You got into a car accident in California. What to do?

Was a police report filed?
  • (1) Stop, Pull Over and Exchange Information.
    In California, you must stop when you get into a car accident. Failing to do so will likely result in you being charged with "hit-and-run", even if you are not the one who caused the accident. Whether the accident involved multiple cars, a pedestrian, a motorcycle or other's property, you should stop and exchange information with the other parties involved in the accident.

    Gather the following information:

    • The other driver's name, address, date of birth, telephone number, driver's license number and expiration date, and insurance company.
    • The other car's make, year, model, license plate number and expiration date, and vehicle identification number.
    • The names, addresses, telephone numbers and insurance companies of the other car's legal and registered owners - if the driver does not own the car.
    • The names, addresses, dates of birth, driver's license numbers and telephone numbers of any passengers in the other car.

    Also, if anyone is injured, you are required by law to provide reasonable assistance by calling an ambulance, taking the injured person to the emergency room or giving first aid (but only if you were properly trained). If you are not trained in first aid procedures, do not move the injured person as you may worsen the injury. But you should move someone who is in danger of being hurt worse or killed even if you do make the injury worse.

    (2) Call For Assistance.
    If anyone is injured, has died, the property is damaged, the liability is not clear, disputed and/or any of the parties involved is not being cooperative, do not hesitate to call for assistance.

    When the police arrives, ask for a police report to be filed and ask for a copy. Also, write down name and badge number of the police officer at the scene. Explain what had happened and answer any questions the officer may have. Do not say it was your fault or the other driver's fault. Let the police, the insurance company and personal injury attorneys sort that out. The police officer may take the info from the people at the scene but not necessarily file a police report. Sometimes, the police report is not filed when the accident is relatively minor, there is a clear liability and one side already admitted it was their fault.

    (3) Take Pictures and Draw a Diagram of What Happened.
    Thanks to our modern-day smart phones we carry a camera with us everywhere we go. Take advantage of it and take pictures of the accident scene, other parties involved, damages to the car, damages to other properties and any visible bodily injuries that you and others may have, ONLY IF it is safe to do. Any visible marks on your body as a result of the injuries from the accident may show up later. Take pictures and seek medical attention as they appear.

    Also, draw a diagram of the accident - positions of the cars before, during and after the accident. Also note on diagram other details of the accident, such as skid marks, street names, position of sidewalks, street lights, stop signs, street condition, weather conditions, time of the accident and etc.

    (4) Witnesses
    If anyone witnessed your accident, make sure to get their names, addresses and telephone numbers. Ask them to talk to the police. If they are willing to write you a signed statement at the scene, make sure you get it.

    Also, write down any identifying information (ex. their license plate number) of witnesses who may not want to help or leave the scene without talking to the police. The police can trace such persons based on the identifying information you wrote down.

    (5) See a Doctor
    Assess how you feel and request ambulance if necessary. You can request an ambulance when you first call for assistance. If the police are called to the scene and if they think that the accident is serious enough, they will ask you whether you need an ambulance. If you feel that you need medical assistance ASAP, make sure you get the necessary treatments.

    You may not feel any pain or see the need to visit a doctor. Even if you do not feel any pain, it is a good idea to go see a doctor as soon as possible. At the latest, go see a medical doctor within a week, but earlier the better. This is because most of the minor car accidents cause what is known as "soft tissue injuries." Meaning the injuries may not show up on any tests, x-rays and are not noticeable to a naked eye but they still cause you pain, especially in the joints and spine areas. They may become more serious injuries if left untreated and you could start having more pains and other medical conditions as a result.

    Also, if it becomes clear that the other party was at fault, you want to show the insurance company you are filing a claim with that the injuries and pain you suffer(ed) are because of the accident at issue. If you seek treatment far too late, such argument will not hold up when trying to settle a claim with said insurance company.

    When you go see a doctor, tell the doctor everything. I mean everything - what caused the pain, types and locations of the pain you are feeling, the degree of the pain, how the pain is disrupting your life, is it making you lose sleep, is it making worse your existing medical condition and etc. Request that the doctor writes down everything you say regarding the pain and how it is affecting you. Make sure you do everything the doctor tells you to do. Seek other rehabilitative measures, such as physical therapy, chiropractic treatments, and etc., as necessary but get a referral note from your medical doctor, if you can.

    (6) Document Everything
    In addition to getting other parties' info, the witness's info, taking pictures, having a doctor note everything in his/her medical record, I recommend my clients to write a journal everyday from the day of the accident. Write down how much pain you are feeling (on the scale of 1 through 10), where the pain exists, what you could not do as a result of the accident and the subsequent injuries and pain and etc. Also, keep track of any and all financial losses - medical receipts, travel/activity packages you purchased but could not get a refund for, missed days at work or employment opportunities and how much you could have earned but did not because of the accident.

    (7) Call Your Insurance Company
    Let your insurance company know that you had been involved in an accident and provide them with details.

    (8) Call a Personal Injury Attorney
    If you had been in a car accident, call a lawyer right away. Most of the personal injury attorneys offer free initial consultation and case assessment, and represent the case on contingency, meaning they don't get paid unless you get paid.

    (a) If there is a clear liability (this is either when it is clear to you or the police determines one side is clearly at fault) and the accident was minor :
    (i) if you caused the accident - you may call the personal injury attorney but you will likely end up having your insurance company handle the claim.
    (ii) if you are not at fault, or comparatively less at fault - call and retain a personal injury attorney.

    (b) If there is a clear liability and the accident resulted in serious injuries and even deaths:
    (i) if you caused the accident - I recommend that you call a personal injury defense attorney to assess your case, in addition to notifying your insurance company.
    (ii) if you are not at fault - or comparatively less at fault, call and retain a personal injury attorney.

    (c) if the liability is not clear or is in dispute, call a personal injury attorney to assess your case.

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