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No one expects to be in an automobile accident, so when one does happen, what should you do?

Surprisingly enough, the first thing we ask people to remember is to shut off their ignition. I can’t tell you how many times people have gotten out of a car without putting it in park and shutting off the engine, only to watch the vehicle creep away from them.  That’s not uncommon because of the confusion caused by the impact. In many cases, a person has never experienced this before. So the first thing that you have to remember is shut off the ignition. You can always start it up again and move it later but shut it off.

You want to make sure that there are no fluids leaking that might be flammable. You don’t want to be sitting in a car with the engine running that may, in fact, explode or catch on fire.

The next thing you have to do is determine injuries, starting with yourself and any passenger you may have in the vehicle.  The problem is that many times adrenaline kicks in and people have no idea that they’re hurt. We’ve actually had people who had been bleeding and initially thought they were okay, with no injuries whatsoever. So, it’s important to do a proper assessment, either in the vehicle, if you can stay in the vehicle or out of the vehicle, if there’s an issue and you must get out of the vehicle.

The next thing to do would be to call 911. Most people do not realize this, but the police do not respond to the average 911 call involving an automobile collision. They simply don’t have enough resources. So, unless you are injured or your vehicle is blocking the road, and there’s no way for the vehicle to be moved, they oftentimes will not respond.

That being said, then your next step would be to determine if the person in the other vehicle happens to be injured and, if so call 911 even if you’re not.  Being cautious as to what you say on 911 is important because the operator has everything recorded.  For instance, we’ve had situations where a person who, because of adrenaline is not feeling any pain and they’ve said, “Oh, I’m not hurt but the person in the other vehicle is.” Should they later start to realize they were in pain, that admission on tape of their 911 call can be difficult to get around.

Once you are safely off the road, exchange information with the other driver.  especially if the police do not arrive or are not going to come.  Make sure that you get the at fault driver’s license information, by taking a photo of it with your phone if possible. Additionally  you want to get a picture of the license plate of the vehicle that hit you, and if possible, pictures of the wreckage: anything that’s in the road and positions where the vehicles are.  Document anything that will help us down the road to prove the other person is the  at fault driver.

Once you have all that information, it’s really important that you seek medical attention. Many people, up to 72 hours after an incident, say they are okay or just a little stiff.  But the injury keeps intensifying and they end up in the emergency room or they end up in an urgent care. It’s important to document your injuries.  It’s also important to follow up. If the examining physician says, go see your primary care physician, it’s very important that you follow up and do that.  Otherwise you find yourself not being able to prove the injury or prove that the injury was a result of the collision. Many times, a primary care physician will take a let’s wait and see attitude. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if in a few days you’re still hurting, you need to be back at your primary care physician or calling to get a referral for the proper care and treatment.

If it continues for a long period of time, and they’re just doing conservative care, you may want to request an MRI. X-rays only show fractures, while MRIs help determine ligament or muscle damage. So, it’s more like the Cadillac, if you will, of medical care. And they oftentimes do not want to prescribe that right away.  But if you’re still hurting and you’re not getting better, you need to address that issue.

So what is next? . You got the information that you need. You’ve gone to the urgent care or the emergency room and you’ve gone to your primary care physician. You should  call your lawyer. The reason is that insurance companies will call you up and ask for a statement which, they will record.  They can parse that statement out making the playback different.  You want to be very careful not to give a statement to the other side until you’ve spoken with an attorney.

You find yourself now in a situation where you’re trying to deal with insurance companies, your insurance company, their insurance company, and none of them are your friend. You must understand even your own insurance company wants to preserve funds. They’ll happily accept your premiums, but they don’t want to pay out. You may have what’s called an uninsured or underinsured claim against the other driver which comes from you own carrier.   For instance, the other driver may have a $25,000 policy and you got $50,000 in medical bills. Clearly that person is under-insured, but you may have under-insured coverage on your own policy. So now you have to battle with two insurance companies. You have to battle with their insurance company and the defendant driver, and you have to battle with your own insurance company. And again, they’re not your friend. At the end of the day, if one goes through this entire process, it is very rare that it is not better to have a lawyer than doing it on your own.

Yes. That’s something you ended up paying for, but in most cases, the lawyer will derive a much better benefit ultimately for you, than you can derive on your own. And that’s what you should do if you’ve been involved in an automobile collision.

Herman “Gib” Zickerman, attorney and partner at Tucson law firm, West, Longenbaugh and Zickerman, PLLC, specializes in personal injury cases, real estate law and business matters.