Briefly Legal: What to do if you’ve had a car accident

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29 is motor vehicle collision. The CDC predicts that motor vehicle collisions will become the third largest threat to global health by 2020. In Connecticut, car accidents are a growing scourge: Connecticut had the greatest increase in traffic fatalities of all states in the country in 2010; from 2009 to 2010, Connecticut saw a 42% increase in motor vehicle fatalities; in 2010, 319 people died in Connecticut due to a crash.

While our state is making efforts to keep our motorists safe by increased speed enforcement on our highways, general road repairs, and educational programs such as the Department of Transportation’s “Take the Pledge,” which encourages students to pledge not to text and drive, chances are you may be involved in a collision at some point.

If you have had a car accident, there are critical steps to take.

Check for injuries. If an occupant in your car, or in another car involved in the crash, has been hurt, make sure someone calls the appropriate authorities to get help.

If you are injured, you must seek appropriate medical attention right away. If your accident results in a lawsuit or insurance claim, it is important to offer proof of injury to decision makers. Most juries and insurance adjusters believe that if you do not seek treatment, you are not really hurt.

In many cases, people develop pain a day or two after an accident. Seek medical care as soon as possible. It is not too late for a medical issue to become part of a case, even if the symptoms do not develop immediately.

Document the event. Exchange insurance and contact information with the other drivers involved. Call the police so they can prepare an official accident report.

With nearly everyone carrying cell phones, it is usually possible to photograph the incident, zooming in on location and damages to vehicles. If there are witnesses to the accident, get their names and contact information while asking them to wait for police to arrive to give a statement. In serious accidents, accident reconstruction experts may need to examine the entire vehicle and accident scene and conduct interviews. It is therefore important to obtain legal representation as soon as possible after a serious accident so that the evidence can be preserved before vehicles are salvaged and transferred.

Contact your insurance company. Call your agent or the company hotline to inform them you have been in an accident, even if you think you may be at fault. This way the company can properly document it and provide you with the appropriate coverage that you bought under your insurance policy.

If the other party’s insurance company contacts you, refer them directly to your insurance agent or to your attorney.

A note about insurance: The reality today is that many people still do not have health insurance. If you do not, you should call your insurance agent and find out what medical coverage may exist within your automobile insurance policy.

There are two types of coverage you should look into. One is Medical Payments Coverage, which protects you up to a certain amount if you are injured in an accident.

The second type is critical in case you are hurt by someone else’s negligence, and they do not have sufficient liability insurance within their auto policy. Typically, people assume that if they are in a collision and it is someone else’s fault, there will be sufficient insurance to compensate them for all their harms and losses. That often is not the case: some 12% of Connecticut’s licensed drivers are illegally uninsured and a much greater percentage are underinsured. Even if there is clear negligence, if the other party does not have insurance or does not have enough insurance from which you can seek to recover for injuries, there may be no money for your claim.

Therefore, it is imperative to raise the limits of what is called Uninsured, or Underinsured, Motorist Protection. Buy as much coverage under the Underinsured Motorist Provision as you can afford, or that is allowed in your policy. It may be considerably less expensive than you expect.

This insurance can also protect insured consumers from the risk of suffering losses caused by a hit and run driver, a driver who negligently forces them off the road or into another vehicle and leaves the scene, or from injuries suffered from equipment or cargo ejected from another vehicle.

Beware of an admission of guilt. Admissions of culpability, such as saying “I’m sorry” at the scene or apologizing for not paying attention, certainly do not help your case and in fact can be used against you. Even if you think you are responsible for the accident, you can be helpful by acting (to obtain help) rather than talking.

Bringing a claim. In general, victims of accidents occurring in Connecticut due to negligent conduct have two years to bring a claim. If the conduct involved is intentional, victims have three years. Determining the appropriate limitations period depends on the application of facts to law and usually needs to be analyzed by a lawyer.

If a highway defect is the cause of the accident or if a government entity (city, town or state) is involved, other notices may have to be filed within a very short period of time, and you should consult an attorney as soon as possible.

There are steps to follow after you’ve had a car accident. But, as is always the case, the best medicine is prevention. Don’t drive distracted or impaired.  Wear a seat belt. Don’t text and drive. Pay close attention to the weather and road conditions. Be a courteous and defensive driver, and put safety before all else.

Attorney Nicole Barber lives in Wilton and is an associate in the Litigation Department of Goldman Gruder & Woods LLC. She handles commercial litigation, bankruptcy matters and personal injury cases. The law firm has offices in Norwalk, Trumbull and Greenwich.