Below is a guide to the personal injury claim process, written from the perspective of a car accident victim. While car accidents are the most common injury-causing incidents, this information also applies to slip and falls, toxic exposures, and product defects. This article provides guidance and tips on how to handle an injury incident, protecting yourself, and initiating a claim if you are ever injured. However, this is not legal advice, and you should always contact a lawyer to discuss your specific case. Consultations are free.
When an incident occurs, your first priority is to get to a safe place. If you are in the middle of a busy road, move your car to the shoulder if possible. If this is not possible, turn on your emergency flashers and carefully walk to a safe place on the side of the road. Next, make sure that you receive proper medical attention for your injuries. If there is a possibility that you were seriously injured (loss of consciousness, serious neck pain, large wound, broken bone) immediately call 911. If your injuries are less serious, you should still call the police on an non-emergency number so they can respond and conduct an investigation.
While you are waiting for help to arrive, take pictures and video of the scene of the incident including damage to the vehicles involved, license plate numbers, your injuries, and of the people involved. For any people involved in the incident, ask to take pictures of their driver’s license and insurance cards. For any witnesses, you should ask for contact information including name, address, phone number, and email.
While at the scene, gather information but do your best to avoid confrontation. Keep quiet and instead listen to what the people involved and the witnesses say. If people are talking about how the incident happened, put your phone in your hand and have it record peoples’ statements. Do not admit fault. Instead, explain that you are very shaken up and need some time to calm down and collect your thoughts.
When the police arrive, give them your driver’s license and insurance information, and provide a full and complete statement about the incident and your injuries. Again, do not admit fault. If another party admitted fault or acknowledged that they violated a law, let the office know this and ask that it be included in the report. Finally, ask for the investigating officer’s contact information so you can obtain a copy of the report.
Filing a Claim
If you believe that someone else is at fault for the incident, contact a lawyer right away. If they take your case, they will file your claim on your behalf with the insurance company. Attorneys know how to interact with insurance adjusters and are able to present your claim in the best possible way to increase the reserves set by the insurer.
If you choose to handle the claim yourself, you should contact the responsible party's insurer to report the incident. You don’t need much information to get the claims process started. Just let them know what happened, who was involved, and provide a brief summary of the injuries you sustained. The insurer will ask to take a recorded statement from you. This statement will be used against you later in the case, so be very careful what you tell them. There are many pitfalls along the way, so we strongly advise that you retain an attorney to navigate the process.
Uninsured / Underinsured Motorist Coverage
If the person responsible for the incident flees the scene (hit and run), does not have insurance, or has minimal coverage, you may still be able to recover if your auto insurance policy has uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. UM/UIM coverage is optional and allows you to cover yourself in the event that the responsible party cannot be located or does not have sufficient insurance coverage. We advise our clients, friends, and family members to carry high limit UM/UIM coverage to ensure that they have some recovery source if they are seriously injured. It is often very affordable and can be a lifesaver.
Immediately after an incident, check your insurance coverage to see if you have UM/UIM coverage. If so, you should contact your own insurer within 24 hours to report the incident. Failure to immediately report a claim to your insurer may prevent you from recovering any money.
If the responding police/firefighters/EMTs recommend transport to the hospital by ambulance, agree. Refusal of emergency transport is often used against claimants as evidence that they were not injured or that their injuries were minor.
When you are at the emergency department or clinic, provide details about the incident (speed of the vehicles, did the airbag deploy, how your body moved in the crash) along with complete details about your injuries. If you suspect that you lost consciousness, even for just a few seconds, tell them this. If you have a headache, memory loss, mental fogginess, or blurry vision, make sure they this is noted in your records.
After treatment at the emergency department, you will be given instructions for follow-up. It is critical that you obey these instructions within the next week and schedule follow-up doctor appointments. Make sure to obtain any x-rays or MRIs requested by the doctor. If you sustained broken bones or other orthopedic injuries, you will likely need a series of physical therapy. Physical therapy is often multiple times a week, which can get in the way of work and family, but is very important for your recovery. You should also take off time from work so you can fully recover.
Keep a calendar of all your medical treatments showing the date of each visit, the doctor/facility, and the total time you had to spend on the visit. While many medical visits only take 30 minutes, you will still need to take off many hours to drive to/from the facility, fill out paperwork, and wait for the doctor. This time may be compensable, so make sure to keep detailed records. Similarly, you should keep all bills and receipts for your treatment in a folder in a safe place.
Hiring an Attorney
As discussed above, it is wise to immediately look into hiring an attorney after a crash. The claims process is complex and there are dozens of ways to make serious mistakes that jeopardize your claim. Personal injury attorneys usually offer free consultations - we do - and generally work on a continency basis, which means that they only get paid if you recovery money through a settlement or through a judgment after trial. You should be aware that attorney’s fees are paid out of your recovery, not by the other side.
While attorney’s fees are not fixed by law, the prevailing rate is 33% of the money recovered. Many attorneys increase this fee to 40% or more if a lawsuit is filed and the matter proceeds to trial. While these percentages seem steep, you should consider the benefit that your attorney is bringing to your claim. Personal injury attorneys use their skill and experience to place a value on your claim that is often much higher than you expect. Your attorney will also be able to avoid the fatal mistakes that self-represented claimants often make when trying to handle their own claims. Finally, your attorney is responsible for the work necessary to move your case forwards, which frees up time for you to spend on your recovery and with your family.
This is not legal advice. You should always contact a lawyer to discuss your specific case. Consultations are free.