How Do I Protect My Rights When I'm Involved in a Car Accident in California?

There are few worse feelings than those you experience when you have a car accident, except maybe those when you see the flashing red lights of a police car behind you in your rear-view mirror. Even if you are lucky enough to not have any injuries, it is natural to feel confused and out of control. However, there are certain things you need to do -- even right at the scene of the accident -- in order to protect your rights. Here is a guide to help you.

Immediately after the accident

At this point you don't know if you will be making a claim or if anyone else will be. If you are not seriously injured, however, it is important to collect information from the other driver, no matter whose fault you think the accident was, so that you have it for later on when the dust settles. You should get his or her name, address, phone number, the name of his or her auto insurance company and policy number. If the other driver says that he or she does not have insurance, make a note of that, as well. Write down the license plate number and the vehicle identification number (VIN) of the car, usually found on the top of the dashboard above the steering wheel. You can read it through the windshield. Also write down the year, make, model and color of the vehicle, and what part of the car came into contact with what part of your car. If you have a cell phone with a camera, it is a good idea to take pictures of the damage to both cars.

If there are no injuries, it is not imperative that you call the police, but if you think it is unclear who was at fault, it is best to have a police officer take statements, collect any physical evidence, talk to witnesses and prepare a report. If there are injuries, the police and possibly an ambulance should be called so that statements can be taken from both drivers and all those involved get the care they need.

Don't admit fault at the scene! If there are witnesses, get their contact information. Do ask if everyone is all right.

Within 24 hours of the accident

Assuming you are not too injured to do so, report the accident to your insurance company within 24 hours, or as soon as reasonably possible. Most insurance policies require this. Even if you think the accident was clearly the other driver's fault, he may try to claim that it was your fault or partially your fault, and your own insurance might need to come into play. This, of course, would also be true if the other driver has no insurance. If that is the case, your insurer would cover the damage to your vehicle (if you carry collision coverage), and your medical bills (if you carry medical payments insurance). You can also make an uninsured motorist claim with your insurer to cover your medical expenses, wage loss and pain and suffering. If you believe the other driver was even partially at fault, and he has insurance, contact his insurance company and open a claim there, as well. Now you have covered all your bases regarding insurance.

Within two weeks of the accident and ongoing

With respect to the physical damage to your car, you should get at least one repair estimate (if not two), and provide copies of the estimate(s) to both insurance companies. If you were injured, make sure you save all receipts from your expenses so you have a "paper trail" to provide to one or both insurance companies when it comes time to settle your claim. If you have to miss work as a result of your injuries, be sure to get documentation from your doctor indicating the necessity of staying home from work, as well as authorization to return to work when you are able. In addition, obtain proof from your employer of the time you were off and what your wage loss was. If you had any other expenses, such as medicines, transportation, childcare, etc, be certain to document those, as well.

Statute of Limitations on Personal Injury Claims in California

There is a very important law in California called the Statute of Limitations. This provides that you have a period of two years from the date of the accident to either settle your claim or file a lawsuit against the responsible driver. If you were injured in the car wreck and your claim is taking a long time to settle, either because your treatment is ongoing, or the insurance company is dragging its feet, it is important not to "blow" the statute, or you will lose your right to sue. If you are approaching the two-year time limit, you will need to file suit in order to "protect the statute". In other words, once you file suit, you don't have to worry about the two years any more. You should hire an attorney to file the papers for you, and you would be wise to have him or her handle the case and be your advocate from that point forward. An accident attorney is adept at evaluating your case and negotiating a settlement on your behalf.

It is very unsettling to have a car crash and it is difficult to know how to do everything right so that you do not jeopardize your claim or lawsuit. Many people hire an attorney early on so that they don't make any mistakes. If you suffered moderate to severe injuries, hiring an attorney from the beginning is advisable. You can also hire an accident lawyer any time after you file your claim and he or she can pick up and take over for you.

For more information on California auto accidents, click on the following articles:

How much can I get for my auto accident claim and injury in California? How much is my case worth?

Can I be liable if my car is rear-ended in California?

How is responsibility in California determined after a car crash? Who is at fault?

My car, driven by a relative, was involved in a car crash in California. Am I liable for injuries and damage to the other person if my relative is negligent?

The other driver involved in the car accident in California had no insurance. What is my recourse?

I had a car accident in California, other guy's fault, car totaled, but the driver's insurance company will not cover all costs. What are my options now?