One oft-repeated phrase is, "it's better read about than experienced for yourself." Few maxims can better encapsulate what it's like to be a victim of a car collision.
Like any paradigm shift in someone's life, it's often dramatic and sudden. The screeching of wheels, the scream of the unexpected, or the shot of unfamiliar adrenaline.
All such tragic events mark the beginning of a typical personal injury case. For simplicity's sake, we will discuss a common car accident. This piece explores how a victim of circumstance can take control of their situation, and turn their misfortune into an opportunity to better their case and their chances of reasonable compensation.
After the initial shock and twisted metal, victims at the scene may be dazed and confused. Regardless of where you are on the road, examine yourself and passengers for injuries. If there are no visible injuries, do the obvious thing and move your vehicle to a safe location if you are blocking the road.
If anyone is injured, get medical help as soon as possible. Truth be told, calling 911 has the added benefit of documenting the incident for later insurance evaluation purposes. This is because the documentation generated from the call tends to indicate a propensity of a person being truly injured. While it may come across as callused, car accident cases - and other cases involving personal injury - are all about documentation.
Insurance claims representatives will even go so far as to reduce the value of a claim on not going to the emergency room, even if there are later objective findings indicating that an injury occurred. Injuries, such as cervical strain and sprain, tend to appear more than one to two days later after the "shot of adrenaline" wears off. However, it's the documentation early on that is important.
Interaction With Law Enforcement
If police were summoned by a party contacting 911, documentation will again be generated. It is common that police, in addition to checking for injuries, may cite the at-fault driver for either a crime or a traffic infraction.
Keep in mind that a criminal case is the government (or, in Virginia, the "Commonwealth") versus the defendant. A criminal case is about seeking justice. On the other hand, a personal injury case is about "being made whole again." Until a magic wand is invented, that means the "bad guy" paying some form of compensation.
Before law enforcement makes a general "first look" at liability, they will gather evidence - including statements from other drivers and witnesses, as well as obtaining contact information. This information is crucial for a Virginia auto injury or car accident attorney to later help prepare a case.
Keep in mind that the initial police investigation is entirely separate from the civil process, which may, in turn, rely on documentation generated as a result of the crash investigation. Even should an officer believe that a person is at-fault in a collision, the other driver's insurance company may come to an independent conclusion.
One final point is that calling for help may be legally required in some circumstances. In Virginia, assume that it is required if there is someone that is injured or visible property damage to the vehicles.
Document The Facts For Later
Feel free to be your own detective if you have not yet met with a personal injury lawyer.
Ask for the other driver's name, address, telephone number, and insurance information. If there are other witnesses to the collision, ask for the same. Take pictures with your cell phone of the accident scene and the driver's license, if provided.
It is perfectly normal and expected for you to provide your insurance information to the other driver, even if they were at-fault. We highly recommend to clients not to make statements to the other driver's insurance company. They're frequently very motivated to assign blame to someone other than their own insured.
Don't be limited in pictures of property damage of the vehicles. If it's safe and prudent to do so, take copious amounts of pictures of you and your passenger's injuries. This includes bruising that may later develop.
By being your own detective, the insurance company for the other driver may not be so quick to turn a blind eye to the blame of their insured. Documenting (if safe and not obstructive) while still at the scene to show the location of the impact, road conditions, and the condition of the vehicles may be critical bits of evidence later that a personal injury attorney can later utilize.
A good law firm will use this evidence to help develop your case into the best it can be under the facts. If you don't have any of this evidence don't worry. In most cases a client doesn't provide this information during initial intake. That said, the more information provided the better.
Seek Medical Treatment
In line with the need to call 911, if necessary, is the simple fact that you need to seek medical treatment if you are hurt in the collision or later develop conditions that didn't exist the day of the accident.
It is critical that you go to every appointment scheduled with a health provider and do everything that they tell you to do. Top in the playbook of every insurance company is to highlight any and all delays or gaps in treatment and try to use that information to diminish the value of your claim.
This is even true if you don't have health insurance at the time of the collision. It is highly important that if you don't have health insurance that you waste no time in getting it. In addition to being legally required at the time of this writing, health insurance may cover tens of thousands (if not millions) of dollars in treatments.
Even if you have the most amazing case, not having health insurance means that the proceeds of any later settlement or trial goes to pay the providers when it could have gone to your pain and suffering that you had to endure as a result of the injuries.
As a slight caveat, under some circumstances the insurance company for the other driver may reduce any settlement offer by the amount paid by insurance. However, this depends on the state and an entirely different analysis. You'll need to consult with a car accident lawyer in your state to determine if this applies.
Avoid Waiting Until The Last Minute To Seek Necessary Medical Treatment Or Blowing Off Your Appointments If They Are Recommended By A Treating Healthcare Professional
Whether it's the day after the accident and you were discharged from the Emergency Room or it's month three of physical therapy or chiropractic care, you need to keep your appointments. We cannot stress this enough.
Car insurance companies for the other driver will even go so far as to unjustly say that you're faking your injuries. They may resort to this accusation if you stop going to your appointments or blow off treatment all-together before it has run it's course. Frequently, soft tissue injuries can "flare up" if maintenance treatments do not continue until their natural conclusion.
Once upon a time, it was a socially-acceptable attribute for people to be "tough" and "suck it up" despite pain. That doesn't appear to be a common thread in today's negotiations with insurance companies, especially when it comes to auto-injury cases. If you feel a certain way, pursue treatment. We recommend to clients to keep a daily pain and inconvenience journal, so we can see how they are progressing in their treatment.
Lawsuit Time: "Let's Get It On!"
While this article was limited to what a victim of car accident can do to improve their case prior to their first legal consultation, I would be remiss if I did not include one final bit of information: choose an attorney that isn't afraid of going to trial. If you don't get the settlement offer that you are looking for (and is reasonable given prior settlements or verdicts), a knowledgeable Virginia car accident attorney would have no qualms about filing a lawsuit and making a request for appropriate damages to the judge or jury.
If, after negotiation with the insurance company and discussion with my client, we don't get a settlement offer that is reasonable, then it may be time to file a lawsuit.
Occasionally, it may be advisable to cut the claims representatives out all together and file the lawsuit against the person that hurt you.
If the other driver's insurance company doesn't place the right value on your case, a jury of your peers may see that you internalized your pain, choosing not to be a burden on your family and friends, and assess damages a more reasonable way.