Five Mistakes to Avoid in Your Car or Truck Accident Case

We have been handling automobile and truck collision cases for a combined 51 years and we tend to see the same mistakes over and over again.  We have a unique outlook on this because we have both in the past been on the other side of the table representing the insurance companies and the drivers who caused the collisions.  This unique position enables us to offer you this brief guide to ensure that you receive a fair settlement for your claim. 

Mistake 1 - It's All About Information

In the Washington area there are many cars, many trucks and many accidents.  We also have the worst set of laws in the United States that govern such cases.  This is not a political opinion it is a fact.  Quite simply, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia all have the doctrine of contributory negligence.  While an overwhelming majority of states in our country have the much fairer system of comparative negligence, each of the local governments retains the old and unfair system that rewards dangerous drivers.

Contributory negligence stands for the law that even where one driver is overwhelmingly at fault for an accident, the other injured driver can not collect any money unless they are completely free from negligence themselves.  Which is to say if you are involved in a collision where it is clear that 99% of the fault lies with the other driver if you can be seen to be even 1% at fault for the incident you are denied any compensation for your injuries. 

As one could imagine this produces some very unfair results.  While we use many tools in the course of our practice, two very important ones are Metro Verdicts Monthly and the Maryland Daily Record.  These periodicals report on verdicts in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.  What is clear from the verdict reports is that there are many instances where juries find fault with injured parties under ridiculous circumstances.  These routinely include findings of contributory negligence on the part of injured drivers who are either stopped or are slowing down to stop and are struck with great force from behind by other drivers.  In most states such cases would be settled by the insurance company or a fair verdict returned by the jury.  In this area injured drivers are routinely punished by misapplication of the doctrine of contributory negligence by juries and judges. 

Therefore, even if think you have been injured in an accident be very careful of what you say.  We have seen innocent comments made to police officers investigating collisions, turn into allegations of contributory negligence at trial.  People who stop their cars suddenly because of traffic conditions are routinely accused of having stopped so suddenly that it was impossible for the negligent driver behind them to avoid a collision.  People merging onto highways and yielding to the traffic on the highway, are accused of having slowed down unnecessarily by the striking driver behind them who could not see whether there were cars preventing them from merging.  Drivers who are stopped at stop signs or traffic lights are asked how long they were stopped and if they give an estimate of a few minutes are routinely subjected to the old insurance lawyer defense trick of having to sit and watch the clock tick for two or even three minutes in silence in front of jury.  It is amazing how long a minute or even two minutes can seem in a courtroom. 

The bottom line:  If you have a realistic way of knowing how long you were stopped (the length of a favorite song on the radio) that is fine, otherwise merely indicate that you were stopped, that you did not stop suddenly and that you were struck.  In a very similar vein, speed is often an important issue.  If you know for a fact that you were doing any particular speed immediately prior to a collision that is fine but if the speed you know you were going was in excess of the posted speed limit that is guaranteed to come up at your trial as a means of saying that you were contributory negligent. 

If you have passengers in your vehicle, take an inventory of what they recall in regard to how the accident happened.  Often, they will have useful information about the other driver's behavior or how long you had been stopped or whether you stopped gradually or abruptly.  This can be helpful information when the investigating officer comes on the scene.  Obviously, if there are multiple witnesses in your car who substantiate the fact that you did nothing wrong this will strongly influence how the police officer writes his report and often will influence what the offending driver tells the police officer.  A police report or investigation where the offending driver admits they are responsible for the accident is invaluable particularly in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia where contributory negligence always looms as an issue down the road. 

Mistake 2:  Don't leave valuable evidence at the scene

If you and your passengers are fit to do so and you do not put yourself at further risk, investigate the collision.  Often there are witnesses who are hurrying to work, school or elsewhere and who would be happy to help but do not want to be delayed.  Get their names, addresses, tag numbers and phone numbers and ask them what they saw and who was at fault.  If you have a camera phone, or any kind of camera take pictures of where the cars ended up after the collision.  Take pictures of the damage to both cars.  If there are witnesses and you can depict in a photograph where they were located and what they might have seen, take a picture of that as well.  If there are large skid marks which obviously came from the vehicle that struck you, these could be good evidence of the fact that the other driver was going to fast and not paying attention.  Any information or investigation that you get at the scene can be invaluable later.  As time goes by, people's memories fade and their willingness to testify may be reduced.  If you can persuade witnesses to remain to the scene and talk to the investigating officer, this is worthwhile.  Some times prevailing on people's sense of civic duty or "if this happened to you wouldn't you want witnesses to stick around" can result in their taking extra time and remaining at the scene.  This evidence might otherwise disappear for good.

