WHAT TO DO IMMEDIATELY AFTER AN ACCIDENT:
WHILE STILL AT THE SCENE
I am not a physician. As such, I am not qualified to tell you what to do after an accident with regard to injuries. However, if you are able to, and you have a mobile telephone, you should call 911 and ask for police assistance and, if needed, emergency medical personnel. Do not take any chances. If you have any question that someone may be injured, including yourself, request an ambulance.
From a strategic standpoint, if there is any indication that you might be injured, you should agree to be transported to the hospital by ambulance. There have been many occasions where my clients refused transport by ambulance because they were in shock or the pain had not fully set in yet at the time of the accident, even though it turned out that they had severe injuries. Later, during negotiations or at trial, the defendant’s lawyer will inevitably claim that the plaintiff’s injuries could not have been bad or that some event after the accident must have actually caused the injuries, otherwise the plaintiff would have accepted transport to the hospital by ambulance. Make no mistake, if you decline the ambulance, it WILL be used against you later, even if it is not fair for them to do so.
With regard to the legal, rather than medical, issues immediately following an accident, it is usually preferable not to move the vehicles unless they pose a potential danger to other motorists because the placement of the vehicles after the accident might be crucial to determining who was at fault. In any event, when you call 911 explain the situation and ask whether you should move the cars. Also, it is a good idea to contact your local and state police and find out in advance what the regulations are regarding moving vehicles from travel lanes following an accident.
I recommend that everyone carry a camera in the glove box of their car. If you are not too injured and are physically able, once the situation is stabilized and if the area is safe, and preferably before the cars are moved, take photographs from many angles showing the vehicles in relationship to each other, to the road, and to other landmarks. Also, photograph any skidmarks in relationship to the vehicles. In addition, make sure that you take close-up photos of the visible damage to your vehicle and the other vehicles involved.
Another thing that you will want to do if you are able is gather information. Even though the police officer will probably get most of the information that you will need and list it on the police accident report, there is certain information that you should get yourself in case the officer does not. First, obviously you will want the name and insurance information of the other drivers involved in the accident. It is also a good idea to write down their license plate numbers. In addition, get the names and contact information of any witnesses to the accident, as well as a summary of what they say they saw. Also, give the names of witnesses to the police so that they can get statements from them.
At some point, at the scene of the accident if conditions allow, or later if injuries so require, the police officer will want to take your statement. When you tell the police officer what happened, tell the truth, but do not make assumptions and do not, under any circumstances, say that you were at fault (do not say this to anyone else either, including witnesses or other drivers and passengers involved in the accident). Even if you think you were at fault, the evidence might later show that you were not, and then you are stuck with the statement potentially being used against you later. Again, tell the officer what you saw and what you remember, and do not lie, but also keep your statements limited to the facts. Anything you say could end up in writing. One other tip in this regard is that if the other driver said anything to you that was incriminating, such as telling you that they were sorry and it was all their fault, tell the police officer what they told you - it just might end up written in the accident report.
If you did not accept treatment by paramedics, the officer will likely ask you, for purposes of the report, whether you are hurt. DO NOT TAKE THIS QUESTION LIGHTLY. If you have ANY pain or ANY symptoms of injuries, tell the officer about them. There is nothing worse than developing pain the day afer the accident, finding out that you have a serious injury, and realizing that the police report indicates that you said you had “no pain” at the scene of the accident. The adjuster and defendant’s lawyer will use this against you. So report any pain to the officer, and if you do not feel any pain, perhaps you should say you do not know yet because you feel shaken up. I am not suggesting that you lie or exaggerate your symptoms. However, I have had many clients who did not have any pain immediately after the accident, but developed it within a few hours to a couple of days after. So be mindful of what you say, realizing that any or all of it might end up in the accident report and will be used against you if possible.
In addition, where the accident appears to be the fault of the other driver or drivers, ask the police officer, respectfully of course, whether he or she plans to issue a ticket to the other driver or drivers. The reason for this is that when the other driver is cited by the police with regard to the accident, that can give you at least a little bit of leverage in later negotiations. Further, some police officers do not issue citations when they see the accident as just a typical motor vehicle accident. Asking them whether they plan to issue a citation sometimes encourages them to do so when they otherwise might not have. Do not argue with the officer about it, just ask politely.
