If you're involved in a car accident, mistakes can cost you money. The following information from personal injury attorneys applies whether you’re a driver, passenger, pedestrian or cyclist; and whether or not you’re at fault.
If anyone is injured, call 911.
Even if there are no injuries, says Carol L. Schlitt of The Schlitt Law Firm, “You should call always police.”
Make sure everyne is out of danger and turn on hazard lights.
“You don’t want to create an enormous traffic pileup,” says Schlitt. “And it’s not uncommon for what I call ‘immediate subsequent accidents’ to happen. So if you’re capable of moving the car safely, I think that’s perfectly OK.”
Then stay put.
“It’s illegal to leave the scene of an accident if anyone says they want to call the police,” notes Rosemarie Arnold of her eponymous law firm. And, if necessary, “you need the police to put up barricades, traffic cones, flares, et cetera.”
You also need them to take notes for an accident report.
Without it, Schlitt says, insurance companies may be skeptical about how the accident occurred. Jot down police badge numbers to make it easier to obtain a copy of their report. Police gather all parties’ contact information, license plate numbers, drivers’ license numbers, vehicle registration numbers and insurance information, but you can do it while you wait or if they don’t come.
Marie Ng of Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo warns that the other driver might be driving a stolen car, or giving false information: “It may be more reliable to look at their license and registration or use your cell phone and snap pictures of it, as well as the driver.”
Note the time, date and location, direction each party was going, weather conditions, street signs, light and road conditions, obstacles to clear vision, and what occurred at and after the impact. Photograph skid marks and debris, the condition of the cars and people. “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” says Arnold. “A video’s worth a million.”
“When you speak with the police, make sure you tell the truth, but you should not volunteer things,” Ng counsels. “You have the right not to speak to the police, but you must give them your documentation.”
Ask anyone nearby if they saw the accident. If the police don’t come, file a police accident report yourself at the nearest precinct. Also file a report with the state DMV (form MV-104, available online) within 10 days.
“As soon as possible, inform your auto insurance company that you were in an accident,” Schlitt says.
“You don’t want the coverage that you paid for for years to be vitiated because you didn’t let them know soon enough.”
In a “no-fault” state like New York, regardless of fault, your medical bills and any lost wages resulting from the accident, up to $50,000, will be paid by the company insuring the car you were in (or which hit you, if you were a pedestrian or cyclist). Ask the insurance company for a no-fault form and file it within 30 days, or it has a right to reject your claim.
Never talk to the other person’s insurance company, Schlitt says, but adds that the other driver’s insurance company will obtain information you give your own insurance company, “because [they] all work together.”
If you think you might be hurt, seek medical attention immediately.
“It is not uncommon for someone to feel significantly worse after a period of time,” says Gail S. Kelner, of Kelner & Kelner. “If treatment is delayed, it is quite possible that the insurance company will contest the injuries and the need for treatment.”
Be cooperative—but careful—when talking about the accident to the other party, police, hospital staff and your insurance company. “There should not be extensive conversation at the scene of the accident with the other driver as your statements could be either misquoted or misconstrued,” warns Kelner.
“It becomes adversarial very quickly with the insurance companies,” adds Schlitt. “They don’t want to pay a nickel more than they have to. If you call the accident in to them, they are recording every statement that you give, and they will use it against you.
“It’s human nature to spontaneously say things like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Oh, I’ll be fine.’ You should never say an accident was ‘my fault,’ you shouldn’t apologize, and you should never try to put the best face on your injuries.”