SmartLaw: Attorney and Lawyer Referral Service. Divorce, bankruptcy, criminal, accident, business
The Los Angeles County Bar Association Lawyer Referral and Information Service, the largest and oldest such service in the United States, has hundreds of pre-screened, qualified and insured lawyers in the Los Angeles area who can help you with your legal issues. Contact us now and our courteous, professionally trained staff will help you connect you with the right lawyer. The LRIS is a nonprofit public service of LACBA.

Message #702 Auto accidents

mp3 #702 What Should You Know if You are in an Auto Accident? (mp3 file)

This message will discuss the following questions:

  1. If you are in auto accident, do you have to stop?
  2. What should you do if someone is injured?
  3. How can you get help?
  4. What information should you gather at the accident scene?
  5. If you think the accident was your fault, should you say so?
  6. What if you get a ticket?
  7. Do you need auto insurance?
  8. Should you get a physical check-up after the accident?
  9. Do you have to report the accident?
  10. Who pays if you are injured or your car is damaged?
  11. What should you do if the other driver does not have insurance?
  12. What if someone sues you?
  13. What if you do not have enough money to pay for legal advice?
  14. What if you want to make a claim for your injuries?

The first question is: If you are in an auto accident, do you have to stop?
Yes. California law says you must stop - whether the accident involved a pedestrian, a moving car, a parked car or someone's property. If you drive away, you can be charged with "hit and run" - even if the accident was not your fault. Hit and run penalties are severe. Depending on the amount of damage, you may be given a large fine, sent to jail or both. You also could lose your driver's license.
If you hit a parked car, try to find the driver. If you cannot, the law says you may drive away only after you leave behind your name, address and an explanation of the accident - and you must notify the local police or California Highway Patrol (CHP) either by telephone or in person.
Call the police or the CHP, too, if the accident caused a death or injury. An officer who comes to the scene of the accident will make a report. If an officer does not show up, you must make a written report on a form available at the police department or CHP office.

Next, what should you do if someone is injured?
The law requires you to give reasonable assistance to injured persons. For example, you may need to call an ambulance, take the injured person to a doctor or hospital, or give first aid - if you know how.
If you are not trained in first aid, do not move someone who is badly hurt; you might make the injury worse. However, you should move someone who is in danger of being hurt worse or killed - even if you do make the injury worse. For example, if someone is thrown from a car onto the freeway, carefully move the person to a safer place.
To avoid additional collisions, try to warn other motorists that an accident has occurred. Placing flares on the road, turning on your car's hazard lights and lifting the engine hood are good ways to warn oncoming traffic.
Arrange to get help for any injured persons, and try not to panic.

The next question is: how can you get help?
As soon as you can get to a telephone, call 911. Explain the situation, and give your exact location, so help can arrive quickly. Be sure to mention whether you need an ambulance or a fire engine.
Or, flag down a passing car, and ask the driver to go for help. Perhaps the driver will have a phone in the car and can make an emergency call on the spot.

Next, what information should you gather at the accident scene?
Since many records now are confidential under the law, you may not be able to obtain the information that you want from the department of motor vehicles (DMV). So be sure to get as much correct and complete information as you can at the scene of the accident.
You and the other driver should show each other your driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. Be sure to write down:
-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, and telephone numbers of any passengers in the other car.
-The names, addresses and telephone numbers of witnesses to the accident. Ask them to stay to talk to the CHP or police. If they insist on leaving, ask them to tell you what they saw and write everything down.
Try to identify people at the accident scene, even if they will not give their names. For example, if a man who saw the accident drives off, take down his license plate number. Law enforcement officials can trace the owner's name and address.
-The name and badge number of the law officer who comes to the accident scene. Ask the officer where and when you can get a copy of the accident report.
-A simple diagram of the accident. Draw the positions of both cars before, during and after the accident. If there are skid marks on the road, pace them off. Draw them on the diagram, noting the distance they cover. Mark the positions of any crosswalks, stop signs, traffic lights or street lights. If you have a camera with you, take pictures of the scene.
Make notes, too, on weather and road conditions. If the accident happened after dark, say whether street lights were on. Estimate your speed and the other driver's. Be sure to note the exact time and place the accident happened.

