Mission Viejo-San Juan Capistrano Area Attorney Explains What To Do If You Are In A Car Accident and Want To Do The Correct Things For Your Safety and Your Legal Rights

You have just been in an accident in your car, motorcycle or truck.  After you make sure that you, others with you and the people in the other vehicles are generally all right, the first thing on your mind should be to call 911 and ask for the police to come.  In addition to all the common sense things you need an officer for, you want to have an officer complete a police report, which is called a Traffic Collision Report.

Sometimes one of the other drivers will say it was his or her fault, offer to pay for your vehicle damage and ask that you not call the police.  That is something that you do not want to do.  Many times these drivers change their minds as soon as they leave the collision scene.  Then you have to try to chase them down to get the matter resolved.

One of the first problems you will encounter is the 911 or police operator asking you the same question they always ask:  “Is anyone injured”?  The problem that it creates for you is that, if you answer no, many police departments will not send an officer to investigate.  The traffic collision report is very valuable to you, after a collision, and you want to have an officer complete one if at all possible.

Asking if you are injured is really unfair to you because you don’t yet know if you are injured.   Your neck and back may not even start to hurt until the next morning.  Many injuries suffered in a motor vehicle collision don’t show themselves for a day or two.

I suggest that, even if you only have a slight headache, feel slightly dazed or disoriented or just scraped your toe, you should answer that yes you are injured but not badly enough to need an ambulance.  That way you are not tying up ambulances that might be more needed elsewhere.  If you can then get an officer to come and do a report you have just overcome the first of the problems you are going to have to deal with after a motor vehicle collision.

One of the first benefits of having the officer complete a report is that the officer will obtain important information from all the drivers in the collision.  The officer is trained to obtain the other driver’s names, address and phone numbers, the license plate number of the vehicles and the registered owner of each vehicle.  The officer will also obtain the name of the insurance companies and the policy number of each driver.

This information will become very important at a later date.  It will be essential to have in the event the other driver or drivers fail to report the accident to their insurance companies.  This information will enable you, or your attorney, to open a claim with the other insurance company.  The adjusters for the insurance company of the other driver can easily locate the information concerning their insured drivers, as long as they have the policy number and the date of the accident.

The officer is also trained in taking witness statements.  The police officer will separate the drivers and start taking statements from each one by one.  The officer asks each driver what happened and then re-states their statement it in a general way in the report.

These statements are important for a number of reasons.  One is that people are a little more hesitant to lie to a police officer after an accident.  People sometimes do but most people will give an honest statement to a uniformed officer. The statements are also being taken at a time near the accident time so the memories of the drivers are most accurate.

These statements will be very valuable at a later time if the other driver decides to change his or her story.  It will be very hard for the other driver who changes their story to convince others, such as insurance adjusters or a jury, that they didn’t say what the police officer has written they said, right after the accident.

The officer is also trained to observe and record any physical evidence available.  If there are skid marks the officer will measure their length, direction of skid and which cars they end at.  Using the length of these skid marks and the make, model and weight of the car leaving them, it is possible to accurately calculate the speed of that vehicle prior to impact in the accident.  If a lawsuit occurs, trained accident investigators can make these mathematical calculations from the physical evidence recorded by the officer.

Other physical evidence will be observed and recorded by the officer.  If pieces of chrome or other metal are lying on the roadway, the officer is trained to show on a diagram where those pieces of metal were found at the collision scene.

Using the skid marks and this physical evidence, the officer will plot the Point of Impact (POI)of the vehicles.  If there were more than one vehicles involved, the officer will calculate and diagram all the POI’s  for all the vehicles.

If there were passengers in the vehicles, the officer will record their names, addresses and phone numbers.  The officer may also take statements from the passengers to see what their version of the facts is.

Using all of the above evidence, including physical evidence and statements, the officer will come up with a cause of the accident.   The officer will indicate which driver the officer finds was at fault for the collision.  The officer will often include the state vehicle code section that the at fault driver violated in causing the collision.

