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Traffic Accident Liability: FAQs

What's Below:

What should I do after a traffic accident?
How is liability for the accident determined?
Is traffic accident liability ever automatic?
Do I have to report a traffic accident to my insurance company?

What should I do after a traffic accident?

  • Call the police. At the site of the accident, a police officer will make a police report, assess whether any drivers were intoxicated, and direct traffic around the accident. It's a good idea to have the police come to the scene since a police report can be used in a lawsuit or in an insurance claim investigation. Reports typically contain information about the date, time, and location of the accident, the names of the parties involved and the witnesses, the damages, the details of the accident, and a diagram of the accident scene.
  • Exchange information. The drivers involved in the traffic accident should exchange names, addresses, phone numbers, and insurance information.
  • Get the names of witnesses. Witnesses can help establish the details surrounding the accident, which can help determine liability.
  • Take photographs. Photos of the accident scene and the vehicles provides documentation that can help establish an insurance claim or liability in a lawsuit.
  • Do not talk about the accident. While you may be tempted to discuss the accident with the other driver or with witnesses, it is important to refrain from talking about it. Avoid making any admission of liability since your words could be used to establish fault in a lawsuit or in negotiations with an insurance company.
  • Take notes. Because memory fades over time, it's important to take notes after a traffic accident. Having an accurate account of the accident will help a lawyer create a legal claim against the driver at fault. Taking notes is an important way to supplement your memory about the details of the accident. These notes should document important facts, such as the time and date, the people involved, the names of witnesses, the weather and road conditions, what witnesses said about the accident, and what happened immediately before the accident.
  • Report the accident to the Department of Motor Vehicles. If required by state law, it may be necessary to file a report about the traffic accident with a state's department of motor vehicles. In general, this is only required if property damage or physical injury resulted from the accident. An insurance company may have access to this report, so it should detail all the injuries sustained – not just the most serious - and provide general information about the accident. Do not admit responsibility for the accident in the report. If the report requires you to describe what happened, give only a very brief description of the events.
  • Report the accident to your insurance provider. An insurance company will conduct its own investigation into the traffic accident. In order to generate an accurate assessment of the claim, it will make a detailed report about the damages to the vehicles, the losses, and will obtain statements from the drivers and witnesses.
  • Call an attorney. If serious physical injury or property damage occurs, an attorney can determine whether the other driver involved in the traffic accident bears any liability.
  • Keep documentation of your injuries. It is important to keep a record of medical bills, lost earnings, pain and suffering, emotional distress, noneconomic losses, and out-of-pocket expenses for products and services used to care for a person's injuries. An accurate record of the damages will help determine the compensation a person can receive from a lawsuit or an insurance claim.

How is liability for the accident determined?

The person that was careless is the person responsible for causing the accident. Oftentimes, this assessment can be made by determining whether a driver violated a traffic law. Every state has traffic rules that guide how drivers must behave on the road. Consequently, a violation of a traffic law, such as a speed limit or a u-turn law, may determine the responsible party.

Is traffic accident liability ever automatic?

In some cases, the type of accident establishes fault automatically. In a rear-end collision, for instance, the driver that rear-ends another car is usually always at fault. This is because every driver should be able to stop safely when the vehicle in front stops. The failure to do so indicates that the driver was driving unsafely by following too closely. In some circumstances, there are exceptions. For example, if a car hits the car behind you and that car then crashes into the back of your car, liability for the accident rests with the driver of the first vehicle.

In left turn accidents, fault is also established automatically. Since the law requires the driver making the left turn to yield to oncoming vehicles and to only turn when it is safe, it is often the fault of the driver making the turn. An exception to this rule applies if:

  • The other driver was speeding;
  • The other driver went through a red light; or
  • An unexpected event occurred during the vehicle's attempt to make a left turn when it was safe and the event caused the car to slow down or stop turning.

Do I have to report a traffic accident to my insurance company?

A person is not required to report an accident to their insurance company. When damages are minor, some drivers prefer to handle the situation without involving their insurers. If one driver changes their mind and later makes a report to his or her insurance company, however, it may be difficult for an insurance company to assess liability through the evidence if you haven't filed a report.

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