My law office is dedicated to helping injured people obtain fair compensation for personal injuries, including car accidents. Over the years, I have successfully tried or settled hundreds of cases for people who are the victims of negligent drivers and their sometimes vicious insurance companies. While this can be a lengthy and confusing process, there are certain steps you should always follow to protect your rights.
The very first thing you need to do when in a car accident is obtain immediate medical care, even if you feel that you may not be injured. Insurance companies like to use the fact that people did not go immediately to an emergency room to imply that the victim was not hurt seriously. However, there are a number of injuries that may take time to appear serious enough to require medical care. Neck and back injuries, for example, can take time before they hurt bad enough to go to the doctor, and a traumatic brain injury may take months to diagnose.
The next thing you should do when in a car accident is collect and preserve evidence immediately, as this can help a jury evaluate the severity of the crash. Photographs or video of the cars, accident scene and weather are very important. The insurance company will usually go out within hours of an accident to photograph the scene and the cars involved, but these photos may be lost if they do not support the insurance company’s theory of how the crash occurred. If the cause of the crash was a defective tire, seat belt or some other mechanical device, it is vitally important to get this evidence preserved. Usually the insurance company for the at-fault driver will try to purchase your car before you even get out of the hospital and then sell it to a junkyard. By the time you get around to looking for the car, it has been destroyed. If you have been injured in a car accident it is especially critical to get good photographs of the accident scene. This evidence could prove invaluable if the case goes to trial.
In every car accident case there is an investigating law enforcement officer who will usually get the names and phone numbers of witnesses. It is important to talk to these people right away as the insurance company for the other driver will commonly call these people and take statements shortly after the crash. Insurance investigators are trained to lead people into saying things that help their side of the case. For example, whether the light was green or red when your car entered an intersection may have a huge effect on liability, but witnesses may not remember what color the light was. A skilled investigator can elicit testimony that the light was yellow, even if they did not see the light before hearing the impact. Also, a statement by a witness taken shortly after an incident is usually more credible than one taken a year or two later. People will frequently forget important details of an accident and it is important that you document what people remember before they forget.
Another source of witnesses would be where the at-fault driver was cited by the police officer that investigated the auto accident crash. For example, if the at-fault driver was cited for drunk driving, you would want to identify all of the police officers involved, including the officer that administered the alcohol testing. If a blood or urine test was given, the state chemist who tested the blood sample may also be a witness you would want to interview. The court records showing any statements the at-fault driver made to police may also be important. Finally, if the at-fault driver pleads guilty in court, this may be an admission you could use in a civil case to show he was at fault for the crash. You will also want to take a look at his driving history. If this was his third DUI, the likelihood that a jury would be angry with him may increase the value of your case.
In many car accident situations you will need to see a doctor for your injuries. The treating physicians and health care providers will also likely be witnesses. If your doctor tells you to go to physical therapy, make sure you follow his advice exactly. There are a number of studies that show physical therapy can improve your chances for a full recovery, but more importantly, if you don’t follow your doctor’s advice, the insurance company will use it against you. If physical therapy is not working, make sure you tell your doctor right away. Physical therapy does not work all the time and can hurt some types of injuries, but it is very important to contact your doctor before stopping any prescribed treatment. You will also want to keep a detailed record of every medical bill, lost days of work and any other general trouble this car accident has caused you and your family. However, you need to understand the proper way to make a diary, otherwise it could become evidence against you. A lawyer can help you create a diary that will assist in your lawsuit and it can remain confidential if you and your attorney decide that it should be confidential.
The insurance adjuster for the at-fault party will usually call you for a telephone statement shortly after the crash. DO NOT make any statements to them without a lawyer present. We have encountered adjusters taking statements from people who are in the hospital under the influence of strong pain medications and are not in any shape to talk about what happened. Sometimes the adjusters will merely say the wreck was your fault hoping that you will not go to a lawyer to find out if that is actually true. The insurance company keeps defense lawyers on retainers. They are always consulted quickly after a crash, and the insurance company has the money to hire very good lawyers. This is a good reason to hire a lawyer with experience in these types of cases.
Wyoming has several statutes of limitations that may apply to your case. A statute of limitations is a time limit that is placed on filing a suit. If the statute of limitations runs out, you may be precluded from filing a suit. The statutes differ based upon the facts of each case, so you should contact a lawyer immediately after any kind of injury to make sure you get the case filed within the applicable statute time limitations.
Wyoming law only requires $25,000 in insurance coverage for liability, but you can spend that much money in the emergency room alone. Check with your insurance company to determine if you have sufficient coverage; if the at-fault driver has no insurance or minimal insurance, you may be stuck using your own insurance to pay for your medical bills and lost wages. This type of coverage is called Under and Uninsured Coverage. When you pay your insurance bill each year, your company will send you a “declaration page,” which details the different types and limits of your insurance coverage. Call a lawyer and have him review your policy before something bad happens to make sure you have enough insurance. If you have been in a car accident, take the declaration page with you to the lawyer’s office. You must notify your insurance company quickly after an injury to preserve your rights to make a claim under this provision in your policy.
Your own insurance policy will usually include medical payments coverage, although the limits of this coverage vary widely. Some are as much as $50,000 and some are as low as $1,000. This money is available to pay your medical bills up to the limit of coverage. If your medical bills are $25,000 but you only have $5,000 in coverage, your insurance company will only pay the $5,000. This is also something you should discuss with a lawyer before you are injured in a wreck.
If you have already been injured, this may be all that is available until you settle the case with the at-fault driver. The at-fault driver usually likes to take their time to settle with you because they know you have doctors, hospitals and bill collectors after you — and when you are in a vulnerable position, you are more likely to settle just to get some money. A lawyer can help you avoid this problem, but it is important to act quickly!
Insurance claims take time, and sometimes the extent of your injuries can take time to evaluate. Usually, the at-fault driver’s insurance company will want to take your statement, look at all your medical and employment records and get the facts of the collision before it will place a value on your case. Their representative won’t tell you what that is, but rarely do they offer you what they really think the case is worth on the first offer. Sometimes the insurance company decides your case is worth trying because you may have some fault on your side. Other times insurance companies will try to minimize your damages. They may hire their own physicians to perform a medical exam and write a report. These reports frequently focus on any preexisting injury that appears in your medical history. Sometimes it is necessary for you to hire a variety of different kinds of expert witnesses to fairly estimate your damages. You may need a vocational rehabilitation expert and an economist to evaluate your future economic loss. These experts can be very expensive, but they can add great value to your case. The decision about experts can come very early in the case, and you should only make this decision after consulting with your lawyer.