What should you do after a car accident?
There's one consistent comment I hear from victims of car accidents during our consultations: the insurance process is an unhealthy cross between a headache and a nightmare. The last thing you want is to be injured in a car accident only to be subjected to the frustrations of red tape. In this blog post, I'll be outlining the steps to keep in mind to simplify handling a recent car accident.
The first thing you should take care of is your safety. Right after a car accident, you should get your car off the road and call the police. I know the latter sounds a little mean, especially if the other driver is cooperative and nice, but having the police generate a police report can help memorialize and prove exactly what happened at the scene. Now, as fair warning, police are more and more hesitant to come out unless one of the vehicles needs to be towed or unless there are reported injuries. Either way, ensure that you get the other driver's name and insurance information. A picture of their driver's license would also be key; that will help us narrow down which "John Smith" was involved, for instance.
Take pictures. Take pictures of the vehicles, their damage, and their final place of rest. Don't be shy to do it right away. You're protecting your rights, and it may be incredibly important later. Likewise, if you have any visible injuries, even simply bruising, make sure you photograph them. Injuries will heal, and it's important to have images showing what they looked like prior to that.
If you feel as though you have been injured, it's important to seek prompt and consistent medical treatment. Emergency rooms, despite some traditionally long wait times, often do well for victims with more serious injuries, such as broken bones. For less serious injuries, your family doctor or walk-in urgent cares may also meet your needs. No matter which provider you go to, they will likely be able to refer you to whomever you should see next, whether it be some kind of therapy or specialized consultation. If you're ever unsure of which kind of doctor you need, head to your family doctor or a general practitioner; they'll know where to refer you. Remember that your own automobile insurance (or, if you don't have any but you were in a vehicle that had insurance, that insurance) will carry medical benefits on it, meaning that your medical bills will be paid up to a limit before you have to use health insurance or your own funds.
It's important that you report the accident to your automobile insurance carrier. They definitely need to know about it, and you have to report it before you can be eligible for their medical coverage for the accident.
In addition, beware of what I call the "blitz." It's the strategy often employed by the other driver's insurance company to try to dispose of your case fast — and it's to your detriment. In the days or weeks following an accident, you may suddenly get a flurry of communications from the other driver's insurance, perhaps even offering you a sum of money. These sums are uniformly lower than what you could get if you hired an attorney or if you waited out the case more. But, even if the sum seems good up front, don't accept it, even verbally! (A verbal agreement is as binding as a written contract!) If you agree to it, you are likely settling your whole case without any way to undo it or demand more later. In addition, you don't have complete knowledge of your injuries, their prognosis, or perhaps even their diagnosis so early on. You may think that you simply have a sore low back, for instance, when the insurance offers you this money, but if you accept it and later find out that you need surgery and will have ongoing pain and suffering, you will still be stuck with the settlement you verbally agreed to. You should err on the side of being safer rather than sorrier, and in Pennsylvania, personal injury accidents have a "statute of limitation" — think of it as a time limit — of two years from the date of the accident. So there's no need to rush settlement.
If the insurance for the other driver wants to take a recorded statement from you about how the accident happened, it is always my advice to refuse. It's not that I want you to be rude or to hide anything, but I have found that these statements are always used against you later — even if it's something as innocuous as you forgetting something or saying something differently years later, after your memory of the event has faded. You have no obligation to speak to the other driver's insurance. However, you need to cooperate with your own insurer.
In addition, you'll want to document any and all out-of-pocket or outstanding medical bills you incur, including if you incur any copays and deductibles. While your auto insurance medical coverage in Pennsylvania will never have copays or deductibles, your health insurance might. (If your medical coverage under your auto insurance runs out, it's your health insurance that you fall back to — and if you don't have any, you'll have to use your own funds). You want to record these so they can be reimbursed through your case. Also keep track of the time you're missing from work for the same reason.
It's also important to know what your own auto insurance coverage details are. Two of the most important facets of your own coverage — even in an accident that's completely not your fault — is your tort selection and your underinsured/uninsured motorist coverages.
In Pennsylvania, you will either have "full tort" or "limited tort." If you choose the latter, you may be barred from pursuing money for pain and suffering, but a number of exceptions exist. Likewise, underinsured and uninsured motorist coverages are incredibly important. The former coverage, in whatever amount you may have, will have your own automobile insurance reimburse you if your injuries exceed the value of the other driver's insurance coverage; the latter coverage, in whatever amount you may have, will have your own automobile insurance reimburse you if the other driver has no coverage. While it's a crime to drive in Pennsylvania without car insurance, it does still happen.
The summary above is only a general outline, and, of course, every car accident is different. But navigating the red tape and constant, convoluted back-and-forth can be overwhelming, especially when you're dealing with injuries from an automobile accident. Many clients with whom I've spoken have indicated how frustrating and upsetting the process is, and that's the last thing you want when you're in physical pain. You should consult with an attorney as soon as possible after an accident, if for no other reason than to know your options. Consultations for automobile accidents with Cohen, Feeley, Altemose & Rambo are always free, and we're happy to help you review your insurance coverage and answer your questions. Having someone who's experienced in the field clarify where you stand, what your options are, and what your coverages takes a burden off of your shoulders, and if you have an attorney representing you, it can give you the peace of mind to focus on your recovery.