Mistake 3: Pay attention to what your body is telling you.

After a collision, if you think there is any possibility that you are hurt, make sure you tell the investigating officer.  They will often ask if you need an ambulance or medical assistance.  If you say no and it turns out later that you had a significant injury, this can come back to haunt you.  It is human nature that after a collision we all want to shake it off and get on with our lives.  Unfortunately, this will often undermine your claim down the road.  If you do not choose to go to the hospital in an ambulance make sure that you make an appointment to see a doctor as soon as is practical.  If you hurt yourself and do not see a doctor for several weeks while you mend yourself, you can rest assured that the insurance company or their lawyers, will point out that you could not possibly have been that hurt or you would have gone to the doctor.

Mistake 4:  Do not speak to the other driver's insurance company

This one bears repeating, do not speak to the other driver's insurance company.  The insurance industry generates billions of dollars in revenue every year and they spend a considerable amount training their adjusters and investigators, to use information to undermine possible claims.  It is human nature to want to get our car fixed and get on with life but when the Allstate or State Farm adjuster is talking to you shortly after the accident they will always want to get a recorded statement from you that you may regret later.  If you do not speak to the insurance adjusters for the other driver you do not run the risk of misspeaking or misunderstanding a question and providing an answer that is harmful to you.  It is far more important that you contact an attorney experienced in handling such cases so they can deal with the insurance company and advance your interests not destroy them.  Your attorney can assist you in getting your car repaired, getting a rental car and dealing with other insurance issues.  There is no benefit in speaking to the insurance company, only peril. 

Mistake 5:  Failure to give a full picture of your injuries to the doctor.

When you see a doctor, talk to a police officer or against your lawyer's recommendation talk to the insurance company, describe each and every physical problem you feel, not merely the most significant ones.  We routinely see people who break bones and at the scene, at the hospital and at the doctor's office their focus is on their broken wrist.  The fact that they also have severe whiplash which produced a herniated disc in their neck is often lost in the pain associated with the immediate injury.  A broken wrist will usually heal, a herniated disc in the neck or back will often be with you for the rest of your life.  When insurance companies and their lawyers see an emergency room record where all you mention is your broken wrist and there is no mention of the problems with your back or knee for a week, two weeks or even a month they will argue to the jury quite persuasively that if you had a serious injury to your neck, back or knee that is related to the accident you would have mentioned it at the emergency room or at your first doctor's visit.  Do not fall prey to this.  Take a comprehensive inventory of your body.  If after the collision you feel stiffness or pain in a body part make absolutely sure you tell your doctor about it and that they put it in the record. 

Often people injured in car accidents say that their whole body hurt afterward.  While this may be true, it is too vague to support later claims of serious injury.  When you are at the hospital, the doctor's office or at any healthcare provider, do your own bodily inventory.  Think from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet and if something is painful or is not working correctly make sure to mention it.  If you have cuts, bruising or other visible evidence of injury, point them out and if possible take a picture.  If you are getting medical care after a collision and you feel new pain or new problems make sure you inform your doctor or therapist as soon as possible.  Also, make it clear that you have had no other traumatic incident which could have caused this problem.  If you develop symptoms in a part of your body that you have injured before, make it clear to the doctor that you have injured that body part before and if your pain or symptoms are different this time describe this with particularity.   Many people have back and neck problems that flair up from time to time, but a car accident can cause them to hurt all the time.

There are many other rules of thumb that are important to the successful pursuit of automobile or truck collision cases but these five will get you on the way to a successful conclusion.  Retaining an attorney experienced in such cases will guarantee the best possibility for a favorable outcome.