Always call the police, take note of your physical condtion, and work with the insurance company. Also, having an experienced lawyer to help never hurts.
Even a simple accident can be a very disrupting experience. Unless your injuries required paramedics, you may have felt that you were shaken, but not injured in the accident. You probably told the investigating officer (yes, always call the police) that you did not feel injured and did not need an ambulance. The officer talked to the driver and any witnesses and started his report. You and the other driver were both given a card or sheet with the basic information on the incident and insurance information on the other driver. Your vehicle was towed if it was not operable. Tickets were likely issued for any violations of the law. You eventually left the scene of the accident. Now what do you do? Some of the following suggestions will likely apply to you, but not in any specific order:
Your Physical Condition
After you have left the scene of the accident, pay attention to the way you feel for the next several hours and the next few days. Many injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments are not immediately painful, but will be within several hours or even several days of the accident. If you start to feel significant pain anywhere, you should consider going to an emergency room or urgent care center. If your pain does not cause you that level of concern, you will want to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor as soon as possible for a proper examination of your injuries. Sometimes even accidents that seemed minor result in significant car accident injuries, so there is no reason to take chances with your health. Even injuries that did not cause bleeding or broken bones still need proper treatment to heal well. You and your doctor can decide what treatment regimen is best for your injuries. If your injuries are dominantly to the neck and back (which is common) your doctor will often recommend physical therapy or chiropractic care. If you do not have a regular doctor or a health care plan, there are ways to get the medical care you need, and there are many physical therapists and chiropractors that are willing to wait until the end of your injury claim to get paid for their services. This is called a medical insurance lien, and may enable you to get care that you need without breaking you financially while the care is ongoing. Generally, you should not settle your bodily injury claim with the insurance company while you are still in treatment. There are exceptions to this rule due to certain time-line limitations, called Statutes of Limitations (covered later).
Making an Insurance Claim
The information you were given by the investigating officer is on a card or a full sheet of paper that is a copy of the first page of the accident report. Use this information to call the insurance claims office of the at-fault driver to open a claim. Even this first step has dangers for compromising your rights. The first person you talk to will likely take down basic information on what happened for purposes of opening the auto insurance claims and assigning an adjuster. This first person will not be working your claim and probably cannot help you with anything. He or she may ask how you are feeling and if you have injuries for your insurance claim. If you are calling right after the accident, you may not feel your injuries yet. Doctors tell us that inflammation continues to increase for three or more days after an injury. Also, we are all trained to ignore or downplay our injuries so we don’t appear to be whiners. So, even injured claimants will sometimes say they are not hurt much or that the injuries are no big deal. Remember, anything you tell any insurance representative will be recorded, either in notes or actually taped. If you tell them you are not hurt, and later get treatment, you may hurt your credibility.
Dealing with the Insurance Company Representative
Once an insurance claims consultant is assigned to your auto insurance claim (supposedly within about 24 hours of your phone call), that adjuster will contact you. One of the first things they request is a recorded statement. Part of their purpose is to get the facts they need to handle your claim. But they work for the insurance company, and thus are on the lookout for anything that will lower the value of your claim: whether you did something to cause or contribute to the accident, whether you are hurt, whether you have prior injuries that may be blamed for your current symptoms and treatment, whether your choice of doctors or treatment can be questioned, etc. You would be surprised how easy it is to inadvertently hurt your own claim. For example, in one of our cases, our client had given a recorded statement before we met. The client was at a stop when hit from behind. However, when she was asked how fast she was going at the time of the accident, she answered that she was traveling at 40 M.P.H. assuming that the question referred to her general speed while traveling. The adjuster did a calculation based on her own insured’s travel speed of 50 M.P.H. and concluded that the total impact speed was about 10 M.P.H. not the 50 it actually was. In other cases, when the adjuster asked, "How are you", our client gave the standard reply of "fine," which was recorded. Standing alone, that could be used to imply a contradiction if the client later claims he or she was in pain from the accident, when the clients were injured but also polite. These are simple examples, but there are many ways that small things can be used to misrepresent what actually happened to you in the accident. You are not obligated to give a recorded or written statement (except, at times, to your own company). The insurance company may refuse to make an offer if you do not give such a statement. The statement is not directly admissible in court proceedings, but it can be used if there is a later statement that seems to contradict it. The recorded statement should not be taken lightly. This is another area where legal counsel can help you decide what to do and prepare you for the statement if taken.
It is also not unusual for the adjuster to try to settle the medical insurance claim right away, usually for a low sum of money. This is not advisable. You should not settle until you are sure you are better, and all health, income, and vehicle issues are resolved. In Arizona, the shortest time period you have to take an official act to protect your claim is 180 days (against a governmental defendant), so don’t let the insurance company make you feel like you must act now. Also, resist the urge to think that they will treat you better if you settle quickly. Settle when you, not they, are ready.
The adjuster will send you documents giving him or her permission to order your medical records, sometimes all of them! It is generally unwise to sign those. It is true that the adjuster will need medical records and bills related to the accident to evaluate your claim, but you should probably get these yourself first and give copies to the adjuster. That way you also have the information when negotiating.
The adjuster will also obtain a copy of the police report. So should you. The paper you were given at the scene of the accident is not the accident report, even the full page official-looking one. The full report will be two or more pages long. The information you received at the scene has a "Report Number," and information about how to obtain the full report. Most record divisions require about 10 days before the report is ready. You can order this by mail or pick it up. There is a small charge for the report. A notable exception to this procedure is the Phoenix Police Department. That department puts their reports online. If you have the name of one of the driver’s and the report number on an accident investigated by the Phoenix Police, you can go to the Department web site, find the tab to access reports, and download it.
Having your own copy of the police report will help you see any possible liability problems or fend off any arguments that are not supported by the investigation. It also helps you know who the witnesses were, which can be essential if there is a dispute.