Practical Considerations for Navigating a Car Crash

“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” ~ E.B. White

By Matt Hale, Esq.

I was a young lawyer when I was asked to help on a tragic case. It was an automobile collision. A mom had been cut off on the highway, she swerved, hit gravel, and lost control. The vehicle flipped. Her children were thrown from the car and their mother died. The person who caused the collision did not have any insurance nor any assets. The family only had the minimum policy limits. There was no money to pay the medical bills or to make up for the loss of income that the mom brought into the family. In addition to losing their beloved mother, the family home was lost.

Everyone in the United States with a driver’s license is aware that automobile collisions happen and that driving comes with inherent risks. Despite this, many do not know what to do when they are involved in an automobile collision. Many drivers do not have adequate insurance policies in place prior to a collision to ensure that they will recover from the harms and losses that result. The most important aspect of navigating and recovering from a car crash is what you do before a collision: what insurance coverage do you have, and how much does your policy cover? Second, knowing what to do in the aftermath of a collision is equally important.

If you are the victim of a negligent driver—the burden of proof is on you. You have to prove that the other driver was negligent (this is usually the easy part) and that the driver “caused” you to be harmed. You also have to prove that the medical treatment you had to treat your injuries was reasonable and necessary. Absent this proof, you will not be able to obtain the financial compensation to help you move on with life.

Here is some practical advice to help you recover.

The Crash Scene

The evidence to prove your claim starts at the scene of the collision. This evidence includes the witnesses who saw the collision, any investigation by law enforcement, statements made by the involved parties, the damage to the vehicles, and any photographs or video of the scene.

If you are in a collision and you can physically move around, it falls on you to gather this evidence. These days, the police are less and less likely to actually show up, investigate, and exchange information. So, you may have to do all of that. That means you need to answer the following questions about the collision with evidence: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?

Answering these questions may be simple, or it may be complicated. You are likely going to have to gather evidence while injured and in some state of shock. You will want to make sure you know who the other driver is, their address, and what insurance they have. If you can, use your smartphone to document the scene and record the other driver explaining what happened and “admitting fault.” You will want to make sure you have a photo of the other person and his or her driver’s license, insurance card, and license plate.

You will also want to get photographs of the collision scene, documenting damage to the vehicles and where they came to rest after the collision. This is important to being able to re-create what happened. Do this only as it is safe to do so. Do not go running out into the middle of a highway trying to get the evidence. Be aware that people lie all the time about collisions, and if you do not have the proof to refute those lies, you will lose.

If your car is towed away, make sure it gets towed to an auto body shop or your home. Towing companies make money off of their lot and impound fees. By default, your car will be towed to the towing company lot where it will incur daily impound charges. Insurance companies taking time to investigate matters cannot be trusted to take timely action to get your car out of a tow lot. People have had their vehicles and contents auctioned off while the insurance companies bickered over who was at fault.

The Insurance Companies

After a collision is reported and a claim is opened, the auto insurance companies spring into action. The goal is to gather mitigating evidence and see if there can be a fast, easy, and cheap resolution to the potential claims. One of the very first things insurance companies do is have their well-trained adjusters make phone calls to get “recorded statements” from those involved in the collision. These calls are couched as “just trying to find out the facts of what happened,” but the calls are also to create evidence to limit damages from the collision. If the insurance company is really lucky, they can get you to settle the case before you know the full extent of your injuries.

Insurance companies use high-pressure tactics to get people to settle their cases, and the claims adjusters will say or do almost anything to get a case to settle cheap. It’s important to note that the other driver’s insurance company owes you nothing and wants to pay you as little as possible. They will send you releases to get your medical records and other information. Do not sign anything until you have consulted with an attorney.

On the other hand, your insurance company has a contract with you and the legal obligations of “good faith” that go with that contract. Unfortunately, your insurance company is not to be trusted either. Even your insurance company wants to part with as little money as possible and does not care how long you have loyally paid premiums to them. You are now a “claimant” and as such, you represent a “risk” to your insurance company. Do not expect to be “in good hands” or dealing with a “good neighbor” as you are dealing with a billion-dollar behemoth intent on increasing shareholder value at your expense.

Under your insurance policy contract, you have a duty to cooperate with your insurance company, but you have no duty to cooperate with the other driver’s insurance company. You certainly do not want to get in back-and-forth telephone conversations and arguments with them. Doing so only creates evidence for them to use against you. For example, the adjuster records the following:

“How are you doing today?”

“Oh, I am doing fine, thank you.”

Then, later on in your claim, that will get thrown back in your face. “You said you were doing fine, now suddenly you aren’t?” The implication is that you are a liar and just trying to get money.

Instead, focus on recovering your health and deal with the other driver’s insurance company as little as possible.

