Today’s cars are safer than ever. But even with all of the added safety features, car accidents continue to occur daily. California has it’s fair share of accidents. Each year over 160,000 people are injured or killed in collisions on California roadways.¹
If you’ve been in a California car accident, you need to know applicable laws, where to file accident reports, how to collect evidence, when to call insurance companies, the role of police, and more.
Knowing what to do and say in the aftermath of a car accident is critical, especially if you decide to pursue a property damage or personal injury claim.
What You Need to Know if You’ve Been in a California Car Accident…
Here are 10 steps to help you get through an accident. There are also answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that commonly come up at an accident scene.
Stopping immediately after an accident isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the law. If you’ve been in an accident, pull over in a safe place and call 911. The 911 operator will have a list of questions. It’s important you’re prepared to answer those questions. Your answers will determine whether police, paramedics, or tow trucks will be dispatched to the scene.
Your location. Street names, highway exits, mile markers, and landmarks are important. Tell the operator what side of the road you’re on and what direction you were traveling. This will help assure emergency personnel arrive quickly.
If there are injuries. The 911 operator needs to know if there are obvious injuries or if anyone is unconscious. Let them know if anyone is in pain, vomiting, or complaining of nausea.
If the accident scene is dangerous. Accidents scenes are inherently dangerous. Cars may be pointing in different directions, or protruding into traffic lanes. Tell the 911 operator what the scene looks like. This will help determine what type of emergency personnel need to be summoned, and whether tow trucks are required.
Do the police have to respond to the accident?
No. Each law enforcement agency has their own guidelines determining when police, fire and rescue will be dispatched. If there aren’t any injuries and the accident isn’t blocking traffic, the police might not be dispatched at all.
What are my legal duties after a collision?
If you’ve been involved in an accident on a California roadway resulting in injuries, you must stop immediately at the scene of the crash. You are then required to give the other driver the following:
- Your name or the car owner’s name (if different)
- Registration number of the car you were driving
- If asked, you’re also required to show your driver’s license to anyone involved or to any police officer at the scene
What if I’m not injured, but the other driver or passengers are?
The law requires you to render “reasonable assistance” to anyone injured in the crash. This is true even if the accident wasn’t your fault. Reasonable assistance can include driving those injured to the emergency room. Even if you don’t think someone is injured, if they ask you to take them for medical treatment, you’re required to do so.
Can I be sued if I help someone who is injured?
No. California’s “Good Samaritan” law protects you if you render assistance to an injured person while at an accident scene. This Good Samaritan law reads in part:
“No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or non-medical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”
The intent of the law is to encourage people to help each other during emergency situations.
What if I’m injured?
While you may believe you were merely “shaken up” after the accident, it’s possible you were indeed injured and just don’t know it. After a car accident, adrenaline pumps through your body, masking pain and injuries. Keep in mind that some injuries, including swelling, strains and sprains, can take several days before symptoms show.
On the other hand, if you’re in pain, bleeding, having trouble breathing or focusing, you may be seriously injured. When the paramedics arrive they will evaluate you and determine whether your injuries are serious enough to require transportation to the local hospital.
Be sure to seek medical treatment immediately. Insurance companies often consider a delay in treatment as a sign that the injuries were actually from some other event. This can cause them to deny any claim you make.
Do I have to report the accident to the California Department of Motor Vehicles?
If you’re involved in an accident on a California roadway, you must report the accident to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if:
- There was property damage of more than $750 or
- Anyone was injured (no matter how minor) or
- Anyone was killed
Where can I obtain the Accident Report form?
You can download the SR-1 Report of Traffic Accident Form here, or contact your local DMV office, CHP, police or insurance company.
California Department of Motor Vehicles
Post Office Box 942884
Sacramento, CA 94284-0884
What if I’ve been injured and I can’t report the accident?
In the event you’re injured in the accident and are physically unable to file an accident report, a passenger in your car must report the accident.
What if I collide with a parked car and no one was in it?
If you can’t locate the owner of the car, you must leave a note in a conspicuous place on the vehicle. The note should include an explanation of what happened, along with your name and address.
