That's about one accident for every 54 people. So if you live in the United States, your odds of being in a car accident are about 50 times higher than your chances of winning the Powerball lottery.
Fortunately, most of these accidents don’t involve injuries. In fact, only about one in three U.S. auto accidents involves injury to a driver or passenger. But that still puts the number of personal injury car accidents in the United States at roughly 2 million per year - sadly, this includes over 30,000 fatal accidents.
Forbes has calculated that the average American will file an auto insurance claim at least once every 18 years. Though the likelihood that you’ll be involved in an injury accident involving an automobile in the U.S. this year are not extremely high, it is not unlikely that you will be in a car crash (minor or otherwise) at some point in your life.
So while the probability of being in an accident is very real, many Americans may not think about what steps to take after an accident. This article provides a step-by-step breakdown of what to do after a personal injury accident to safeguard your immediate health and safety, as well as your financial well-being and legal rights to compensation, including:
The very first things that you should do after a vehicle accident involve ensuring that you and your passengers are not in any further danger. That means assessing your injuries and those of your passengers, getting clear of the roadway, and exiting potentially dangerous vehicles.
Your immediate medical condition should be your first priority, so give yourself a quick physical check for injury. Signs of injury to look for include:
Once you’ve assessed your own condition, check the condition of any passengers. If you or a passenger are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should immediately call 9-1-1 and request emergency medical assistance.
If you need help from a bystander, you should be aware that people who witness an accident often assume that someone else has already called 9-1-1. (Sometimes called the "Bystander Effect".) To overcome this, you should point directly at them and order them to call 9-1-1. Be sure that you make eye contact and give commands as authoritatively as possible.
It is vital to be aware that if your vehicle is even partially blocking a lane of the street or highway, it could potentially cause a secondary accident that could be even worse than the first. If you can, pull all vehicles involved to the side of the road, and use flares, flashlights, or even position brightly colored articles of clothing as flags to warn approaching drivers of road hazards.
Never stand in or near the roadway after an accident. Always use the sidewalk, or stand far away from the edge of the road.
If you're not severely injured, or if the property damage in your accident doesn't appear to be excessive, it may be tempting to simply exchange information with the other driver and leave the scene.
But there are several important reasons you should probably call emergency services anyway, and wait at the scene of the accident for a police officer, and even an ambulance.
A study cited by Consumer Reports found that test crashes at just 10 miles per hour produced damage that appeared minor, but actually cost between $3,000 and $6,000 to fix. That's well over the threshold at which a police presence is required by law in many jurisdictions.
It is not uncommon for individuals who are injured in vehicle accidents to minimize the physical discomfort that they are experiencing. In fact, with many soft tissue injuries, pain, stiffness and other symptoms can increase significantly as time passes. In certain cases, it may not be possible for an injured person to detect symptoms of serious, life-threatening injuries (such as internal bleeding or traumatic brain injury). Emergency medical technicians are specifically trained to spot and respond to these kinds of injuries at the scene of an accident.
Be aware that in some cities and municipalities, officers aren't typically dispatched to an accident unless it is classified as a serious accident. If you think that you may be injured, then the accident is serious, and you should insist that police and emergency responders be dispatched to the scene of your accident. Doing so may prove essential to your physical wellbeing, and to your ability to get compensated for your injuries.
It is essential to begin collecting evidence and documentation about your accident as soon as you are able, starting at the accident scene. This includes collecting specific information from responding officers. You should always ask for:
Do not forget to write this information down - it is easy to forget vital information in the heat of the moment, especially after a traumatic or stressful experience like a traffic accident. This information will make collecting a copy of the police report much easier after you've dealt with your immediate health concerns.
The police report can play an important role in your ability to get compensated for your injuries, because it captures several key pieces of information:
This is essential information that you and your attorney will use to create a powerful demand letter to submit to the driver's insurance company, or to build a strong personal injury lawsuit.
In many cases, especially where injuries may not appear severe, or an ambulance has not been dispatched to the scene, police officers may tell you that a police report isn't needed. However, it is extremely important to your case that you insist that the officer(s) on the scene file an accident report.
The exact procedure to obtain a copy of the police report for your accident will depend on the state and local jurisdiction where the accident took place. Some police departments will provide an online form that allows individuals to request a report, and in some cases, even download the report from the internet. Other agencies will require an individual to be present in person at the police station, precinct house, or sheriff's office in order to receive the report.
