Andy Gillin from GJEL Accident Attorneys represents people with different kinds of injuries, not just automobile accidents, but today that’s what we are going to focus on. Below is an interview with Andy Gillin on what someone should do after you’ve been in a car accident:
1. Check for medical emergencies
So, obviously, the first thing to do is check for medical emergencies. Medical issues are far more important and far more primary than legal issues. If anyone is injured, whether yourself, a passenger, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a motorcyclist, or someone in another vehicle, the most important thing is to get medical help immediately. I always suggest to people that it’s a good idea to keep a first aid kit in your car, not only for automobile accidents, but if there’s a natural disaster, you can help yourself, you can help your family, you can give kindness to a stranger. That’s in addition of course to calling emergency medical services for those who need it.
2. Gather Information from the parties involved
The next item is to gather information on the parties involved. If the police are on the scene, you don’t have to do very much because they’re going to get your drivers license information, the other party’s etc. But if the police aren’t on the scene, probably the first thing you want to do, assuming that you or a friend or a passenger is medically able, is copy the other person’s drivers license number. Now basically 95% of people around are honest and straightforward, but probably in 5% of the cases I see, the other person pretends they will stick around and then they drive away, and it’s a hit-and-run accident. Depending on what state you live in, if you don’t have a drivers’ license number, you may be in a real problem with your own insurance company in terms of doing an uninsured motorist claim. In most states, if you’re hit and run by another vehicle, and if there’s property damage to your vehicle and you don’t know who that other vehicle is, you can make a claim under your own underinsured motorist claim under your policy. However, in some states, your insurance company will require that in order to make that claim, that you have a vehicle number for that other car. Most states it’s not required, but better to have it, obviously the other reason it’s better to have it is that obviously the other person can be identified and prosecuted for the hit and run, their insurance company notified, so you don’t have to deal with your own insurance company.
In almost all states, in order to make a valid claim for uninsured motorist coverage in a hit-and-run accident there does have to be a police report filed. Different states have different rules. California, for instance, requires that the accident is reported to the police within 24 hours. My own advice in a hit-and-run accident is to stay at the scene, report it immediately because the police are going to lose interest particularly if you’re in a metropolitan high crime area if someone calls them 16 hours later to report an accident that nobody’s seen, it’s going to be such a low priority that it may not even be properly recorded in the police files and the other party could take the position that it was improperly reported or never reported within the appropriate time.
3. Exchange Insurance and Drivers License Information
So the next thing you want to do is exchange driver’s license and automobile insurance information with the other driver. You want to give them your drivers’ license number and insurance information and you want to get theirs. The only exception to that I would say is that if your instincts tell you that this is not a trustworthy person, not a person who you’d want to see your driver’s license, not a person who you’d want to know your home address, then just say lets get the police here, you give it to them and I’ll give it to them. But conversely, if everyone appears trustworthy and straightforward exchanging drivers license and insurance information is very good to do and really important to do.
4. Check for witnesses near the accident
There may be someone at the gas station around the corner, assuming this happened at an intersection, who’s not particularly interested or particularly disinterested. If it takes the police 20 minutes to get there, and that person has filled up their car with gas and left, no one may ever be able to obtain the contact information for that witness.
So, if you’re in medical condition to do so, if you’re aware of anyone who witnessed the accident, talk to them, see if they’d be willing to give you their contact information, and just write it down and hold on to it. This is particularly helpful if you and the other driver disagree about what happened. But even if you don’t disagree, something that I see very frequently in my law practice is that there will be an accident, the person will say “I’m so sorry, I was on my cell phone, I wasn’t paying attention, I hit right in to the back of your car,” so you think “okay, this is a very nice and honest person, we’ll just go with that.”
I’m somewhat shocked at the frequency with which that same person three days later says “you know, now that I thought about it, they made a sudden stop, there was nothing I could have done.” My experience tells me that people tend to be much more honest immediately after the accident. So number one, it’s a very good reason to get the police there as soon as possible and to talk to the person yourself. You can’t stop anyone from changing their story as it were a few days later, but you certainly, if there are witnesses, can have an independent third party witness verify what happens.
One thing that is very useful to know both in a police report and in an ongoing claim, the people who judges and juries and insurance claims adjustors consider to be the most reliable after an accident are indeed third-party witnesses. Not you, not the other person, a lot of times there will be an accident at an intersection and a lot of people will say “I know I had the green light.” And both people will honestly believe that, which is exactly why the accident happened. But somebody is going to be wrong. If two people meet in the middle of an intersection, unless it happened that the lights were malfunctioning, probably one person didn’t have the green light. So the most objective person is not the two people involved in the accident, the most objective person is someone who had no stake in it, someone who was standing on the corner, who happened to be driving by and doesn’t know either person. So that’s why you want to find bystanders quickly before they wander away from the scene, ask them what they saw, and then get their contact information.
5. Document The Scene
Now again, if it’s a serious accident and if the local police or highway patrol or state trooper is on-scene, they’re going to have a roll of tape, they’re going to take photographs, they’re going to document the scene. There’s no reason to do this.
