Being involved in a motor vehicle accident is never anything we plan on, but statistically, it is virtually a certainty. Auto insurance industry statistics show that the average driver will be in a car accident once every 18 years, or four accidents during their lifetime. Nobody expects these unfortunate events, but it is a good idea to think about it and develop a plan for if or when it happens.
First of all, protect yourself and protect the accident scene. Always stop, even if it is a minor accident. Put on your hazard flashers and do whatever you can to make sure you are obvious to approaching traffic. It is a good idea to have a flashlight with a strobe function in case you are involved in an accident at night.
If you are able, gather evidence immediately. Take pictures of the involved vehicles before they are moved. Take pictures of vehicle damage, skid marks, and road conditions. Exchange insurance information with the other driver, and if you can take pictures of their insurance information and driver’s license. Identify any witnesses. If people stopped to assist or because they saw the accident, get their contact information – name, phone, e-mail. If you have an opportunity, write down a narrative of exactly what happened while the incident is fresh in your mind.
Report the accident immediately. Always call the police. When speaking with the investigating officer give factual statement about what happened. Don’t guess or speculate, only say what you know or what you say. Do not say you aren’t injured unless you are absolutely certain. Whether you were at fault or not, call your own insurance company and report the accident.
If you think you may be injured, go to the clinic or emergency room and get checked out. After an accident you will be disoriented and experiencing a natural adrenaline rush. If it extremely common that people think they are fine right after an accident, only to develop pain and injury symptoms hours or days later. If you are injured, delays in seeking treatment will affect the value of your claim. Insurance companies are more likely to consider your injuries to be minor and insignificant if you didn’t seek any treatment for a week or two after an accident. If you have any suspicion that you were injured, always err on the side of caution and go get checked out. Soft tissue injuries can take days or weeks to manifest, so the quicker you can appropriate medical attention the better.
If the other driver was at-fault, typically an adjuster from that driver’s insurance company will try to reach out to you – often very soon after the accident. They will want to take a recorded statement from you. I discourage people from doing this, at least not right away. You have no obligation to cooperate with them, and I encourage people to wait at least a week or two to see how
they are feeling. If you give a statement the day after an accident and say “I’m fine”, they will hold it against you if you find out later on you have injuries that need treatment. Wait until you are absolutely certain that you are o.k. If you give a statement to an insurance adjuster, do not minimize your injuries, and do not make any statements against your own interest. If you think you were injured always talk to an attorney first.
If you are resolving a property damage only claim with an at-fault driver’s insurance company and your vehicle is a total loss, know that the insurance company’s first offer is often not their best offer. Find comparable vehicles (comps) in your geographic area that are the same year, make, model, trim package, with similar mileage. If they are valuing your vehicle lower than the comps, send the comps to them and they may increase their offer. Get involved in repair decisions and ask questions. Insist on OEM parts and negotiate to get items replaced, not just repaired. Don’t get shortchanged at the body shop.
When in doubt always reach out to an attorney to ask questions. You can settle your own case, but Insurance Research Council statistics show that represented claimants get exponentially larger settlements than unrepresented parties. Insurance companies have trained adjusters and armies of attorneys on their side, and like any business, they are in the business of making money and protecting the bottom line. Negotiating the claims process can be very complicated for a lay-person, and insurance companies will take advantage of you and offer you lowball settlements and settle a case for pennies on the dollar if they can. If you are seriously injured in an accident, always reach out to a competent personal injury attorney to protect your rights.
Lastly, and this is very important - remember that claims can be time-barred. In Montana, most personal injury claims must be brought within three years of the accident.
Craig Hensel is a 1993 graduate of Montana State University and a 1996 graduate of the University of Montana School of Law. Craig C. Hensel has been practicing law in Billings, Montana since 1996. Craig is licensed in all state courts in Montana, all state courts in North Dakota, and Federal Court for the District of Montana. Craig spent over a decade as a prosecutor where he gained extensive courtroom and jury trial experience, trying hundreds of cases to verdict. Craig also has extensive civil experience and represented defendants and insurance companies in personal injury actions for several years, before deciding to switch sides and represent injured individuals.
Craig and his wife Katie (also a lawyer) share their west end Billings home with Tigger, a rescue cat, and Bianca and Copper, two rescue miniature dachshunds. Katie and Craig are passionate about animal rescue and Katie sits on the board of the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter. When not practicing law, Katie and Craig enjoy traveling, spending time with friends and family, live music and comedy, and enjoying the beautiful Montana outdoors.