What to Know About Insurance Before the Collision

Insurance companies advertise almost constantly. It’s impossible not to see an ad with a gecko, or hear catchy jingles about a “good neighbor” and being on your side. The automobile insurance industry is huge, taking premiums from hundreds of millions of drivers every year. For those premiums, the insurance company promises to take care of you should you be unfortunate enough to be in an automobile collision. You can have policies to pay for property damage, bodily injury, and coverage for medical bills incurred as a result of a collision. If you cause a collision, they provide indemnity and a legal defense. Which means, it’s your insurance company that will ultimately decide if a lawsuit is filed against you and defend that lawsuit.

The insurance policy is the contract between you and the insurance company. That contract will often determine whether or not you financially recover from a car wreck. The question you must answer is, “If I am hit by another driver without insurance, what does my policy cover and for how much?” If you cannot answer that question, then you need to take another look at your insurance policy.

Each insurance policy has a set amount of coverages for the property damage to the car and for the medical bills. For example, a policy may have Personal Injury Protection or Medical Payment Coverage that pays for medical bills incurred because of an automobile collision. These pay up to the “policy limit,” which is the total dollar amount that an insurance policy covers. The “policy limit” is the total amount of money that an insurance company will pay on the claim.

When two cars collide, there is usually property damage and bodily injury. The property damage is the damage to your car. If the value of the car is less than the cost to repair it, then it is considered a “total loss,” and you are entitled to the value of the car just prior to the collision. If it’s not a total loss, your car will be repaired. The value is not the “replacement value” but the value of your vehicle in its condition at the time the collision happened.

The bodily injury claim is another story. When cars collide, there is a lot of force put on the human body. Connective tissues, bones, and organs were not designed to absorb the amount of force that can be placed on a human body by a collision even at low speeds. The bodily injury component of an auto collision claim is usually the largest part of the claim, and is what pays for the harms that are proven as a result of the collision.

You cannot buy insurance when you need it. You must buy it before. It is important, therefore, to review your policies now. Most people do not grasp how much risk is taken while driving. Make sure that your insurance policy isn’t the cheapest, but rather the one that gives you the coverages you need. Imagine being left disabled by an uninsured driver with no assets. Now imagine going to the grocery store and squeezing blood from a turnip. With the increased economic struggles, more people are driving without insurance and the likelihood of being smashed into by someone without insurance is high. Finally, consider that if you are in a severe accident and have to be life-flighted to the nearest trauma hospital, unless the driver that caused the vehicle is driving on behalf of a large corporation, you are going to be far better off knowing that you have adequate insurance to cover those expenses.

An insurance policy does not mean that an insurance company will pay you what you think you are owed. It means you have enforceable contractual and legal rights. It also means that there is something to go after in order to recover from a collision. If an insurance company can save $1,000 on 1,000 claims, it makes $1,000,000. Keep this in mind throughout every interaction with an insurance company. Nickels and dimes add up on thousands and thousands of claims, and can be devastating to those who need those nickels and dimes to recover.

Considerations When Obtaining Medical Treatment

How much you are able to financially recover from the harms suffered from the collision will boil down to evidence. That evidence will, in large part, be from the medical records of the diagnostics and treatment that you have undergone to recover from your injuries. This means that it will be what your medical providers write in their records that will provide the documentary evidence of the bodily injury sustained as a result of the collision. Your entire medical history will likely come into play, as the insurance defense lawyers will be fishing for anything to protect the insurance company money.

The first mistake most people make is believing that they weren’t “that injured” and that they can recover without any treatment. Then a month later and still in pain—they seek treatment. Using this, the insurance company says there is too much of a “gap in treatment,” and if the claimant was really injured she would have sought treatment sooner. Later, the “gap in treatment” is spun to imply that the person is dishonest and just realized she could make an insurance claim for money.

The moral of the story is to get checked out as soon as possible. You need to be mindful of where you go. Some hospitals will suddenly run up the bill upon figuring out that you may have a medical payment insurance. If you have a medical payments policy of $10,000 and the emergency room bill is magically $9,950, you may have a hard time getting any therapy that actually helps you recover after the ER visit. Thus, absent severe trauma, it may be best to avoid a hospital emergency room and opt instead to go to a local provider like your primary care doctor or a storefront urgent care.

An insurance company is only obligated to pay those medical bills that are reasonable, necessary, and related to the injuries sustained in the collision. In other words, there is plenty of room for them to hire experts to say that your treatment was not “reasonable” and that you “over-treated,” or to attack the amount of the medical bills as not reasonable and customary. Therefore, you need a doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist, or other health care provider who will be willing to stand behind their treatment and testify on your behalf. More and more, hospitals, medical practice groups, and individual providers are refusing to testify and help their patients in their legal claims. Some go so far as to write the medical records in a way that fails to mention the fact that their patient was injured in a collision. This becomes a big deal when there is a surgery and a surgeon refuses to help. Most of these providers are up front about whether they will help you or not, but you have to be careful when asking because these questions can be documented in your patient chart and used against you when trying to prove your claim (ask before becoming a patient).

