Car accident season is upon us, as temperatures dip and the snow begins to fall. It is time to expect the unexpected, and prepare yourself for what to do in the event you are involved in a car crash.

The first and most important bit of advice is to protect yourself following an automobile collision. Secondary collisions are common, particularly in icy conditions, since a crash site tends to block the usual flow of traffic. The safest place to be is in your car with your seatbelt on and hazard lights activated. If possible, move vehicles to the roadside. Turn off your car, call 911 and wait for help to arrive. In some circumstances, it is advisable to activate flares or place cones, if available, to alert oncoming traffic.

Do not let an inebriated driver talk you out of waiting for police to arrive. Frequently, car crash victims are not fully aware of their own injuries immediately after a crash, as adrenalin and shock take over. It is foolish to let a negligent driver escape the scene when they have chosen to drive under the influence and put you at risk. You may not realize the full extent of your injuries for several weeks, or until test results are available. A significant brain injury may take months to discover as the injury victim and his/her doctors, family, friends and co-workers gradually realize something is wrong.

For liability purposes, the police report generally controls how insurers apportion fault. You can obtain a copy of the police report by contacting the police department that prepared the report. Liability is determined by the investigating police officer and followed up by the issuance of a citation. In contested cases, it is important to identify any eyewitnesses. The investigating officer will collect witness statements from those witnesses who wait around, but some witnesses may not wait around. It is nearly impossible to locate witnesses after the fact by running ads or posting notices near the crash site.

Once you have left the scene of an accident, it is wise to alert your insurance company. Your insurance company will likely want to record a statement from you. Be careful in describing the accident. In my experience, drivers give too many details, thereby complicating the picture of who was at fault. If the case is a simple rearend collision, the police will routinely cite the at-fault driver for violating the assured clear distance ahead. All that you need to report is that you were rearended and the other driver was cited. There is no need to go into detail about your actions leading up to the collision or attempt to explain why the other driver likely did not stop in time. Further, it is a mistake to offer up any description of how your actions may have contributed to the accident.

If the other driver’s insurer seeks to take a statement from you, you have the right to refuse, and I suggest that you do so. You can simply tell them that you would like to speak with an attorney before you give any statement.

Do you need an attorney? When you have a simple car accident and minor injuries, I typically advise clients that they do not need an attorney. Be mindful that the other driver’s insurer will want documentation of medical expenses and lost wages. Also, note that you may have to reimburse your insurer for any medical bills that it paid. This is called subrogation. Some clients would prefer to have an attorney handle their case in order to avoid the hassle of dealing with documenting the damages and resolving the subrogation claim. In my opinion, a personal injury attorney is absolutely necessary if you suffer any serious personal injury or if the cause of the accident is contested.

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