What to Do: First Steps After a Car Accident

In the moments after a car accident, it's hard to think clearly. What do you need to do to protect yourself, your passengers and other drivers on the road around you? Because of the emotions and trauma associated with a car accident, many drivers make mistakes that limit their right to get compensation from insurance companies and other drivers after a car accident. Here's a guide outlining what to do immediately following a car accident so you can protect your rights.

Step 1 - Make Sure Everyone Is Safe

The first thing to do at the scene of an accident is to ensure the safety of all involved. Here are some steps to take:

  • Exit your vehicle if you can, turning on the emergency flashers.
  • If the accident is more than just a minor incident or if anyone is injured, call 911 for medical services and law enforcement help.
  • Call the non-emergency police hotline for minor accidents.
  • Perform any immediate first aid you can, but be careful to not move injured parties who may have back or neck injuries.
  • If you have flares, set them up around the scene to alert other drivers to the problem.
  • Stay at the scene until the police release you.

Remember, the safety and health of those involved trumps any financial considerations, so take the necessary safety precautions right away.

Step 2 - Assess the Scene and Exchange Contact Information

Once you've ensured that everyone's physically safe, it's time to start taking inventory of what happened, while also taking measures to protect your rights. Here's what you need to do:

  • Take pictures of the vehicles and debris in the location where the accident happened.
  • Move the cars as soon as possible after taking pictures of the scene. However, do not move vehicles if it is not safe to do so.
  • Never admit that you were wrong or apologize for what happened. This may seem impolite, but admitting wrongdoing could hurt your chances if the case ends up in court. You can express concern and do what is necessary to get medical attention without admitting guilt or fault.
  • Exchange contact and insurance information with the other drivers on the scene. This will be vital later if there are any claims relating to the accident. If the other driver does not have insurance, make sure you get valid contact information for them.

These initial measures will see the stage for a successful case should you need to pursue legal action at some point.

Step 3 - Call Your Insurance Company

Next, you need to call your insurance company to report the accident. It's always best if you are the first one to call on an accident, rather than allowing the other driver or the other driver's insurance company to report a claim before you call. Let your insurance company know the details of the accident so they can start building a claim for you. They may wish to send an agent to the scene to begin assessing it.

When you are in a car accident, you always need to call your insurance company, even if the accident seemed minor. It's vital that you do so within a reasonable amount of time. In addition to the protection this creates, it may also be part of your insurance contract. Failing to do so could put your right to get compensated at risk.

Why is this an important step? It's important for your protection. The effects of a car accident are often not obvious at the outset, and you may end up experiencing injuries later that need to be turned in to the insurance provider much later. The same could be said for other drivers in the accident. Also, the other drivers may choose to pursue legal action against you, depending on the realities of the accident. If you've not reported it to your insurance company, you may be denied coverage as a result.

Step 4 - Call an Attorney

After you've reported your accident to the insurance company, your next call needs to be to a qualified car accident attorney. Even if you think that the accident was minor, you never know what repercussions could pop up, and you need to be certain that you are protected. In addition, you will need a car accident attorney on hand, even if the insurance company looks as though it will pay for your damages. Remember, insurance companies are looking to pay the least possible amount, and they do not have your best interests in mind. An attorney is going to help ensure that your rights and interests are well protected in the case.

How can you choose the right attorney? Look for one that has:

  • Experience specifically with car accident cases
  • A free consultation discussing your case
  • A long list of credentials
  • A personality you can work with
  • The reputation to aggressively fight for his or her clients

Once you have retained an attorney, it's important to know what questions to ask. Here are some good questions to ask, even before the case really gets underway:

  • What are your thoughts on my case?
  • How likely do you think it is that I will get a settlement or judgment?
  • How much can I realistically expect to receive?
  • Do you feel we will need to go to trial?
  • Do you feel arbitration or mediation would work well?
  • How long do you think it would take to complete my case?
  • What factors are working for or against us?

Remember, you need a lawyer, even if you aren't seeking compensation. You will have no way of knowing if the other parties are going to try to get compensation or take you to court for your involvement in the case. Retaining a lawyer early gives the lawyer enough time to start building a case if and when it is needed.

Step 5 - Start Gathering Records

Even if you think the accident was a simple scenario and it's over and done, you need to keep careful records. You never know when a claim will raise its head or you will get a call from another driver's lawyer indicating that a lawsuit is starting. In order to provide yourself full protection, keep accurate records of the accident. Here's what you should gather and keep:

  • Inspection and damage reports for the vehicle, including any estimates for repair, receipts, valuations for a totaled vehicle and invoices.
  • Any reports that came from the police that are generated in regards to your accident.
  • Any medical records at all, including reports from the emergency room or your doctor, bills and treatment records, which you will have to request from your doctor, and any reports from chiropractors, therapists or other specialists you see after the accident.
  • Any reports related to your income that show time you had to take off work to get treatment or recover from injuries. Be sure to include information about time off for appointments and any limitations your injuries created that affected your ability to do your job.
  • A personal journal outlining anything non-physical and non-economic relating to the accident, including emotional effects that are hard to quantify. You may deserve compensation fro the stress and mental health issues that arise after your accident, so it's important to have a record of these.