Next, if you think the accident is your fault, should you say so?
Do not volunteer any information about whose fault the accident was. You may think you are in the wrong, and then learn that the other driver is as much or more to blame than you are. You should talk to your insurance agent, your lawyer or both before taking the blame. Anything you say to the police or the other driver can be used against you later.
Do not agree to pay for damages or sign any paper except a traffic ticket, until you check with your insurance company or lawyer.
However, be sure to cooperate with the police investigating the case. But, stick to the facts. For instance, if you were driving 30 miles an hour, say so. Do not say, "I wasn't speeding."

Next, what if you get a ticket?
Sign it. A ticket has nothing to do with your guilt or innocence. When you sign, you promise to appear in court. If you do not sign the ticket, the police officer can arrest you.
While it is okay to sign the ticket, you may want to talk with your lawyer before you pay a fine or plead guilty to the charges. Find out if you can attend traffic school instead. If you plead guilty, you may hurt your chances of collecting damages from the other driver later. Or, you may help the other driver to collect damages from you.
Drunk driving - driving with a blood alcohol level or 0.08% or higher (or 0.05% is you are under age 18) is illegal, and penalties for drunk driving in California are severe.
Seat belts - you and your passengers can be given tickets for not wearing seat belts, but an officer can't stop you for that reason alone. Children under 4 years old, or who weigh less than 40 pounds, must be protected by a special safety seat.

Next, do you need auto insurance?
Yes. A police officer may ask you to prove that you have auto insurance. If so, you must show the officer your insurance company's name and your policy number. If you are not insured, you will be fined. Then, within 60 days you must prove that you are financially responsible. If you do not, you could lose your license for one year. If you tell the officer that you have insurance when you do not, you can be fined, sent to jail or both. And your license will be suspended for one year.
The law says that you can prove your financial responsibility in one of these ways:
-Insurance - You must have liability insurance that provides at least $5,000 coverage for property damage for one accident/ $15,000 for one person injured or killed in an accident and $30,000 for two or more people injured or killed.
-Cash - You can deposit $35,000 in cash with the DMV.
-Bond - the DMV also will accept a bond for $35,000. However, very few bonding companies issue financial responsibility bonds.

Next, should you get a physical check-up after the accident?
A check-up may be a good idea for both you and your passengers. You could be injured and not know it right away. At least call your doctor or another health care provider for help in deciding what your needs may be. Your automobile insurance may pay your health care bills.

Next, do you have to report the accident?
Yes. First, you may need to call the CHP or the local police. Second, report the accident to your insurance company. Ask your agent what forms you should fill out, and to help you make other necessary reports on the accident.
Third, you and the other driver must report the accident to the DMV within 10 days if:
-the damage to either car is more than $500 or
-anyone is injured or killed in the accident.
Get an sr-1 report of traffic accident form from your local DMV office, CHP, police or insurance company.

Next, who pays if you are injured or your car is damaged?
That depends on who is at fault, whether you and the other driver have insurance, and what kind of insurance you have. There are two major types of insurance: "liability" and "collision."
Liability. If you are to blame for an accident, your liability insurance will pay the other driver for property damage and personal injuries, up to your policy's limits. If you are not at fault, the other driver's liability insurance pays for your car damage and/or personal injuries.
In California, if you and the other driver both have car damage or injuries and you both are partly responsible for the accident, you each may be able to collect part of your loss. How much each of you collects from the other's policy depends on the amount of your damages and on how much each of you is at fault.
If you loan your car to someone who has an accident, your insurance pays for the damages - just as it would if you had been driving.
Collision. No matter who is at fault, your collision insurance pays for damages to your car (not your medical expenses), minus the policy deductible. Most insurance companies do not offer collision coverage for very old cars.
You may have other insurance too. Your health insurance, for example, may pay your medical bills. Also, your automobile insurance may have medical payments coverage. If so, it will pay the cost of your medical treatment. This coverage can be used in place of your health insurance or in addition to it.