But if they aren’t there, and if you’re in good enough shape and if there’s a dispute as to who’s at fault, then I think it is useful to sketch the accident scene on a sheet of paper. If I could just back up a little bit here, none of this may be necessary if it’s a very very clear situation. In other words, if there is an independent witness, and if there’s an admission made by the other driver to the independent witness who saw the accident, probably at that point you can probably assume that 99% of the truth will get out and you don’t have to be overly cautious.
But if it’s a situation where you’re medically stable enough to do all this then yeah, go ahead and sketch the accident scene on a sheet of paper, note and label the position of all vehicles, their direction, and any traffic control devices. You know, in today’s world where so many people have cameras on their phones, the simpler and easier thing is to get a photo of the scene, take a photo of the vehicle license of the other car, which is even better than writing down the vehicle license, although you can certainly do both because your camera isn’t going to get the license number wrong but you might write it down wrong.
6. Discuss the incident with the police
The next thing is, when the police do arrive, you do want to discuss the incident with the police, for a number of reasons:
- Number one, you want the police to know your version of what happened.
- Number two, you want the police and later on the other person’s insurance company to note that you were being cooperative.
Every once in a while, I’ll handle the case where I know that either my client or the person on the other side refuses to discuss with the police what happened. This is extremely rare but people do it and it’s really not advisable because, back to the question of the individual earlier, talk about making it look like you’re trying to game the system or you’ve done something really wrong as if it’s a criminal type thing where you have the right to remain silent. It puts you at a disadvantage because the police become distrustful of you, your own insurance company does, and so does the other party.
- Additionally, and perhaps this is a really obvious point, what happens in this situation is there are two versions of the accident, you don’t tell yours, the other person does tell theirs, the policeman wasn’t on the scene, he didn’t see it happening, so he writes up the report totally based on the other person’s version of what happened. Sometimes this is unavoidable, a number of the people I have represented are unable to speak at the time the police arrive, they may be unconscious in the most tragic situations, and they may have passed away.
So if there are no witnesses, the only person the police can speak to, or the only people that the police can speak to are the people in the other vehicle in the other vehicle who did survive and are conscious. In that situation, the police realize that they are only getting one side of the story and those cases are so severe that they’re not just going to do a five-minute police report. They’re going to spend a few hours, they’re going to look very hard for witnesses, and they’re going to look at the vehicle damage itself.
7. Photograph & Document The Scene
In my law practice, I use a lot of accident reconstruction experts and one of the things they always need to know is where the damage is on the vehicles and exactly what it looks like.
Another thing they need to know is where the skid marks are if there are skid marks, and the length of the skid marks. This, too, is something you can do with your camera. If it’s a serious accident, the police will not only photograph the skid marks, they will walk them off or use their roller tape to more accurately note them and we will have a very specific notion of skid marks. And a talented accident reconstruction expert, by measuring skid marks, looking at damage to the vehicles, can estimate the speed of the vehicle at the time of impact and by backing up, they can estimate the speed of the vehicle at the time the vehicle first hit its breaks and began to skid.
8. Consider Hiring a Lawyer
Part of it depends on the severity of the accident and part of it depends on the nature of the person. I have some people who call me, this just happened yesterday, fairly modest accident – the person was hurt but not terribly. I said to them, “You know, you could probably just do this yourself; you don’t really have to pay a lawyer a percentage.”
And they just said, “Look, I’m the kind of person who just wants it taken care of. I want to know it’s done right.”
Other people are just the opposite. They’d rather do things themselves, and that’s fine too, there’s no [right] answer. I think you’ll find that most personal injury lawyers will be happy to give you 10-20 minutes of their time to help you make that decision.
That doesn’t mean you have to take their recommendation. The lawyer might recommend you hire a lawyer and you decide not to or vice versa.
The other thing that I do, and a lot of other lawyers do is if it’s a case where the person definitely wants a lawyer but it doesn’t really fit my law practice: it might be a smaller case than I would typically handle. Then what I’ll do is give the person the name of three other lawyers in the geographical area from whom they can choose.
Sometimes it has to do with size of case, sometimes it has to do with specialty, for instance I have a number of subspecialties, I do a lot of head injury cases, paralysis cases, and death cases. I very seldom do medical malpractice cases regardless of the degree, unless it happens to be a very specific case that fits my skills. So if someone calls me about a medical malpractice case I usually will give them the names of two or three medical malpractice lawyers.
Things you shouldn’t do when deciding whether or not to hire a car accident lawyer
- One is I do not recommend giving a statement to the other person’s insurance company.
- I don’t recommend letting them have their doctor look at you, and
- I don’t recommend that you give them a blanket authorization to get your medical records.
If a few weeks in to the accident you decide that you don’t need a lawyer and it’s a fairly routine matter, then go ahead and give them those things, they’ll need them to do their evaluation. But if you’re still deciding whether to hire a lawyer I suggest you not do those things, because one of the advantages of hiring a lawyer is he knows whether or not to do those things, when to do them, and how to protect you when you do them.