Typically, two main types of legal claims follow from a car accident - claims for property damage, and personal injury claims. In fatal car accident cases, a wrongful death claim may also ensue.
When a car accident occurs, in most states the at-fault driver will be on the financial hook for damages and injuries resulting from the crash. From a practical standpoint, it's the at-fault driver's insurance company that will cover most injury claims arising from the accident, and the driver will "pay" in the form of a raised car insurance premium.
But laws and rules that apply to car accident cases are different from state to state. How will an injury claim be affected if more than one driver is responsible for causing the accident? And how do injury claims work in the dozen or so "no fault" car insurance states?
In the case of car accidents, the duty is the one that all drivers owe to other drivers on the road. If you get behind the wheel of a car, you owe a legal duty to everyone else on the road -- drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists -- to operate your vehicle with a reasonable standard of care
This means that the plaintiff has to prove the defendant was negligent in fulfilling the duty of care. Since the duty is to behave as a reasonably prudent driver would, the "reasonable person" standard is used as a measure of whether a breach exists in car accidents. This means the behavior of the driver who is supposedly at fault is compared to what a reasonable driver would have done. If a reasonable driver would have been more careful, then the driver in question can be considered negligent and thus can be considered to be (at least partially) at fault. Proof that a driver was cited for a traffic violation in connection with the accident will go a long way toward establishing that a duty was breached.
It isn't enough for the other driver to have been negligent; that alone won't make him responsible for an accident and injuries. The driver's negligence had to have actually been the direct or proximate cause of the accident, which means that the accident would not have happened if the other driver had been more careful.
If you were involved in a car accident due to someone else's carelessness or negligence, you have the right to be compensated for all your injuries and property damage. This compensation usually comes out of a settlement of your car accident claim with the at-fault party's insurance company, or less often, through a lawsuit.
Protecting this right comes down to three things: documentation, patience and persistence. Settling a car crash claim without resorting to formal litigation can be a challenge, but when armed with the appropriate support for your claim and equal amounts of patience and persistence, you (and your attorney if you have one) can often negotiate a satisfactory resolution to your car accident case.
The aftermath of a car crash can be chaotic. Immediate medical attention, if necessary, should always be your first priority. However, if your injuries are not serious you will be helping your claim immeasurably if you take the time to document as much as you can about the scene and the moments leading up to the accident. Good evidence is key to winning your claim.
Get as much information as possible, including their contact information. Ask them if they would be willing to make written or verbal statements. Get a sense of what they saw happen -- ask questions and solicit information. The more corroborating information you obtain from witnesses, the stronger your claim will be.
Police involvement adds another layer of documentation to your claim. A police report carries a great deal of weight with insurance adjusters and claims attorneys; do not hesitate to call the cops after a car crash. Very often, the party causing the crash will attempt to keep the police out of it. Don’t fall prey to this tactic. If you are injured or your car is damaged, call the police. Unless the other driver is injured, your number one priority should be protecting your rights and setting up your future claim. A police report will provide documentation of the accident scene, and will often include evidence of fault. Don’t skip this step in an attempt to be a “nice guy.”
Use a camera or phone, and make sure you can easily reference the date the photos were taken, so they can be authenticated. If you don’t have a camera or camera phone, ask witnesses if they would be willing to take pictures. Photograph the scene, any damage to your vehicle or the other party’s vehicle, and any obvious injuries you have sustained. If a traffic light, sign or lack thereof contributed to the accident, photograph that as well.
If you are injured in a car crash, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Treatment records, medical bills and doctor’s notes are the absolute best evidence of the injuries you’ve sustained and the financial damage the accident has caused. Whether dealing with your own no-fault insurance carrier or the at-fault driver’s insurer, a complete set of medical records pertaining to the accident will reduce the administrative cost of reviewing your case, will provide difficult-to-refute evidence of your physical condition, and will provide an accurate basis for your settlement demand.
Follow your doctor’s orders explicitly. If you are restricted in what you can do, adhere to the restrictions. Don’t get caught golfing while making a claim for a torn labrum. If your injuries -- and the attendant costs -- are significant, you don’t want to risk blowing your settlement by overexerting yourself. When it comes to insurance claims, perception can play a role in getting paid. If an adjuster or claims attorney thinks you're malingering, he/she won’t hesitate to deny your claim. Don’t give his/her a reason.
After you’ve documented the scene and sought medical attention, start collecting repair estimates for any damage done to your vehicle. To be sure, nearly every insurance adjuster will demand an “independent” inspection of the damage to your vehicle, but if you are armed with two or three estimates of your own, you will be able to make a strong argument for the repairs you need, and the associated costs.
Insurance adjusters and claims attorneys are dealing with hundreds of claims at a time. While your claim is, understandably, your number one priority, it is very rarely theirs. Dealing with insurance professionals requires patience and persistence. The old adage about getting more flies with honey than vinegar applies in car crash claims. If you want to maximize your settlement amount, it is essential you stay on the insurance adjuster or claims attorney’s good side. They hold the purse strings, and ultimately, they decide your fate unless you are ready to bring a lawsuit.
Don’t be afraid to make follow-up calls, or regularly check on your claim. Again, insurance professionals are dealing with hundreds of cases and sometimes yours may unintentionally get put on the back burner. Maintain contact and stay professional, and you may be surprised at your results.
Unfortunately, sometimes persistence and professionalism won’t get you far. If you feel an adjuster is deliberately delaying and/or blocking payment of your claim, do not hesitate to get an attorney involved. Attorney involvement can often knock adjusters out of their pattern of delay, and the money paid to an attorney could be money well spent in the long run, particularly if you are looking at long-term medical care or extensive wage loss.
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