Certain departments may distribute the report to persons directly involved in the accident free of charge, while others will charge a moderate fee.
Generally speaking, a good way to find out exactly how to get a copy of the police report for your accident is to ask the responding officer at the accident scene, or to call the phone number in the documentation provided by the officer.
As important as a police accident report is to your personal injury case, the reality is that police officers are often overworked. One officer may respond to multiple accidents in a single day. So, you need to understand that your accident may not receive all the attention from the police that you feel it deserves. Therefore, to the extent that you are able to do so, you should collect as much evidence as you possibly can yourself.
You should ideally request medical attention at the same time that you request police assistance after an injury accident. In fact, your 9-1-1 call will likely generate a response from both police and emergency medical personnel.
While you do have every right to decline treatment and/or transportation to a nearby hospital, we sincerely hope and strongly advise that you do not let fear of expenses keep you from getting necessary medical assistance. Medical professionals are trained to spot symptoms of injuries you may not even suspect you have, so it is a good idea to get checked out in an emergency room after any injury accident, even if your injuries do not seem severe.
An emergency medical examination can actually do more for you than help to put your mind at ease and begin treating your injuries - it will also start the medical documentation process, which is essential to any effort to recover your financial losses due to an accident. For the best possible financial recovery outcome, you should make sure the medical professionals who treat you make note of:
After your initial treatment, if additional medical visits or treatment are required, make sure that your medical professionals document:
Fear of the financial impact of a personal injury accident should never keep you from seeking necessary medical treatment. Insurance may cover the majority of your medical expenses from the accident. For example:
You should be aware that even if the other driver is at fault, you (or your insurance) will initially have to cover the cost of your medical treatment. If you and your attorney settle with their insurance company out of court, or if you win a court judgement at trial, the other driver's insurance will reimburse you for your medical costs (up to their policy coverage limits.) However, a settlement is typically only completed once your medical treatment is completed, which can be months or sometimes years after the accident. Nevertheless, you need to seek reasonable and necessary medical treatment right away.
If you are underinsured or uninsured at the time of an accident that was caused by another party, an experienced personal injury lawyer can help you negotiate small monthly payments to medical providers until a settlement is completed.
Police investigators, insurance adjusters and your personal injury attorney may all engage in gathering evidence about your personal injury accident. You (and/or a trusted individual such as a friend or relative) should also gather as much information about the accident as possible. As soon as you are able, start documenting your accident, your injuries, and their impact on your life.
As soon as you can safely do so, write down everything related to your accident, starting at the accident scene if possible. If necessary, find a scrap of paper, or start the video recorder on your smartphone, and record exactly what happened before, during, and after the accident that caused your injury, including:
Write down (and take a picture of) anything you think may be important now or in the future. It can also be extremely valuable to sketch a simple diagram of the area where the accident occurred, with notes and arrows indicating how the people and vehicles involved actually came into contact. Do this as soon as you can, so the details are as fresh as possible in your mind.
We've all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Video is even better. So take some photos and/or videos as soon as you are able, especially at the scene of the accident if possible, while the participants, vehicles and bystanders are still present. Take pictures and/or video of:
Video and photo evidence of who was at the scene of the accident and the exact conditions at the scene can help you and your attorney negotiate the best possible financial settlement for your injuries, and may also be admissible in court if your personal injury case ultimately goes to trial, so it can be a very valuable tool to help ensure that you get the compensation you deserve.
Try to record the name, phone number (and secondary phone number) and email address of every eyewitnesses to the crash. You should also try to collect a detailed statement from each one about what they saw. If you can, record a short video "deposition" from each witness, including their name, contact information, and a brief statement about everything they saw and heard leading up to, and at the moment of the accident.
Do this as soon after the accident as possible, because people's memories often begin to fade, even hours after an event, and may eventually become unreliable.
A key element to building a case to get compensated for the direct and indirect consequences of a personal injury accident is proving how your injuries impacted your everyday life. To do this, you will need evidence, so begin documenting your injuries immediately, and collect copies of any related medical records. Pertinent information about your injuries includes:
Take photos and/or video your injuries immediately after the accident, and then do it again every day throughout your recovery.
It is extremely important to your case that you never admit fault to anyone, not even to passengers in your own vehicle. Doing so can dramatically reduce the likelihood that you'll receive compensation, and can decrease the potential amount of any settlement you may receive. Even merely saying "I'm sorry" could be used as an admission of guilt, so when asked to recount details of the accident, stick to the factual events that took place.