Consider starting a folder that you can place all of these records into immediately.

Step 6 - Seek Medical Attention

When you are involved in a car accident and seem to have few injuries, it's tempting to want to avoid the hassle of a trip to the doctor. However, this is not a good idea. It's crucial that you get a full evaluation done within a few days of your accident so you have the evaluation on record. It's common for people involved in somewhat minor accidents to not notice injury symptoms until a few days, weeks or even months after the accident. With the exception of serious trauma, most of the common injuries after a car accident do not show up for a while.

There are a few reasons for this. First, car accidents create a rush of endorphins and adrenaline as your body's "fight or flight" response kicks in. this often makes the pain from an injury until after the entire event is over. Your heightened level of excitement means you may not feel the pain from your injures, even those that are somewhat serious.

In addition to the effect of endorphins, the truth is that car accidents tend to create soft tissue injures. These are injuries to the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the body. In fact, even accidents that happen at a fairly low speed put a tremendous amount of force on the body, creating these soft tissue injuries. Because soft tissue injures do not create blood or broken bones, you may not notice them until the weeks after the accident.

When making an appointment, it's important that you visit the right type of doctor. Some options include:

  • A visit to the ER - If you are experiencing any type of pain immediately after the accident, or if children were involved, go to the emergency room for evaluation immediately.
  • A visit to your primary physician - If you feel that your injuries do not warrant a trip to the ER, schedule a visit with your primary physician as soon as possible after the accident. Call the day of or the day after the accident to schedule the appointment, and document when you called to show that you took action quickly.
  • A visit with a chiropractor - Chiropractors are specially trained to find soft tissue and vertebrae injuries after car accidents, and they may be able to find problems that your regular doctor does not have the training to find. Consider scheduling a visit with a chiropractor to ensure all of your bases are covered as you seek to recover your health and strength.

Make sure that you have this appointment with 72 hours of the accident, even if it's just a basic medical check and not a thorough evaluation of your injuries. If you wait more than 72 hours, the insurance company will add a "value driver" to your score in their software. This could affect the amount of your eventual settlement, and it could be used in court should your case go to court to try to prove that your injuries were not severe. After all, a jury will assume that severe injuries warrant quick medical attention.

As you seek medical attention, make sure you don't release your records to the other party's insurance company. Let your lawyer or your insurance company, who are working in your best interests, handle this step as they feel it is necessary and proper.

Step 7 - Avoid a Quick Settlement

If the other driver was at fault for the accident, you may find that their insurance company calls and asks you for a quick settlement. The insurance company may offer you a sum of money in return for singing a release of any future claims. Often the sum of money seems large, so you are tempted to sign.

Don't do this. Make sure you wait until you are fully evaluated by both a chiropractor and a physician before you sign anything, and give your body time to ensure no additional injuries manifest. Most importantly, do not sign a release until you have talked with an attorney to ensure that the settlement is fair and just. Remember, signing the release means you no longer have the right to pursue compensation from the insurance company or the other party, so only do so if you are absolutely certain it is a sufficient settlement.

Step 8 - Get the Car Fixed

Only after you've talked to a lawyer, your insurance company and your doctors should you worry about your car. Make sure that you get quotes for having the car fixed right away, but if you have alternate transportation, you might want to wait until you reach a settlement to actually have the repairs done. Be sure to consider all aspects of the repair relating to your vehicle, including:

  • Mechanical work
  • Tires
  • Body work
  • Replacement of seat belts and child car seats damaged by the accident

It's easy to overlook some of these, especially the car seats, when dealing with mounting medical and repair bills, but all of these need to be included in your case as you seek compensation for the accident and the financial losses it created.

Step 9 - Understand Potential Pitfalls

The basic steps to take after an accident are the same no matter the circumstances of the accident, but that does not mean there aren't potential pitfalls that could happen. Here are some to watch for:

  • Statute of Limitations - Every state has a statute of limitations, which is a time frame in which you must file a lawsuit in a car accident case. Even if you're not planning to file a lawsuit, you need to file and settle your insurance claim within this time, or the other insurance party will not be motivated to settle with you. Ask your lawyer about the statute of limitations.
  • Uninsured Driver - If the at-fault driver is uninsured, you may be facing all of the bills and associated costs without the benefit of insurance coverage. In this case, if the costs are extensive, you may need to sue the individual to get the compensation you need. If your insurance policy has an uninsured driver rider, then your own insurance may pay the costs you face. Talk to your lawyer about what options are best.
  • Early Settlement - Insurance providers are typically in a hurry to settle the case. There's a reason for this. Insurance companies know that the effects of a car accident are often lingering. If they settle and you sign the settlement, you can't come back and ask for more compensation. Make sure all of your medical treatment is complete and settled, and your car's repairs are finalized, before even considering a settlement.
  • Unexpected Costs - The costs associated with a car accident go far beyond the basic injuries and the cost to repair the car. Many parties fail to consider all the costs, and end up with a settlement that is far too small. This is why working with a lawyer is so important in this process.
 Remember, a car accident can have long-lasting effects that follow you long after the initial crash. Take the right measures immediately after an accident to protect your rights, so you will be prepared for whatever comes.

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