ‘I should have….’ These are statements that can easily be used against you to attribute fault, which can affect your chances if you decide to pursue compensation.”
Young said that avoiding public discussion goes for posting on social media about your injuries, your medical treatment or any other details in the days and weeks after the accident. “If a lawsuit does result, the lawyers for the other side are entitled to get your postings and that will not help you,” he said.
Use caution as well when talking to medical practitioners. “Remember, everything you tell the medical providers about how the accident happened and your complaints of pain, will be forever recorded in the medical records,” Young said.
Contact Your Insurance Company
Call your insurance company to notify them about the accident as soon as possible – don’t wait longer than 24 hours. Even if you believe you are not at fault, your insurance company will be involved in making that determination and a delay can hurt you.
“If you do not immediately notify your insurance company, they will only be too eager later to disclaim coverage, stating that you violated your insurance policy by not telling them of the accident,” Young said.
Get a Copy of the Accident Report
Get a copy of the accident report from the law enforcement agency that was in charge at the scene. You can often get these online, by calling, or by visiting the station in person.
Get Tested for Injuries
The adrenaline and shock that come from a car accident may keep you from noticing injuries at the scene or in the hours. Get checked anyway. Some accidents, like head injuries, are apparent until later. Medical expenses can be costly, and documentation is necessary to get reimbursed. If you suffer an injury, but didn’t get treated for it, you likely won’t get compensated. Be sure to ask for copies of all medical records related to your accident.
“Let a medical professional tell you that you are OK,” Katz said. “Don’t make this assumption. If you have a baby or small child in the vehicle, get them medical attention regardless of whether they appear injured or not.”
Wruck said that many conditions can go undetected, and a driver who thinks they’ve escaped injury will find out too late. “It is always better to identify these conditions early on for two reasons: you can prevent them from becoming worse, and you can defend against potential arguments in court that you suffered your injuries at some point other than the accident,” Wruck said.
Patino said avoiding treatment if you know you are injured can make things worse, not only for your case, but medically and financially. “I’ve encountered many clients who didn’t seek medical attention after their accident because they were worried about bills or thought they could ‘tough it out,’ only to be in agony weeks, months, or even years later.”
Common tests to get after an auto accident include MRIs, CAT scans, and X-rays – tests that in particular check for head, neck and back injuries that may only become obvious later and also can have long-term effects. Going to the emergency room for accident injuries is usually the best step, because those tests are generally only available on short notice at emergency rooms, while it can be a long wait to be scheduled through a primary care physician, Wruck said.
He added that accident victims should get any tests the medical professional suggests. “If they recommend a certain test or course of action and you don’t follow their recommendations, and your injuries get worse, it’s unlikely the result will be in your favor, as you could have taken steps to minimize the impact of your injuries,” he said.
How to Seek Compensation from the At-Fault Party
Damages in a car accident go well beyond what’s apparent at the scene. They can be long-term and expensive.
In general, if you are not at fault, your insurance company will pursue compensation from the other driver or that driver’s insurance company, in an at-fault state. If the driver wasn’t insured and you have uninsured motorist coverage, that will cover some of the damages as well. If you don’t have UIM, or the damages exceed what insurance will pay, you will likely have to sue the other driver.
If you live in one of the 12 no-fault states, but have damages and injuries that exceeds your insurance coverage, you’ll have to file a lawsuit against the other driver.
If you aren’t insured, but believe you are not at fault in a car accident, it may be difficult to get compensation since you don’t have an insurance company to advocate for you. Hiring a car accident lawyer would be an important step to getting compensation for damages and injuries.
The Importance of Documentation
The goal of a personal injury lawsuit – no matter what your insurance status – is to get a judgment or car accident settlement that will cover your damages, future medical costs, pain and suffering, and more. Whether compensation is through your insurance company or a lawsuit, the more documentation you have of what your losses were, the better. Medical expenses, loss of income and property damage all must be backed up with the documents that show what the costs were.
Pain and suffering is harder to quantify. It’s a general term that includes physical pain as well as your emotional harm, loss of quality of life and more. Insurance companies use a “multiplier” system to determine this from your other injuries. The more documentation you have about all your damages and injuries, and the harm they’ve done, the more likely you’ll be to get compensation for pain and suffering.
By the way, 11 states, including four no-fault states, have no pay, no play laws that won’t allow uninsured motorists to sue for certain types of damages, including pain and suffering.
Should You Get a Lawyer if the Accident was Not Your Fault?
Even if you’re not at fault in a car accident, if there are injuries or substantial property damage, you will want a lawyer who can be sure you get compensation that will cover everything. Determining fault can be tricky, combining state traffic laws, driver behavior, condition of your car, condition of the road and more.
Insurance companies, when faced with an expensive claim, may try to deny claims, make low-ball offers and use other tactics that lawyers can handle.
“Shortly after an accident that wasn’t your fault, you’ll likely be approached by an insurance adjuster who will persuade you to settle your claim,” Patino said. “This can be tempting, but the offer on the table is often less than what you’re entitled to. Personal injury attorneys can examine your case and determine what is a fair settlement. They can then negotiate the best possible offer. It’s worth consulting an attorney purely so you don’t have to speak to an insurance adjuster at such a vulnerable time — you’re under no obligation to do so and your attorney can handle all communications on your behalf.”
Attorneys who specialize in accidents are also experts on how fault works, how traffic laws apply, can depose witnesses, find expert witnesses, and gather evidence and information you may not be aware of or have access to.
“Too often I have said to a client, ‘I wish you would have spoken to me earlier,’” Young said. “The insurance and legal process has ingrained land mines that can cause troubles for you if you do not use a lawyer early on. It’s no different than letting a plumbing issue go unattended.”
It gets worse and more expensive to fix later.
Accident injury plaintiffs who have legal representation have a higher rate of success recovering compensation from the at-fault driver, Wruck said. Further, “Your attorney can handle all of the communication and procedural tasks associated with your monetary recovery while you tend to your own injuries.”
Most work on a contingency basis, meaning they don’t take a fee from you unless they win the case.
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- Megna, M. (2021, August 17) Penalties for Driving Without Insurance in Every State. Retrieved from https://www.carinsurance.com/driving-without-insurance-penalties-state.aspx
- N.A. (ND) Facts and Statistics: Auto Insurance. Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-auto-insurance
- N.A. (ND) What is covered in a basic auto insurance policy? Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/article/what-covered-basic-auto-insurance-policy