No matter what they may say to imply that it is mandatory, reasonable, or even in your own interest to do so, you should never sign any document presented to you by other persons involved in the accident, their insurance company representatives or their lawyers until you've consulted with your own attorney.
You should be fully aware that in this situation, those parties are your adversaries, and they are highly motivated to limit their liability and your compensation. (Learn more about tricks insurance adjusters sometimes play in personal injury cases.)
Even when the other party is at fault and you believe that they are liable for the expenses associated with your personal injury accident, contacting your insurance company gets the financial recovery ball rolling. A representative from your insurer will often function as an advocate for you, and may pursue a claim against the other party's policy. And if the driver is uninsured (like an estimated 13% of all American drivers and one in three California drivers), depending on your coverage, your policy may step in and fill the gap.
All of the contact information you will need is typically included on the insurance card your provider issued for you to keep in your vehicle glove compartment. Some insurance companies also have websites and mobile apps where you can report an accident online. (Learn more about why you should consider getting uninsured driver coverage.)
In most states, your auto insurance policy will be subject to a state-mandated minimum of coverage. The minimum coverage can vary substantially, but your policy will generally include liability for both bodily injury and property damage. That means your policy likely covers:
Filing a claim with another driver's insurer is more complicated. Before you can expect a settlement for your injuries, you will need to demonstrate that the other driver was liable for your injuries, the extent of your financial losses, and the intangible adverse impacts of the accident on your life.
You will ideally have started laying the groundwork for your case immediately after the accident, but this is where the process of actively pursuing financial compensation for injuries and damages from a personal injury accident really begins.
Although your auto insurance adjuster can sometimes file a claim for you, this is most common in cases that involve only property damage or minor injuries.
When more serious and potentially costly injuries are involved, the claims process will become more adversarial. In these cases, there are almost always substantial benefits to hiring a lawyer early in the process, long before filing a claim.
Most personal injury attorneys offer free initial consultations, and charge no fee unless they accept your case and negotiate a settlement or win a lawsuit on your behalf.
So if your injuries are more than minor, it is probably worthwhile to at least consult with an attorney. In serious injury cases, the claims process described below will typically be handled by your attorney. (Learn more about how to decide whether you need a personal injury lawyer.)
The driver's insurance company will likely contact you first, but you can also contact them directly. The initial notification to the other party's insurer should consist of the following pieces of information:
This will initiate the claims process.
Next, you will likely be contacted by a claims adjuster - either by phone, or sometimes by appointment in person. Because their ultimate goal will be to establish ways in which you can be held liable to some degree for the accident, and to limit the extent to which your injuries can be attributed to the accident, we strongly recommend that you essentially do not provide the adjuster with any further information, and in particular:
If you are working with a personal injury attorney, you should refer all inquiries to them.
Many courts, including California courts, require a that you make a formal demand for payment prior to filing a personal injury lawsuit. Demand for payment in writing is commonly referred to as a demand letter.
Statistically, your case will most likely be settled out of court, but submitting a detailed demand letter to another driver's insurance company is by far the best way to initiate a claim for specific damages.
An effective demand letter must include the following elements:
When coming up with the demand amount, you should generally aim for an amount that is reasonable, but somewhat higher than your actual goal amount, to leave room for negotiation of a final settlement. Facts and evidence that you will want to include with your demand letter include:
Your demand letter and related evidence together are called your demand packet. Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with a long demand letter. It is not uncommon for a detailed demand letter to reach ten pages or more, and the entire demand packet can often be far larger. If creating an effective demand letter sounds complicated and exhausting, the reality is that it can be. And yet a strong demand letter is typically a crucial element (and sometimes the primary crucial element) in the process of securing appropriate financial compensation for injuries in a vehicle accident.
Creating a persuasive demand packet is one of the most valuable skills a personal injury attorney can contribute to an accident case, and experience counts for a great deal in this matter. In plain terms, an excellent demand letter can lead to a much larger and quicker settlement.
The insurance company will often take up to a month to respond to your demand. If your demand packet is strong enough, and your demand amount is relatively small, the insurer might pay your demand amount right away. In most cases, however, the insurer will offer you a substantially smaller amount, and could challenge some of the assertions and/or evidence in your demand packet.