Next, what should you do if the other driver does not have insurance?
If the other driver caused the accident and is not insured, your own policy will pay for your personal injuries - if you have "uninsured motorist" or "medical payments" coverage.
If the other driver's insurance is not enough to pay for all of your damages, your own insurance may pay the difference - if you have "underinsured motorist" coverage.
If you do not have these kinds of insurance or if your damages are more than the policy's limit, you can sue the other driver. However, even if you win the case, you cannot be sure that the other driver has the money to pay.
If you have collision insurance, it will pay for damage to your car, no matter who is at fault.

Next, what if someone sues you?
Contact your insurance agent and/or your lawyer right away. Generally, your insurance company will assign a lawyer to handle your case. But, if you are sued for more money than your policy covers, you may need your own attorney too.
Also, insurance company lawyers do not handle traffic citations or criminal cases, such as hit and run charges.
If you do not know a lawyer, ask a friend, co-worker, employer or business associate to recommend one. Or, call a state bar-certified lawyer referral service. You can receive a list of the certified lawyer referral services in your area by calling the state bar's legal services office at area code (415) 538-2250, or through the yellow pages of your telephone directory under "attorney referral services," "attorneys" or "lawyers”. The person who answers your call can make an appointment for you to see a lawyer. If you decide to hire the lawyer, make sure you understand what you will be paying for, how much it will cost and when you will be expected to pay your bill.

What if you do not have enough money to pay for legal advice?
You may belong to a "legal insurance" plan that covers the kind of services you need. Or, if your income is very low, you may qualify for free legal help. Check the white pages of your telephone directory for a legal aid society or legal services foundation in your county. In auto accident cases, a legal aid lawyer usually may help only if you are the person being sued (known as "the defendant"), you have no insurance, and your income is very low.
If you are charged with a crime and cannot afford a lawyer, call your county's public defender. Depending on your income, you may qualify for free assistance. To find the public defender, look in the white pages under the name of your county.

Last, what if you want to make a claim for your injuries?
If the other driver was at fault, you may be entitled to compensation - for your personal injuries, pain and suffering, car damage and other expenses, such as lost wages or the cost of a nurse needed after the accident. You should make a claim with the other driver's insurance company. But, if you are not satisfied with the amount they offer, you may want to sue.
If you plan to sue, do not delay. There are time limits for filing various types of claims - usually one year after the accident, but sometimes much less - so act quickly.
Beginning in 1991, you can sue for $5,000 or less in small claims court. A lawyer can't represent you in this court, but you can talk with a lawyer beforehand.
If you want to sue for a larger amount, you will need your own lawyer. An insurance company lawyer cannot represent you if you are the plaintiff (the person doing the suing).
Many lawyers take auto accident cases on a "contingent fee" basis. That means you do not pay the lawyer if you lose the case. If you win, you pay the lawyer a percentage of the money you get. Most lawyers charge a smaller percentage if the case is settled before the lawyer does all the work necessary to go to trial.
If you and your lawyer agree to a contingent fee, the lawyer must put the agreement in writing and give you a signed copy. The contract should explain what percentage the lawyer will get if you win, and how it might vary. It should also state who will pay for any court costs.

The purpose of this message is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. If you have a specific legal problem, you may want to consult a lawyer.
Here is a final checklist, which is a summary of this message:

Protect yourself and others:
-Drive defensively.
-Don't drive after drinking.
-Make sure you and your passengers wear seatbelts.
-Have adequate insurance coverage
If an auto accident happens:
-Help or get help for injured people.
-Warn other motorists (use flares, hazard lights).
-Call 911 to contact the police or California Highway Patrol
If an injury or death occurs:
-Take notes about the accident - write down information about the other driver and car, witnesses, passengers, accident location and more.
-Cooperate fully with law officers, but speak with your insurance agent and/or lawyer before accepting any blame.
After an accident:
-Call or see your physician.
-Report the accident to your insurance company.
-Report the accident to the department of motor vehicles within 10 days if someone is injured or killed or if damage to either car is more than $500.
-Make a claim with your insurance company and/or the other driver's to pay for your injuries and losses.
-Contact a lawyer if you are sued or if you want to make a claim.


Back to Top