In the aftermath of a car accident there may be injuries, property damage, or both. Information gathered at the accident scene provides the foundation upon which you will build your property damage and personal injury claims.
- Current home addresses
- The names and addresses of injured passengers
- The registration numbers of the cars in the accident
*Note: If the car owner is someone other than the driver, get the name and address of the owner as well.
How can the evidence I gather at the accident scene help?
Accident scenes are fluid, so it’s important not to waste time. Before too long cars will be towed away, drivers and witnesses gone, and the police will be heading back to the station to complete their accident reports.
To support you claim for damages, you will need evidence of the other driver’s negligence. You will also need to prove that as a direct result of the driver’s negligence, you sustained property damage and/or personal injuries.
Evidence collected at the accident scene will serve as the foundation upon which you’ll build a viable property damage and personal injury claim. The evidence will support your claim for “damages.”
What are Damages?
Damages are unique to every accident and to every person involved. In property damage and personal injury claims resulting from a car accident, damages can include a number of things, such as:
- Medical, dental and therapy bills
- Diagnostic tests: X-Rays, CT Scans, MRIs, etc.
- Out-of-pocket expenses: medications, slings, crutches, wheelchairs, costs of travel to treatment, hospital parking fees, etc.
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
Begin documenting your damages immediately and continue to do so through your treatment and recovery period. This will be vital in settling your personal injury claim down the line. You should always remember to make copies of medical and therapy bills and all records, receipts for out-of-pocket expenses, and verification of your lost wages.
Is there any other information I need to help my claim?
Yes. The more information you can gather at the scene of the accident, the better. Having solid evidence demonstrates that you’re serious about your claim and dedicated to resolving it promptly and fairly. Try to gather the following:
- Information about all other vehicles involved:
− Make, model, year
− License plate number and registration expiration date
− Vehicle identification number (VIN) *Note: The VIN number can normally be found on the car’s dashboard in the left corner where the dashboard and windshield meet. It can also be found on the driver’s insurance card or inside the driver’s side door jam.
- Contact information for everyone involved (drivers and passengers):
− Full name
− Home and business addresses
− Telephone number(s) & Email
− Date of birth
− Drivers license number *Note: If the other person involved in the accident is not the owner of the vehicle, be sure to get the information listed above for the registered owner as well.
- Witness information:
− Name & Address
− Phone number & Email address
− Statement about what they saw *Note: While witnesses are not legally required to remain on the scene until police arrive, it may be beneficial to you if you can convince them to stay. This would allow the opportunity for them to give their statement to the officer.
- Draw a diagram of the accident scene. Note the location of each car immediately before and after the collision. Also, try to estimate the speed each vehicle was traveling at before the collision occurred.
- Current weather conditions (Is it raining/snowing/sunny outside? Are there strong winds or foggy conditions that could have contributed to the accident?)
- Time of day the accident occurred
Are photographs and video important?
Yes! Photographs and video taken at the scene can be very valuable in property damage and personal injury cases. Use a digital camera, cell phone, iPad or other electronic device to take multiple photos and videos of the crash scene. Be sure to include sound so you can capture possible witness statements, other drivers’ admission of fault, possible intoxication, etc.
Photos and videos can also help identify the position of the cars immediately after the collision, weather conditions, or any road hazards that could have contributed to the accident. They can also reflect the demeanor of the other drivers, passengers, and any witnesses at the time of the accident.
By taking photographs and video, you’re essentially recording evidence that’s difficult for anyone involved to dispute later.
Are witness statements important?
Yes! Witness statements can be quite important in the pursuit of your claim. While witnesses aren’t under any legal obligation to speak with you or give any kind of written statement, persuading them to do so can be extremely helpful.
If you’re able to find witnesses who agree to speak with you, get some paper and a pen and ask each of them individually to write down what they saw and heard. If they believe the other driver was at fault, make sure they include that statement as well as their reason for feeling that way.
Be sure to get their mailing address and phone number so that they can be contacted at a later time by insurance investigators and others who may have questions for them. When their written statement is complete, have them sign and date every page.