At this point, you will typically need to go back and forth a few times in order to settle on an amount that is acceptable to both sides.
If the insurance company will not agree to an amount that you are willing to accept, then you have the option to file a personal injury lawsuit. It is important to keep in mind that insurance companies are in the business of estimating liability, and they have extensive tools and experience at their disposal to help them determine the likely range of a court judgment amount should a case end up going to trial. They may also tend to take your negotiating position less seriously if an experienced attorney is not involved.
One of the keys to successfully securing adequate compensation is the ability to determine what your injuries and damages are really worth. This is another special skill that only an experienced personal injury attorney can really bring to your case. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to determine an appropriate injury compensation demand amount. Every case is unique, even when comparing very similar accidents and injuries. The value of your case can depend on numerous factors, including:
There are two major factors that have the potential to substantially reduce your settlement:
The attorneys for a defendant's insurance company in a personal injury trial, or the representatives of the insurer in a settlement negotiation, will often attempt to demonstrate shared liability for an accident, in an effort to reduce or eliminate compensation. This is the primary reason admitting fault for your accident to anyone could lead to reduced (or no) compensation.
Assigning shared liability can be a complex process when various factors that may have led to an accident are considered, and the rules that govern compensation under shared liability vary from state to state, but it will almost always have a profound impact on the potential size of your insurance settlement or court judgement. Minimizing or eliminating your own liability for an accident is another skill that an experienced personal injury lawyer is uniquely qualified to bring to your case, especially when the attorney is involved early in the process, ideally immediately after the accident.
Most states follow some form of comparative negligence rule, under which you may still be entitled to receive compensation even when you are partially at fault for an accident.
A number of these states, such as California, follow a pure comparative negligence rule. Under these rules, all parties to an accident can pursue compensation for the percentage of negligence assigned to another party, no matter how small or large the percentage assigned to each party.
Most comparative negligence states, however, follow what is known as a modified comparative negligence rule. Under these rules, you are only entitled to compensation if you are less than 50 or 51 percent at fault for an accident.
In states with a 51 percent modified comparative negligence rule, if both parties are equally at fault, both are entitled to compensation.
On the other hand, in states with a 50 percent modified comparative negligence rule, if both parties are equally at fault, neither is entitled to compensation.
There are also a handful of states that still follow the oldest, and arguably the harshest liability framework for a person injured in an accident, known as a contributory negligence rule. Under these rules, you are only entitled to compensation if you are found to have contributed absolutely no fault or negligence to the accident. If you are found to be even slightly at fault, you are not entitled to any compensation.
If you happen to live in a state with a "no-fault" rule for auto insurance claims, then you are required to carry personal injury protection (PIP) insurance, which will (often in conjunction with your health insurance) pay for medical treatment and some associated damages (losses) resulting from your accident, up to the coverage limits for your policy, regardless of who is at fault. You will only pursue a settlement from another driver's insurance company for medical costs and damages that are beyond or outside your own policy coverage limits.
In most states, such as California, PIP or "medical payments" insurance is optional, but it can provide you with extremely valuable protection against uninsured and underinsured drivers. If you are injured in an accident caused by another driver's negligence and the driver is not insured, this kind of coverage will pay your medical expenses and some associated damages, up to the policy coverage limits. Your health insurance policy will also contribute to your medical expenses in this situation.
Unless you happen to be pursuing a claim against a large company or an individual with substantial assets, your settlement will generally be limited by the amount of the driver's insurance policy coverage.
Although the vast majority of personal injury cases are settled with an insurance company without going to trial, sometimes they just won't make an offer that you consider reasonable, and negotiation ends without a settlement. If you decide not to accept the insurer's best offer, another option is to file a lawsuit to pursue reasonable compensation for the cost of your medical treatment and damages in a court of law.
You can file a personal injury lawsuit on your own behalf, and you might even decide that this is a good option in a case involving relatively minor injuries. Be aware though, that although every case is unique, insurance company attorneys can always be expected to be experienced, skilled, and highly motivated to do whatever they can to minimize or eliminate your compensation.
If your medical costs and/or damages (personal and/or financial losses) are substantial, you can reasonably expect a much higher probability of winning your case, and a substantially better compensation award, with representation from a seasoned personal injury accident trial lawyer. This is especially true the earlier your attorney is involved in your accident case. And because accident attorneys have experience negotiating with insurance companies, you are more likely to obtain a reasonable settlement before trial, and avoid the risk of going to court altogether.