AT THE EMERGENCY ROOM
I cannot stress enough that anything you say to police, doctors, nurses, investigators, insurance adjusters and the like, could end up in written form and every word will be scrutinized by the insurance adjuster and defendant’s attorney and used against you if possible. Therefore, not only must you be careful what you say to the police officer, you must also be careful what you say at the emergency room. Anything that you say in the presence of a nurse or doctor, even if you are saying it to a family member, could potentially end up written in your medical records. Obviously, you need to be honest and tell the doctors and nurses what happened to your body in the accident so that they can properly treat you. They may very well need to know the speeds that vehicles were traveling, what part of the car hit what and where, how your body was thrown about in the accident, whether any part of your body hit anything, and so on. However, there is absolutely no reason why you should be discussing who was at fault for the accident to or in the presence of the doctor, nurse or other medical personnel. Also, do not under any circumstances say in the presence of a doctor, nurse or other medical personnel that you plan to bring a lawsuit against another driver. If your medical records from right after the accident contain a note that you said you planned to sue another driver, you will look like a golddigger to a jury. So tell the truth, be thorough and complete with the medical personnel, and tell them every symptom you are having from the accident - no matter how insignificant it seems at the time - but do not talk about liability or lawsuits.
Finally, I want to mention that there have been MANY times when I ordered the emergency room records and showed them to my client only to have them gasp in horror to see that either the records include statements that my client says were never made, misinterpretations of what they said, or failed to note significant useful things that the client did say. For example, the records might not indicate that the client complained of lower back pain and the client will insist that he or she told the ER doctor about it. Or, the records will have a note along the lines of “prior back injuries” when the client actually said “no prior back injuries.” These mistakes or oversights are not intentional, they are simply limitations on the ability to communicate effectively in a busy emergency room. As such, before you leave, you should go over the notes with the doctor to make sure that all of your symptoms are noted, that none of the notes contain inaccurate representations of what you said, and that the writing is legible. It is much better to fix mistakes there at the emergency room before they become part of your records file, rather than months or even years later when the doctor has little or no recollection of who you are or what you said. At that later point, the doctor will probably insist that what he or she wrote was what you said, even if it was not.
AFTER YOU LEAVE THE SCENE
If you did not go by ambulance to the emergency room and you have ANY pain WHATSOEVER or have any indication that you might have been injured, go to the hospital or your doctor on the day of the accident (keep in mind the tips above). If you develop pain or indications of injury at any time in the hours or days after the accident, go to the hospital or doctor as soon as you have any such evidence of injury.
On the day of the accident, after you have received treatment, or as soon as you otherwise have access to a telephone, you should contact your insurance company to report the accident. Also, if you have injuries or have legal questions regarding the accident, it is never too early to contact an attorney for advice regarding the accident.
Another important thing that you should do, on the day of the accident or as soon thereafter as possible, is write down in detail everything that you remember about the accident from what was happening a few minutes before the accident, up to the time that the police arrived. Write down as much detail as you can remember. How exactly did the accident happen? What exactly did you do to try to avoid the accident. Spare no detail from your writing as long as it is a detail that you are certain about. Your attorney will appreciate this later. Do not tell anybody except your attorney that you made this writing.
If you did not get photographs of your car at the scene of the accident, try to take some photos of the damage as soon as possible. Also, if you have visible injuries, such as bruises, cuts, and the like, take photographs of them. Check with your attorney to see if he or she also wants you to take photos of your injuries at various intervals as you heal, especially of potential scars. Also, begin an injury diary. Every day you should keep a journal describing pain you experienced, difficulties you had doing your normal activities such as bathing or picking up your kids, and places or events that you were unable to attend because of your injuries, such as your planned vacation or your weekly bowling league. Also, every time you go to the doctor, write down the name of the doctor, the date of the visit, a description of the tests or examination, what you told the doctor and what the doctor told you. Again, this diary is for your attorney only. He or she will decide if anyone else should see it.