If you are in an accident involving injuries or property damage, there are basic guidelines you should follow. These steps will help you avoid hassles with claims adjusters, and assist you in obtaining fair compensation for your injuries and damages.
1. If you are injured, obtain medical treatment. Go to the nearest hospital emergency room or to your personal physician. An injury, if untreated, may become substantially worse. If you fail to seek treatment, or delay in obtaining medical attention, an insurance adjuster may suspect that you are not genuinely injured and discount your claim.
2. Assist the injured. If someone is seriously injured, call 911 or the police and tell them an ambulance is needed. Make the injured person as comfortable as possible, but do not move him or her unless it’s absolutely necessary to avoid further injury.
3. Insist on a police investigation and report. In many cases, there are no witnesses and you and the other driver may have conflicting versions of how the accident happened. If you do not request a police investigation, you may seriously damage your chances of obtaining full compensation, or may be blamed for an accident that is not your fault. Police are not required, however, to do a report when there are no injuries and none of the vehicles involved has more than $500 of property damage. They are also not required to prepare a report if the collision occurs on private property such as in a parking lot.
4. Do not move your vehicle while waiting for police to arrive. Unless your vehicle poses an immediate hazard to other traffic, it is important that you leave it in the same position that it came to rest after the accident. Ask the other driver not to move his or her vehicle until the police arrive. The single most important piece of evidence that the police officer has for determining fault is the position of the vehicles after the accident.
5. If you are injured, tell the police officer. The first record of your injuries will be contained in the investigating officer’s report. If you fail to mention to the police officer that you were injured, it may create suspicion in the mind of the insurance adjuster (who will ultimately evaluate your claim) that you were not hurt. Ordinarily, the officer will ask if you are injured. However, if the officer does not ask if you are injured, or assumes that you are all right, let the officer know immediately of any injuries.
6. Obtain names and telephone numbers of eyewitnesses. Often, by the time a police officer arrives at the scene, witnesses to a collision are gone. Therefore, it is very important for you to identify any witnesses and write down their names, addresses, and telephone numbers.
7. File your accident report when required by law. You are not required to file an accident report when the collision is investigated by a law enforcement officer who files a report. You may, however, file your own report if you wish or if you disagree with details reported by an officer. Your report, which is filed with the Washington State Patrol in Olympia, must be sent within four days of the accident.
8. If you have a serious injury, do not try to settle your own claim. If you have suffered a serious injury requiring follow-up medical attention, you should consider hiring an attorney to represent you. An experienced personal injury attorney will generally make sure that you receive the compensation that is due you, usually more than you will be offered in settlement by an insurance adjuster, even after attorney’s fees are paid.
If you choose to accept a settlement for your injury without seeking legal representation, you may receive a settlement that does not fairly compensate you for permanent injuries and damages. Once a claim is settled, it can never be reopened. The best rule is not to sign a release for at least six months following an injury. If you’re uncertain about whether to settle, talk to an attorney who handles personal injury cases.
Most attorneys handle injury cases on a contingent fee basis, meaning there is no charge unless they recover compensation for you. You are responsible for out-of-pocket expenses, called costs, advanced by your attorney. There is usually no charge to review your claim with an attorney.
9. Report your loss to your insurance company, but do not give a statement to the other driver’s insurance adjuster. The odds are that a claims adjuster for the other driver will be assigned to your claim before you have been able to retain an attorney. This may occur within one or two days of the accident. The adjuster will request permission to take a recorded or written statement.
If you are considering hiring an attorney, you should not give a statement to an insurance adjuster for the other driver. Statements made can seriously prejudice your case without your knowledge. Instead, tell the adjuster that you have decided to hire an attorney, and instruct him or her to refer all further questions to your attorney.
10. Your time for making a claim is limited by law. For every injury or death claim, there is a period of time during which you must file your claim with the court or the claim cannot be brought. This is called a “Statute of Limitation.”
In Washington, the period for bringing an injury or death claim is usually three years from the date of the accident, but there are some exceptions. The period for bringing a claim for injury to a child does not begin to run until the child’s 18th birthday. A claim arising out of the death of a child, however, is usually limited to three years. For accidents which occur in other states, the period may be as short as one year from the accident.
Although you may have longer to actually file your claim with the court, generally, the sooner you can consult with a personal-injury attorney following an accident, the more that attorney can do to help you on your claim.