Here are 19 helpful steps to follow when you are involved in a car collision.
1. Get Centered. Stay calm. Breathe deeply. Don’t let your emotions spin out of control. Instead, resolve to power through the unfortunate situation in a rational, methodical way.
2. Stop. If your car can be moved, then move it out of traffic. Stop, and stay at the scene. Be a human being. This means to first determine if you, others in your car, or people in the other vehicle, are hurt.
3. Warn others. Put out flares or put your flashers on to warn traffic.
4. Check yourself. Talk to others involved in the collision about whether anyone needs medical assistance. You may need to call an ambulance.
5. Communicate. In serious crashes, you will need to stay and talk to first responders such as police, fire department personnel, life flight helicopters or ambulances. Be helpful, but don’t get in their way, and don’t argue with other people who were involved in the crash.
6. Take cell phone photos. Most people have a cell phone. Use it to take a series of photos of the scene. Start from perhaps fifty yards away, then get photos while walking closer to the vehicles. Take shots from different angles, including close-ups of damage to any vehicle involved in the crash.
7. Exchange information. Don’t play “super lawyer” at the scene by debating fault or damages with others involved in the collision. Stay non-confrontational. Just exchange information such as other people’s names and contact information. Take photos of their license plate numbers, and of their insurance cards if they can produce one. Share your own contact information. Don’t get rid of your cell phone until after the claim is resolved.
8. Talk. It’s OK to say “I’m sorry,” if you really know you caused the collision, such as running a red light, rear-ending another car, or driving while distracted. Don’t deny the obvious or start a fight with the other driver. Be courteous. However, don’t give a lengthy speech about all the detailed things you were doing just before the collision. The insurance adjusters or police can ask for that information if they want it, and the insurers or attorneys can figure out how the claim should be handled later. Instead, at the crash scene, act to defuse what is often a traumatic, emotional event. The insurance companies will work to determine who was at fault, and what damages should be paid.
9. Police. The police will show up in many Oregon locations, and will investigate and manage the scene. If police don’t show up, handle it yourselves. In Portland, police may not come to the scene unless there was a fatality or catastrophic crash, a drunk driver, a hit and run incident, or toxic chemicals were spilled. Therefore, in Portland it is doubly important to obtain all the information you can about the parties involved in the collision, as well as the facts about what happened.
10. Medical. Seek medical treatment if you were hurt or you don’t “feel right.” Often, due to adrenaline, people in collisions don’t feel hurt until the next day or two. Longs delays in treatment may be viewed by insurers as suspicious behavior.
11. Insurance. Report the collision to your car insurance claims department. They will open a claim file and start processing medical, property damage and wage loss documents if appropriate. You need to cooperate with your own insurer. This means answering whatever questions they may have. By contrast, you don’t have to talk to the insurance adjuster for the other vehicle involved in the collision. You might want to talk to the adverse adjuster later, but many people choose to do so only after consulting an attorney.
12. Medical bills. Be sure to have your car insurance, rather than your health insurance, pay for collision-related medical costs. Insurers have to cover at least $15,000 of medical bills for up to two years, regardless of fault. If more treatment is needed, your health insurer should take over. It gets especially complicated when Medicare or other governmental benefits are provided for payment of collision-related injury treatment. The government typically wants its money reimbursed from any settlement. An attorney may need to handle this situation.
13. Insurance pays bills. If you are an injured pedestrian, a bicyclist, or an injured passenger and have no car insurance yourself, you can get medical bills covered by the insurer for the driver who was involved in the crash, up to certain limits. Be sure to obtain his or her insurance information in order to get medical bills properly processed.
14. The at-fault driver’s insurer. The insurer for the driver who caused the accident may be required to pay certain amounts of money later, such as noneconomic damages for pain and discomfort, future medical costs, income loss that was not paid by your own insurer, and other amounts. Unless you know what you’re doing, it is often better to retain an attorney for these issues.
15. Property damage. Car damage can be paid by either your own insurer if you were not at fault, or by the at-fault driver’s insurer if they agree that their driver was at fault (which can take a while to determine). In the latter case, you probably won’t have to pay a deductible amount to the repair shop. For vehicle damage from a crash, insurers have to pay the lesser of the cost of repairs or the fair market value of the vehicle before the collision. You may be entitled to an independent appraisal of your car’s damage if you don’t accept the insurer’s appraisal.
16. Deadlines. People involved in Oregon car crashes generally have two years in which to settle their claims or file a lawsuit. Many exceptions to the two-year limit apply, often with shorter deadlines. These include claims against governmental vehicle drivers and claims involving bars that over-serve alcohol to customers who then drive drunk. Be sure to check on the deadlines that apply to your situation or your claim may be denied or your case dismissed.
17. DMV report. You need to file a DMV form reporting certain facts about the collision within 72 hours if damage to a vehicle was over $2,500 or if someone was injured or killed. The DMV can take away your license for a time if you fail to comply. Filing a required DMV report late is better than never.
18. Citations. If the police give you a citation, this can help or hurt your claim or other people’s claims related to the crash. You need to decide whether or not to retain an attorney to handle the citation.
19. Do it yourself or retain an attorney. The law related to vehicle crashes is complex and changes often. Lots of deadlines exist. Rushing to settle a claim quickly is a bad idea. Still, many people can handle their own claims, especially when only property damage is involved. For many crashes, however, you would be smart to talk to an attorney. Then decide to retain him or her, or decide to be a “do it yourselfer.” Feel free to do internet searches about how to handle a car crash situation, but be aware that much of the online advice is unreliable.
Legal Editor: Tim Grabe, August 2019