The officer has discretion whether to issue a citation to the at fault driver.  Many times the officer will name the at fault driver, name the state vehicle code section violated but not issue a citation.  It is basically up to the officer.

After the accident the officer should give you a small card with the officer’s name and badge number.  That card will also have the report number and the place you can obtain the written report.  You should make sure not to lose or mis-place that card.  It will make obtaining the report easy and convenient.

There should be a phone number on the card which you can call to see if the written report is ready.  When it is, you can go to the facility address, pay a small fee of a few dollars and pick up the report.

When the officer finds one of the other drivers at fault, you have resolved one of the main issues in your case.  This is because the insurance adjuster of the at fault party, once he or she receives a copy of the report, is going to believe the officer before believing their own insured driver.

The officer and what the officer writes in the report is viewed as the most accurate and unbiased statement of who caused the accident.  This is because the officer is not associated with any of the drivers In the accident.  The officer has no bias in favor of one driver over another.  As such, the officer is viewed by the insurance company as the most highly trained, unbiased and accurate observer of the facts.  The officer’s opinion as to the cause of the accident is thus almost always accepted as the truth.

This is important for you because, once the insurance company of the at fault driver accepts liability for their insured’s accident, that insurance company will authorize payment for the  repair of your vehicle.  This means that, should you have a deductible on your own policy, the at fault driver’s insurance company will pay for the repair of your vehicle without you having to pay a deductible.

If the at fault driver and his or her insurance company dispute liability, in spite of the traffic collision report, the report will still be important to you.  When I have a situation like that arise I simply file a lawsuit and notice statement under oath of the at fault driver.  After the at fault driver is put under oath and ready to testify, I just walk that driver through his or her statements to the officer in the report.  I read one sentence of the statement that the officer attributed to the driver and simply ask “Is that what you told the officer at the accident scene?”

The at fault driver will usually agree that sentence is what he or she told the officer.  Then we just go through each and every statement that the at fault driver gave the officer.  By the end of the deposition, we have locked the at fault driver’s statements to the officer into evidence so that they can’t change their story at trial.

Should the at fault driver change his or her story at trial, I simply ask them if they said one thing to the officer, one thing to me in the statement under oath and something different now at trial.  If they agree that the three statements are different  I simply ask them the following question:  In which of these three statements you gave were you lying?”  This usually leaves the at fault driver is a bad situation since they had to have been lying in one of the three statements.

As you can see from the above discussion, it is critical that you obtain a police Traffic Collision Report if at all possible.  If you cannot, you are going to have to do the investigation yourself.

After an accident you may be dazed and disoriented.  If the police won’t come then you are going to have to shake off the effects of the accident long enough to do the following:

Obtain the name, address and phone number of every other driver in the collision.  Also ask the other drivers to exchange driver’s licenses so that you and they can each write down the driver’s licenses of all the drivers in the collision.

Obtain the name and policy number of the insurance company for each of the drivers.  Ask to see a copy of the proof of insurance of each driver to make sure they actually have automobile insurance. Check the dates of coverage to make sure that their insurance is still in effect on the date of the accident. Be careful in taking down the policy numbers.  If you mis-record even one number of the policy number it may become very difficult to track the insurance information down.

Write down the license plate numbers of all vehicles in the collision.  Even if that is all you can obtain, our private investigators will be able to find the registered owners and thus provide us with the information needed for your claim.

Some people carry inexpensive digital cameras in their car for just in case of an accident. If you have a camera in your vehicle, or a cell phone with a camera in it, take photos of the license plate numbers and visible damage to all the vehicles.   The photos may prove very valuable to you later.

I hope that you are never in a motor vehicle accident and that you are never injured.  If you are involved in such an accident, however, you should try to obtain a police Traffic Collision Report.  If you do, you will see that it was a good idea to ask the police to come to the accident scene and provide you with the report that will become so important for you and your case afterward.

If you or some one you know has been in an accident, was injured and needs to speak to a lawyer please feel free to call me, John P. Burns, at 949-496 7000 or e mail me at john@johnburnslaw.com.  I will be glad to speak to you or the other person at no charge.

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