So you were involved in a minor car accident… now what?
Not all car accidents require hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit. Some fender benders aren’t serious and can be resolved outside of the legal system. But there are still steps you are legally required to take after any wreck to avoid liability and ensure all parties involved are compensated fairly.
If you or someone else is hurt in a wreck, your main priority should be to call an ambulance and try to seek out immediate medical attention. But if you’re involved in a minor car accident where nobody was injured, follow this checklist below so you don’t forget any critical steps in the process:
☑ 1. Stop your car
The law requires you to stop your vehicle at the scene of an accident, even if it was a minor fender-bender or just a scrape. Leaving the scene is considered a hit and run accident, which is punishable as a crime.
☑ 2. Stay safe
Check yourself and your passengers for injuries. If anyone requires immediate medical attention, call 911.
☑ 3. Move your car... maybe
Leave the car where it is if it’s too damaged to be driven, too dangerous to move, or if the police have been called to the scene due to serious injuries. If possible, take photos BEFORE you move the car (more on that below).
As long as it’s safe and the accident involved minimal damage and no injuries, move your car to the side of the road (or a nearby location if the shoulder is narrow). Some states have “steer clear” laws that require you to move your vehicle in such instances. Turn on your hazard lights if they’re functioning.
☑ 4. Call the police
You may call the police for any accident, but they’ll probably respond only if there are injuries or serious damage, if one party claims that another party committed a violation (e.g., driving under the influence), or if a driver fled the scene.
If the police are coming to the scene, wait for them to arrive so you can give your version of events for the police report. Write down or take photos of the report number, the names of the police officers, and their badge numbers.
If the police aren’t coming to the scene, you may attempt to get a statement from an at-fault driver if he/she is willing. Record a video of the driver giving the statement or have the driver write and sign a statement. Even if the police don’t come to the scene, your state or your insurer might require you to file a police report anyway.
☑ 5. Exchange information
When you begin talking with the other parties involved, do not discuss the accident. Even just saying “I’m sorry” could be misconstrued as an admission of guilt for the accident and hurt your case down the road.
Instead, just focus on getting contact information, including names, addresses, and home/cell phone numbers, and take photos of the drivers’ licenses and insurance cards.
☑ 6. Talk to witnesses
Try to find eyewitnesses as soon as possible, as some people may not want to wait for the police to arrive or for you to finish taking all your photos of the scene. Ask witnesses to describe what they saw and record their statements as a video on your phone or as a written statement. Take photos of the witnesses and get their names, addresses, and home/cell phone numbers.
☑ 7. Take photos and video of the scene
This is CRITICAL! Pictures can show what caused the accident and the extent of damages and injuries that occured. Photographic evidence may be important for insurance claims or any lawsuits that may be filed.
If it’s safe to do so, take pictures of the scene before you move the cars. Otherwise, move the cars to a safe location, then photograph the following:
- Makes, models, license plates, and vehicle identification numbers (VINs) of ALL vehicles involved
- Positions of the cars
- Damage to the interior and exterior of the cars, including parts that fell off the cars and the points of impact
- Damage to any surrounding items
- Visible injuries on the drivers, passengers or pedestrians, including redness or marks across the chest or abdomen indicating the wearing of a seat belt
- Surrounding scene, including road signs, traffic signals, street lights, obstructions of a driver’s view (e.g., hanging tree limbs), lane markings, skid marks and lack of skid marks, potholes, road conditions (e.g., dry, wet, or icy), weather (e.g., sunny or stormy), and the direction of the sun/sun glare
- Videos are also a handy way of showing the flow of traffic and changing traffic lights.
Important tips for taking good accident photos:
- Take photos from multiple angles and distances (wide and close up).
- At night, take photos using a flash and no flash – see which setting shows the true lighting at the scene and whether the damages are visible in the photos.
- If you’re using a camera that’s not part of a smartphone, turn the time/date stamp feature on, if available.
- If you’re using a smartphone, turn on your location services setting.
If you can’t take photos due to an injury or stress, ask a friend, family member, witness or police officer to take photos for you.
☑ 8. Report the accident to your insurance company
Call your insurer as soon as possible to describe your version of the accident. Provide the adjuster with all of your documentation, statements, contact information for involved parties and photos. DO NOT speak to any other party’s insurer unless your insurer indicates you should do so.
☑ 9. Contact the DMV (in certain situations)
If the accident was minor and no one called the police, you typically don’t need to contact the DMV. Typically, you only have to report the accident to the DMV if:
- there were bodily injuries;
- the property damage meets a certain monetary threshold, which varies by state; or
- the police were called to the accident scene and issued you a citation for driving without a license or insurance. (In this case, you will likely have to provide the DMV with proof of a license or insurance once you obtain the proper paperwork.)
In any scenarios requiring you to report the accident, check with your state’s DMV to find out the deadline for filing a report.
If the police issued you a citation for a violation related to the accident, such as speeding or running a red light, the police will notify the DMV of the accident and the violation. This could lead to points on your driving record that could cause your license to be suspended or revoked.
☑ 10. Track your injuries
Take photos of any visible injuries as they develop (swelling and bruising may take a few days to appear), and keep detailed notes if you experience non-visible injuries like whiplash. Also, keep all records of visits to medical providers, including doctors and physical therapists. Document your pain and suffering and how it affects your life. Keep track of any missed days from work due to your injuries.
This checklist is primarily intended for minor accidents involving two or more vehicles, but you can also use it for single-vehicle accidents (e.g., you veer off the road and strike a mailbox) or unattended-vehicle accidents (e.g., you back up into a parked car in a parking lot).
You may want to find a personal injury lawyer near you in situations where you are seeking recovery from an at-fault driver or an uninsured driver, or if you need to defend yourself in a party’s lawsuit against you. Be aware that there are strict time limits on filing a car accident lawsuit which vary depending on which state you’re in, so be sure to contact an attorney as soon as possible.