Everyone in Tacoma has experienced the traffic caused by a car accident along Highway 5, but no one is truly prepared to be the poor individual standing on the shoulder next to their smoldering wreck of a vehicle. In an instant, your life can drastically take a turn for the worse. How will you get to work? Who will pay for repairs? What if you were injured in the crash?
The answers to these questions are not necessarily obvious, which is why FindLaw has created this guide to help explain what to do after a car accident in Tacoma.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
After an accident it is imperative for you to remain calm and take a few easy steps that will help safeguard you against any legal action. First, don't flee the scene. You can be prosecuted as a hit-and-run driver and get sent to jail (or worse, anyone was injured). Instead, you should move your car to a safe location, usually the shoulder, and turn the engine off. In the event of a major accident involving injuries or immobilized vehicles, you should call 911 immediately.
Next, you need to share some basic information with everyone involved in the accident. Specifically, you are required by law to provide your name, address, phone number, insurance company, policy number, driver license number and license plate number to the driver of each involved vehicle. However, avoid apologizing or admitting responsibility for the accident. These statements can be used against you in court as an admission of liability should the other drivers try to sue you.
It is a good idea to write a description of each vehicle, including make and model, and jot the exact circumstances of the accident including the location. A picture is worth a thousand words -- do yourself a favor and purchase a disposable camera to store in your glove box today if you don't have a camera built into your phone.
This is a lot of information to remember after a traumatic accident, so why not print out a helpful checklist of car accident first steps (PDF) to store in your glove box just in case?
If the accident caused injury or more than $700 in property damage, you are required by Washington law to file a collision report within four days of the accident. However, if you alerted the authorities to the accident and a police officer generated an accident report, you do not need to file this report. Use the forms under "citizen's report" to create the report, and file it with the Washington State Patrol.
To request a copy of any accident reports involving yourself that have been filed, mail a letter containing your name, date of birth, and collision date to:
Accident Processing Unit
Department of Licensing
P.O. Box 9030
Olympia, Washington 98507-9030
At-Fault Auto Insurance
Like most states, Washington follows a "fault" system for determining liability after a car accident. The person who was legally at fault for causing the accident (and their insurance) must compensate anyone who was injured or whose property was damaged.
Every driver in Washington must have policy limits of at least:
- $25,000 of injury to one person in any single accident;
- $50,000 of injury to any two people in any single accident;
- $10,000 of injury to or destruction of property of others in any single accident.
Any damages beyond the insurance coverage must be recovered from the at-fault driver personally.
Filing a Lawsuit
The statute of limitations places a time limit on a plaintiff's ability to pursue a lawsuit. Once this statutory period expires, the injured person loses the right to seek compensation by lawsuit permanently. In Washington, the statute of limitations to file a car accident or personal injury claim is three years. However, there is an exception in product liability cases, where the statute of limitations is three years from the date the injury was (or reasonably should have been) discovered.
Filing a lawsuit starts by a writing a brief complaint that describes the incident, the individuals involved and requests monetary compensation. Lawsuits vary widely as to how complicated and time-consuming they may be. A personal injury attorney specializing in car accident cases may be able to advise you on next steps and they often give initial consultations for free. For do-it-yourselfers, you can try copying sample pleadings you can find for free on the internet, or by using a form you will find at your local courthouse.
You should file the complaint at the City-County Building located at 930 Tacoma Ave. If your claim is worth less than $5,000, you should consider filing it with the small claims division of the District Court, located in the same building.
Types of Lawsuits
The most common lawsuit following an auto accident is negligence. Negligence governs accidentally caused injuries. You must show that the other party was not exercising a reasonable level of care under the circumstances.
The comparative negligence doctrine governs situations where both parties are partly at-fault. Under Washington's contributory fault law, each party is assigned "fault," and the plaintiff's recovery is reduced in proportion to his or her responsibility. For example, if your vehicle requires $1,000 to repair as a result of the accident which was found to be 10% your fault, you will be able to recover 90%, or $900. Significantly, Washington is one of the few states that follow a "pure" comparative fault doctrine, which means that even if you were 99% at-fault, you may still recover 1% of your damages.
For serious accidents involving a fatality, the deceased individual's family members may be able to sue for wrongful death. This type of lawsuit aims to recover lost wages, lost companionship, and funeral expenses.
Alternatively, you could try suing the vehicle manufacturer themselves in a products liability lawsuit. To succeed, you must point out a design or manufacturing defect that caused the accident. Proving a defect usually requires the analysis of an automotive expert, and the case can get quite technical.
Accident law is complicated, so consider scheduling a free consultation with an experienced attorney. Plaintiff side attorneys typically work on a contingency basis, where their fee is a certain percent of your winnings. Yes, this means that if you lose your case, you don't have to pay.
Learn What to Do After a Car Accident in Tacoma: Speak with a Lawyer
Hopefully this helped you better understand what to do after a car accident in Tacoma, but every situation is different and professional assistance never hurts. Contact a local car accident attorney who can help ensure that you aren't pushed around by insurance companies and who can protect your claims and help you pursue compensation for your damages.