We get this question all of the time: What do I do if I have been in a car accident? As you would guess, it depends on what happened. Every case is different. But, there are some common things that happen in most accidents and we are here to help. Below you will find some common car accident questions and thoughts on how to address them.
1. Do I need an attorney for a car accident?
Short answer: it depends.
More likely than not you should at least consult with an attorney. Dan'L Bridges speaks to people every week at our office about their car accidents and it may surprise you that as often as not an attorney is not necessary. The tricky part of it is though, it is often hard to tell if you need an attorney until you actually speak with an attorney. Even simple car accidents can create a variety of legal problems ranging from the extent of your insurance coverage to how will your bills get paid. Unfortunately, it is typical that only the smallest of car accidents should be handled without an attorney. Most attorneys are willing to take initial phone calls on car accidents for no charge. Our office does that. It never hurts to ask and we urge you to call, if not our firm, a qualified firm to speak with an attorney to see if you actually need one. If you do need an attorney and do not get one, it could damage your rights and ability to recover.
2. What should I do first if I am in a car accident?
Short answer: call the police.
Albeit, if you are reading this it is likely after you had your accident so admittedly this comes a bit late. But just the same, call the police and get the incident number. The officer will not have the full report ready at the scene but with the incident number you can typically obtain the full report within a few days. Also, the police will generally do a very good job documenting the scene and witness information.
Be sure you have pictures of both your car and the other car involved. Start at one corner of your car and work your way around in increments. The areas that are damaged give particular attention to. If the damage was to the front or back, take pictures under your car. Look in the trunk to see if the inside has been deformed.
3. Should I tell my insurance company if I am in a car accident?
That is a more complicated question than you may realize. The short, safe answer is, yes. Call them immediately. That is what most policies require. Also as discussed below, if you have coverage on your insurance policy to pay for your medical bills (personal injury protection - PIP) often those policies say that they have no obligation to pay if do not tell them about the accident in a timely manner.
Where it gets complicated depends on the specific facts of your accident. Some insurance companies will take the fact you are in an accident, even one that is not your fault, and use that to calculate a higher insurance premium. Not all do. But some do. They view the fact you were even in an accident increases your risk. So, telling your insurance company when you have no fault could cause your rates to go up. That said, as described above, if you don't tell your insurance company you might be waiving rights under you policy. This is a good example of why, even for a simple car accident, it is important to speak with an attorney right away to help you better understand your rights and obligations.
4. Does the other driver's insurance company have to get me a rental car if I am in a car accident?
Short answer: No.
Depending on the carrier, they might offer to do that if their driver was at fault in order to reduce the damages they might have to pay later. Most insurance companies have national contracts with rental car companies and can rent them at a very low rate. It is cheaper for them to rent you a car with their discount than pay you back the retail rate you will pay if you do it yourself. So, while the other insurance company is not required to get you a rental car right away it does not hurt to ask. If it says no, you are no worse off.
5. Does my insurance company have to get me a rental car if I am in a car accident?
Short answer: Maybe.
An insurance company is only required to do what you paid it to do in the insurance policy you purchased. If you purchased rental car insurance then yes, your carrier has to rent you a car. If you did not, it will not. Pretty simple.
6. Does the other driver's insurance company have to pay my medical bills?
Short answer: Maybe.
This depends on a lot of factors the most important of which, of course, is if you were at fault. Let's assume in your accident the other driver was at fault. In that case, yes, the other insurance carrier does have to pay your medical bills but the more important issue for you is when will it do that.
Generally speaking, insurance companies will not pay for anything, until they can pay for everything. In other words, they are not going to be sending you out checks every week and will not pay out until it can settle the entire case. So be careful. If an insurance company offers you money for your medical bills it will ask you to sign something. It is critical you understand what you are agreeing to before you accept the money. You might be giving up your entire injury claim including lost wages, pain and suffering, and even car damage in exchange for a $500 medical bill.
7. Does the other insurance company have to pay to fix or repair my car?
Short answer: Yes if the other driver is at fault. No, if you are at fault.
8. Do I have to accept the insurance company's estimate to fix my car?
Short answer: no. Absolutely not.
That is not to say every insurance company's estimates are bad. Most insurance companies use highly reputable repair shops with training on how to estimate damage. But, there are situations where they may cut corners, give you an estimate for non-original parts, or take other cost saving measures that are not in your best interests.
We recommend that you always obtain your own, independent estimate to repair your car. Often you will have to call in advance and make an appointment but most repair shops will provide you one free of charge.
Sometimes there is a benefit to using the insurance company's recommended repair shop. Often, those shops given more favorable warranties and guarantees for their work in case something goes wrong with the repair later. This is a good example of where it pays to ask questions.
9. Does the insurance company have to pay me for the lost value of my car.
Short answer: it depends.
