Advice from Guest Contributor, Attorney Timothy J. O’Brien
It was a heartbreaking scene. Sally was sobbing uncontrollably as she told me her story. She had been t-boned by another car. After the accident the seemingly concerned and sympathetic insurance adjuster for the other driver paid her $350 for what she believed was an “advance” and asked her to sign some papers. They were just standard authorizations for the release of medical information, he said. What Sally (not her real name) didn’t know was that she was signing a settlement for any injuries that might occur as a result of an accident that wasn’t her fault. She was also forfeiting her rights to any future actions. As it turns out, the accident caused her severe shoulder damage which required surgery and resulted in thousands of dollars of medical bills—money she had to pay out of her own pocket. Regrettably, there was nothing I could do to help her. The papers she signed were legally binding. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. I see scenes similar to this one play out time after time. But it doesn’t have to be like this. You can protect yourself and your rights by following these seven simple tips.
Tip#1: Don’t sign anything.
This is the obvious lesson from Sally’s case and my most important advice. Insurance company representatives are skilled at being friendly, acting concerned, and oozing empathy, but their job is to get you to settle for the least amount of money they can. They are not your friends. It is common for insurance adjusters to ask for a medical authorization which is just an excuse to scour all of your medical records to look for something else to blame your injuries on. Before you sign anything sit down with an attorney and have them review all the documents related to your accident.
Tip#2: Don’t say anything.
Your words at the time of an accident could come back to haunt you, so you are better off keeping quiet. Certainly don’t admit to any fault in the accident. A determination of fault should be left to the professionals—the police, insurance investigators, and lawyers.
Tip #3: Call the police and/or 911
It is completely understandable that after an accident you are going to be shook up and not thinking straight. This will make it hard for you to collect the information you will need about your accident. In a situation where you have been injured and have to leave the scene for treatment, you will absolutely need the police. The police are pros at gathering information at an accident scene. Call them.
Tip #4: Get medical attention right away.
This is obvious for serious and visible injuries, of course, but what about the less apparent situations? After an accident, your adrenaline will spike and it can mask the pain from an unseen injury and that injury may not manifest itself until a day or two later. Because it is better to be safe than sorry, get checked by a medical professional. Also, it is vital that you have a precise medical record; otherwise the insurance company may not believe you were really injured or that this trauma was the cause of your injury.
Tip #5: Get the other driver’s information and contact information for any witnesses.
If the police are not at the scene (on private property, for example), get the name, address, phone number and insurance policy number of the other driver. Ask to see their driver’s license to confirm their identity. I have seen many cases where a driver who caused an accident gives false information and then disappears. Take a photo of their driver’s license with your phone, if you have one with you.
Tip #6: Take pictures of the vehicles involved in the accident and the scene around the accident especially if there is other property damage.
Photos can play a critical role in settling an accident claim after the dust has settled. While the police will record the relevant accident details, they won’t take photos. That’s up to you.
Tip #7: Get legal representation.
The insurance companies (the other driver’s and yours) are not on your side. Your goal is to get an equitable settlement that will repair or replace your vehicle and pay for any medical costs. The insurance companies want to settle for the least amount of money they can get away with, whether that covers your costs or not. Further complicating the situation, you will be confronted with a maze of complicated laws. You need someone on your side who will stand up for your rights.
If you are ever in a car accident you can contact us at Hauptman, O’Brien, Wolf & Lathrop for a free evaluation of your situation.
Tim O’Brien has practiced law since 1979. He is a partner with Hauptman, O’Brien, Wolf & Lathrop P.C., an Omaha-based personal injury law firm. The firm’s lawyers do not represent insurance companies; they exclusively advocate for the rights of victims.Call 402.390-9000.