A civil lawsuit is typically initiated by filing a complaint with the court in the county where the accident took place. Many states, including California, will also require the inclusion of a case information statement, sometimes called a civil cover sheet, which will include various information about attorneys and litigants involved, and other general and special information about the case.
Once your complaint is filed with the court, you will need to have the defendant served with the complaint and a summons. A summons is an official notice that a defendant is being sued.
Every state has distinct rules for how this procedure, known as service of process, must be carried out, in order to be recognized by the particular court handling the complaint. In California, for example, the summons and complaint must be served by a person at least 18 years of age who is not connected to your case. This will typically be a professional process server. In some states, only a sheriff may serve process, or service of process may require a special license. The rules are less stringent in some other states, but in most jurisdictions persons involved in the case or complaint may not serve process for it.
Your initial complaint will include the following information:
Once the defendant is served, they will forward the complaint to their insurance company, which will then assign a lawyer to defend them. (It is not inaccurate though, to say that the attorney is actually defending the insurance company, as that is the entity that will pay your compensation.) The defendant will have a limited period of time in which to respond. In California, for example, the deadline is 30 days from the day of service.
The statutes of limitations for how long you have to file a personal injury claim vary from state to state, but there is generally no recourse once this period has elapsed. Maine, for example, allows up to six years to file claims for compensation after personal injury.
California, on the other hand, only allows injured parties to file claims within two years of an accident, (but this time frame shrinks to just six months if the defendant is a government agency.) Generally speaking, filing a claim sooner rather than later is always a good idea.
Don't stop documenting your injuries and the effect they have on your daily life once your initial claim has been filed. In some cases, you may be able to augment your claim after the initial filing, if your injuries continue to have an adverse impact on your life. Your documentation should include:
You should also hold onto any receipts from the purchase of medications or medical devices that you were required to use during your physical recovery.
You may even be able to collect compensation for travel expenses associated with medical treatment, so it doesn't hurt to hold onto your gas receipts.
If the process described here sounds challenging, it is. That's why professional accident attorneys devote their careers to ensuring injured parties receive appropriate compensation for accidents caused by others. A qualified and experienced personal injury attorney will essentially orchestrate every aspect of your case on your behalf, so you can focus on your recovery and your life.
Most good injury lawyers don't get paid unless and until you receive financial compensation for your injuries. The attorney will typically offer a free initial consultation with no obligation - an informal meeting, or even a phone call, to help them figure out whether they feel they can help you, and for you to get a feel for whether you would like for this individual or firm to represent you.
The attorney may ask you questions about:
They may also ask you to sign a form authorizing the release of your medical information from health care providers, or to see your doctor in order to collect detailed medical information about your injuries.
Based on their research about your case after your initial consultation, the attorney may:
If the lawyer or firm decides that they would like to represent you, they will typically then present you with a clear plan for how they intend to proceed, including:
There are four primary factors that will typically impact the amount of time between your accident and when you receive compensation:
An insurance company will almost always require that you waive any further claims in a settlement, so it is essential that medical treatment first either be completed, or that your injuries at least become stable enough for a reasonable prediction of future medical costs and damages associated with your injuries, so that all such costs and damages can be included in your settlement.
Unfortunately, there is no way to predict a timeline for recovery without specific information about your injuries, but an experienced personal injury attorney will often be able to help you make arrangements to cover any treatment costs that are not covered by your insurance, until your settlement is completed.
Pre-trial settlement negotiations with a private person or company's insurer can often be completed within several weeks. It is common, on the other hand, for a civil trial to take several months to complete, and sometimes a year or more.
Deadlines for filing claims against government institutions are generally substantially shorter than the normal statute of limitations in almost any jurisdiction. In California, you have six months. Rules vary between states, and may even be different among particular counties and municipalities within a state - in some cases, you may have as little as just 30 days.
Nevertheless, despite these narrow timelines for filing a claim, the process of actually negotiating a settlement with a government entity can last several months or even a year or more.
Although the process of securing compensation for your injuries will take some amount time, an experienced personal injury attorney whose goals are aligned with yours will have a solid understanding of all the processes involved in your particular case, and can be expected to orchestrate the quickest possible resolution, while ensuring that you receive a reasonable and appropriate settlement or court judgement.