The unfortunate problem with medical records is that they are primarily written in part to protect the doctor and medical providers. Medical records are not a verbatim transcript of what occurred in the visit but are there to chart the visit for continuity of care purposes and for the doctor to have a record of the subjective complaints, objective findings, the analysis of those issues, and the treatment plan.

When a lawsuit is filed, the defense attorney is going to ask for all of your medical history through discovery. With the advent of electronic medical records, diagnoses—whether correct or not—have a way of being repeated for months or years. For example, you may have told a doctor about going through some tough circumstances and find that the doctor gave you a diagnosis of depression that now travels throughout your medical records. Or, you strained your back working in the yard a few years ago only to find that it is still charted as an ongoing and active diagnosis. These diagnoses are often used by insurance companies in defending claims to make you out to be dishonest or to show you were actually hurt by something other than the collision.

The medical care you receive will be based mostly on the injuries you suffered and their severity. But, it is important to be prudent when choosing your medical providers, as medical care is expensive and the insurance claim is the means by which you are likely going to recover those costs. Therefore, be sure your providers will help support your claim and not hinder it.

Personal Injury Attorneys

Liability insurance companies are masters of litigation. It’s their business model. These companies handle thousands and thousands of claims every day. They have lawyers, medical experts, and all the resources to defend against your claim. Insurance laws and contracts can be complicated, and insurance companies do not hesitate to take advantage of those who don’t know or understand their rights. Enter the personal injury attorney!

You have seen the television ads, billboards, and google pop-up advertising the services of a personal injury attorney. They range from sole practitioners to large law firms. Some are really amazing lawyers and advocates for their clients. Some law firms take a lot of time and focus on smaller case loads, while others are affectionately known as “settlement mills” that handle high volumes of cases. If you call a personal injury law firm and that firm sends out an “investigator” to meet with you and to “sign you up,” then you are likely dealing with a settlement mill that spends a lot of money advertising and makes money on a large volume of clients. With volume, you sacrifice the individual focus and attention on your case.

When searching for a personal injury attorney, at a minimum, you should at least speak with the lawyer, who is going to represent you and help you through a difficult time. Make sure you are comfortable with him or her representing you, and that you are a good fit. Personal injury attorneys like to carry the title of Trial Lawyer, but a shocking number of them either have never tried a case or are afraid to and do not like litigation. So, at a minimum, the lawyer you hire should have some experience fighting insurance companies in Court.

Here are some questions to ask:

-How long have they been practicing?

-Have they tried cases in Court to verdict?

-Do they focus their practice on personal injury?

-Have they ever lost a case? (A sign of a good lawyer is one who is willing to try tough cases and sometimes lose and be honest about it.)

The answers to these questions will help you get a feel for how they are going to be as they represent you.

Concluding Thoughts—It Takes Time

Finally, it’s shocking how long it can take to resolve automobile collision claims. They can go on for years and years. This is in part because it can take a long time for a person to recover from the injuries and because insurance companies make more money the longer the claim drags on. Keep in mind that the insurance company for the at-fault driver will not pay for anything until the claim is finally resolved and either a settlement agreement is reached or a judgment is entered in court following a verdict. That means that if you do not have insurance to pay medical bills or lost wages during this time, you can face financial hardship. So, other than defensive driving, making sure you have adequate insurance policies in place can make all the difference.

Not all insurance brokers are equal in the automobile insurance world, and some of the best coverages are just not available on online websites. For example, some auto insurance companies offer a million-dollar or higher combined UIM 1/Umbrella liability policy. That means that if you die in a collision with a driver who is either uninsured or has a very low policy, your heirs can get the benefit of the policy. Likewise, being an umbrella policy, you are covered if a toddler rolls out in front of you on a tricycle and you hit them. If you have assets and you do not have a large liability policy to protect you, you are at serious risk of losing your assets should you injure someone else.

Liability insurance companies specialize in courtroom litigation. It’s how they make their money. Insurance companies do not care about how injured a human being is—rather, they care about what that person can prove and how much risk (amount of a jury verdict) or exposure they face. All of this for what most people would call a “simple” automobile accident. Ultimately, every automobile accident claim becomes a narrative story and the extent to which you recover depends on the credibility of that story, and the witnesses that tell it.

Therefore, what you do before a collision will make a huge difference in how you recover from it. Making sure that you have the right insurance coverage in place, prior to a collision, is critical to being able to recover from one. Knowing what to do when you are in a collision will ensure that you will have documented the evidence in order to prove your case. Finally, a good lawyer can help you navigate the insurance and legal issues to help you come out financially made whole.

Articles by Matt Hale:

1 UIM can stand for Underinsured or Uninsured Motorist Coverage. This pays on behalf of the at-fault driver who either does not have insurance or a minimal policy. Each state defines these coverages differently.

About the Author:

Matthew R. Hale (Matt Hale) is a trial lawyer who has dedicated his practice to represent injured people. He has worked for almost two decades honing his trial skills to obtain positive results for his clients.


Matt has requested that we donate his authors fee for this article. We have contributed to CHD-TV in honor of their success protecting children from harm.