What to Do When You’re in a Car Accident
- Stop. Failure to stop at the scene of an accident (even one with no apparent damage, or where you hit a stationary object like a parked car) is a “hit and run,” which can result in serious criminal consequences. If no one is there, leave a note with your contact information.
- Call the police and/or 9-1-1 if: someone has been injured or public property has been damaged. You can call the police even for a minor accident, but depending upon how busy they are and the specific circumstances (such as no apparent injuries or damage), they may not come to the scene at all.
- Exchange information. Talk to the other driver(s) in the accident and exchange contact, insurance, and license information. You should get the driver’s name, address, date of birth, phone number, driver’s license number, license plate number and registration expiration, along with his/her insurance company name, policy number, phone number, and agent name.
- Talk to witnesses. Look for others who may have seen the accident, and ask for contact information. They may be able to help verify the details of the accident. If the police come to the scene, write down their names and badge numbers. You may need the police report later.
- Don’t admit fault. Even if you think the accident was your fault, don’t say so. Actual liability may be different than you think, and admissions of fault can potentially be used against you later. Avoid making any agreements with the other driver(s) at the accident scene, such as handling the matter without insurance or not reporting it to the DMV.
- Observe and record details. Although it may be difficult, write down as many details as possible about driving conditions, damage, injuries, and the circumstances of the accident. Take pictures (with a camera or cell phone, if you have one available) of the accident scene and the immediate area, and draw a diagram of the accident sequence and location. If you can’t write down this information at the scene, do so as soon as possible afterwards.
- Treat any injuries right away. Get any medical assistance you need as soon as possible, even if your injuries do not seem urgent or severe. Sometimes the shock of the accident can prevent you from realizing the full extent of your injuries for a day or more. Keep copies of all of your medical receipts and documents.
- Report the accident to the DMV. If the total damage resulting from the accident is $750 or more, or anyone was injured in the accident, you are legally required to complete an SR-1 form with the DMV within 10 days of the accident – even if the accident was not your fault, and even if it happened on private property. Every driver identified in the SR-1 will be asked by the DMV to provide proof that they had insurance at the time of the accident. If you were not insured at the time of the accident, your driver’s license will be suspended for a year – whether or not the accident was your fault. (See below for more information about car insurance.)
- Call your insurance company. Even if you were not at fault, contact your insurer soon after the accident – start with your agent (the person who sold you the policy) or call the general number for the insurer and say that you need to report an accident. Provide whatever insurance information you gathered from the other driver(s). Your insurance company may be a useful resource and advocate as you negotiate a settlement with the other driver’s insurance company. Please consult Student Legal Services with any questions during this process.
- Contact the other driver’s insurance company. Inform it by phone or mail that you will be submitting a claim against one of its policyholders – provide the name and policy number (if available) of the other driver. Do not discuss the details of the accident or your injuries; don’t agree to have any phone conversations recorded; and don’t rush to agree upon a settlement amount. Make an appointment with Student Legal Services to discuss how to
proceed or to ask questions about anything the insurance company tells you.
- Document your costs. In addition to keeping receipts for any medical expenses and estimates for damage to your car, keep track of any other direct financial losses that result from your accident – examples could include wages lost because you were unable to work due to the accident, or the cost of a rental car while yours is in the shop.
Common Questions Relating to Car Accidents
What if I’ve been hurt – can I sue for damages?
This will depend on who was at fault in the accident, and the determination of relative liability of the drivers involved in an accident can be complex (sometimes both drivers in a two-car accident will share liability). If you were not at fault, and you suffered a loss (which may be in the form of medical expenses, pain and suffering, damage to your car, lost wages due to missed work, or the cost of a rental car), you are likely to have a claim for damages. Typically, this will be handled directly by an insurance company, which will negotiate a settlement with you to avoid the time and expense of a lawsuit. If you are in this situation, you may want to consult with a lawyer to evaluate the settlement offer, and you also have the option of suing in Small Claims Court if you cannot come to a suitable agreement with the insurance company (this would be appropriate only if your total damages did not significantly exceed $7,500, which is the cap for claims in Small Claims Court). Please consult with Student Legal Services when assessing these next steps.
How do I pay my medical bills?
Hopefully your health insurance will cover most, if not all, of these costs. If you have medical payments coverage through your own auto insurance, it will typically cover at least some of your medical expenses resulting from the accident, regardless of who was at fault. If you are accruing significant out-of-pocket medical bills and are unable to pay for them, do not panic – explain to the medical providers that you are in the process of settling an insurance claim to recover your medical expenses, and contact Student Legal Services with questions to discuss how to proceed after that.
What type of insurance am I required to have?
In California, all drivers are required to carry proof of “financial responsibility.” For almost everyone, this takes the form of a liability insurance policy (it can also be a cash deposit with the DMV, a self-insurance certificate from the DMV, or verification that you’ve posted a bond). Liability insurance covers damage that you cause if you are at fault in an accident. The minimum required liability insurance in California is $15,000 per person and $30,000 per accident for bodily injury (the latter amount is applicable if more than one person is hurt) and $5,000 for property damage. Other types of car insurance (all optional) include:
- Collision: covers damage to your car no matter who is at fault in the accident.
- Comprehensive: pays for losses from numerous causes, including theft and casualty.
- Uninsured Motorist: covers your damages if someone else is at fault in an accident but they do
not have insurance.
- Medical Payments: pays for certain medical costs regardless of who was at fault in an accident.
What if I borrow someone else’s car and they have insurance, but I don’t?
In California, insurance generally runs with the automobile, which means that an accident should be covered as long as you had permission to be driving the car (although this may depend on the individual policy). Unfortunately, if you are at fault in an accident when driving someone else’s car, and do not have your own insurance, the car owner’s insurance company would still have the right to seek reimbursement from you for any amount that it pays as a result of the accident.
What if my license gets suspended?
You can apply to the DMV for a restricted license, which allows you to drive only to and from work, school, and/or recurring medical treatments. It costs $250 and requires proof of insurance. Proof of insurance is also required at the end of the suspension period to get your license reinstated.
The information contained in this article is general in nature. If you have questions about related issues, you should consult with an attorney. Currently registered UC Berkeley students can make an appointment with Student Legal Services at sls.berkeley.edu.