When a car is damaged it often decreases its resale value. Ask yourself, would you want to buy a car that was in an accident? Not likely. You don't know the full extent of the damage or if it was repaired correctly. Also, no matter how good the shop the paint is never quite like new. For those reasons and others, it is the simple fact that a car that was in an accident of any meaningful amount is worth less even after being repaired.
Several years ago our Supreme Court ruled that is a damage to you no different than any other damage. So, if the other driver was at fault they do have to pay you not only for the cost to repair but also the lost value of the car because of the accident.
Because this can be an expensive element of damage, many first party insurance polices - or said another way, your own insurance policy - do NOT cover this type of damage. Often, your policy will pay to fix your car if the accident was your or the other driver's fault but it will not pay for the lost value. But again, this is very fact specific, every insurance policy is different, and is another reason why speaking to an attorney is important.
10. Should I see a doctor after a car accident?
Short answer: if you were hurt, yes.
Keep in mind that in most car accidents, you will not feel the worse you are going to feel for 3 to 5 days. We are not giving medical advice, but we can say based on experience not only with our clients but having been in car accidents ourselves, a car accident can cause all variety of muscle tears and strains. It can put pressure on your nerves in your back. It can cause your vertebral discs to bulge. The tricky part is that immediately after an accident your body reflexively tenses up as a protection mechanism and that becomes more pronounced over a period of days. The other problem is, you may have so much initial pain and discomfort from the trauma of the accident that other more serious problems go unnoticed. We have had many clients who have numbness and tingling in their arms or down their legs but the significance of it is not realized for a few months. The difficult part is sometimes those symptoms can be caused by inflammation that will, over time, go away as opposed to being caused by a more serious problem. It is important your body has a chance to get past the initial shock and trauma of an accident to be sure you do not have a more long lasting medical issue.
If you were in an accident of any significant amount, you should go to your doctor even if you do not feel “that” hurt. Certainly if you hit your head, have a bad headache, or muscle stiffness you should go to your doctor. If immediately after a car accident you feel numbness and tingling or shooting pains down your arms or legs you should go to the emergency room that same day. As we said above, every case is different. While it is true that some folks go to the emergency room when perhaps they did not need to, the old saying of “better safe than sorry” definitely applies here. If you had an accident and feel perfectly fine, let your common sense be your guide.
11. Does the other insurance company have to pay for my lost wages?
Short answer: maybe.
The more important question though is when will it do that. Assuming you were not at fault, the other driver is responsible for all of your damages which includes your lost wages. But, as discussed above, the insurance carrier will not want to pay you anything until it can pay for everything. So, while the other driver's insurance company should pay your lost wages it will not do so until the case is fully resolved.
The good news however is if you have PIP (personal injury protection) coverage on your insurance policy, most PIP policies cover some of your lost wages. It will not be dollar for dollar. Most carriers have a formula they pay based on. But, it should cover your lost wages. But be careful: that same PIP policy is also what is available to pay your medical bills and there is only one limit. For example, if you you only have $10,000 in PIP coverage and you take $5,000 of it as lost wages that will only leave $5,000 to pay your medical bills. If you have regular health insurance it should pay once your PIP is gone.
12. Will a car accident affect my insurance premiums?
Short answer: maybe.
If the accident is not your fault it should not affect your premiums. But, there are some insurance carriers that view any accident as a reason to raise your rates. Like most things, it is very specific to the insurance company and for better or worse there is not much you can do about it after you have an accident.
13. What happens when the other driver does not have insurance or enough insurance?
Short answer: a couple of things.
First, a person who causes an accident is responsible for all damage they cause. Insurance only pays to the extent coverage was bought but it does not limit a driver's financial responsibility. If a person hit you and does not have enough insurance - or worse no insurance - they are still responsible. The problem however is that people with small policy limits often do not have a lot of money. That is usually why they had lower limits in the first place. So, although you can make a claim and obtain a judgment for all your damages they may not have any money other than what their insurance is.
Second, if the other driver does not have insurance or not enough, hopefully you had the foresight to buy UIM (underinsured motorist) coverage. That is coverage you buy, on your policy, and it pays when you are injured by another driver with either no or not enough coverage. If you have it, UIM will pay up to that policy limit over and above what the other driver has and generally speaking it will not pay until the other driver's insurance pays all of its limits. Or if the other driver has no insurance, your UIM will pay. But in either case, your UIM will only pay up to the extent of its limits.
14. Final questions.
The questions and answers above only scratch the surface. Every case is different and we cannot give legal advice by a web site. Our only goal here is to provide some basic background information to hold you over until you can speak with an attorney. If you have been in a car accident we urge you to speak with an attorney so you can better understand your rights. Dan'L Bridges or any of our attorneys would be very pleased to speak with you. We do not charge for an initial consultation.
Content by: Dan'L Bridges. Washington State Bar Association member.