Your car insurance policy is a legally binding contract between you (the insured) and your insurance company (the insurer). It contractually obligates your insurance company to provide coverage for you. This includes providing an attorney to represent you at no charge if you’re sued by another person injured in the accident.
In return, you are obligated to notify your insurance company about any incidents immediately after they occur. You must also cooperate with them throughout the investigation of your accident claim, and if necessary during a lawsuit. This information can be found in the “Cooperation Clause” of your insurance policy.
“The insured shall:
- Cooperate with the company by reporting accidents promptly after their occurrence
- Assist in the investigation of accidents and claims
- Attend hearings, trials, and depositions
- Assist in securing and giving evidence and obtaining the attendance of witnesses.”
For more information about the cooperation clause and its effects, read “Insurance 101: Don’t Forget the Policy Conditions.”
Are there penalties if I don’t report the accident to my insurance company?
Yes. Failing to comply with the terms of the policy’s Cooperation Clause can result in your insurance company deciding not to renew your policy at its expiration, raising your premiums, and in extreme cases they may even cancel your policy.
Will my insurance company raise my premiums if I report the accident?
While insurance rates are different with every carrier, in most cases your premiums will not go up if the accident wasn’t your fault. However, the decision to raise your premiums will depend upon several factors, including prior accidents, existence and severity of injuries, the costs of property damage, and other factors which are proprietary to each insurance company.
Why do I have to notify my own insurance company if I didn’t cause the accident?
By failing to promptly report the accident to your insurance company you may unintentionally give the other driver a substantial advantage.
This is true when the other driver reports the accident to his insurance company before you report it to yours. After reviewing the accident report, the insurance company may decide the accident wasn’t entirely his fault, but that you contributed to the accident and share some of the liability.
Is it wrong to admit the accident was my fault?
Yes. There is no legal or practical reason for you to admit the accident was your fault. This is especially important at the actual accident scene. While you may honestly think you were at fault, there are factors you’re unaware of which may show the other driver is also at fault. But once you admit the accident was your fault it’s difficult to rescind that admission later.
Why must I notify my insurance company if the other driver says he wasn’t hurt in the accident?
While the driver may have told you he wasn’t hurt, things can quickly change. Some injuries take hours or even days to appear. By failing to tell your insurance company there was an accident, you have denied them critical time and opportunity to investigate. This investigation is vital in their effort to protect themselves (and you) from claims of property damage or personal injuries.
Here are a few reasons you should notify your insurance company after an accident:
Delayed Symptoms: The other driver and their passengers may have delayed symptoms of injuries. Some injuries can take hours or even days to appear after an accident.
No Insurance: The other driver might not want you to know that he doesn’t have proof of financial responsibility (property damage and liability insurance). Moreover, the driver may have been worried that if the police responded to the scene, he may be ticketed or arrested for failure to carry insurance.
Fraud: The other driver or passengers may decide to “cash-in” on the accident by filing bogus personal injury claims following the accident. Unfortunately, this is a frequent occurrence. If your insurance company does not have the opportunity to promptly stop these false claims, it can lead to thousands of dollars in unwarranted payments. Moreover, when this occurs, the insurance company will likely hold the fact that you failed to report the accident against you, leading to adverse consequences.
What should I do if the other driver says I’m at fault and demands I pay him for his damage or injuries?
Do not pay the other driver or agree to pay them in the future. That’s why you have auto insurance. Report the accident to your insurance company and let them investigate. Your insurance company will not pay a penny to the other driver unless they decide you were at least partially responsible for the accident.
Are there mobile apps to report the accident to the insurance company?
Yes. Today many insurance companies have mobile applications (apps) which facilitate reporting car accidents. These apps usually have the ability to:
- Give a GPS location of the accident scene
- Initiate a claim
- Fulfill the reporting requirement with the insurance company
- Create and send state required auto crash report
- Take photographs
- Draw a 3-dimensional sketch of the accident scene
- Collect detail personal information, driver’s license information, insurance information and more
Below are just a few of the companies offering car accident reporting applications:
The State of California follows a 3rd Party Liability Rule. Many states are no-fault insurance states, where both parties in a car accident turn to their own insurance companies for compensation. But California is different. The victim of a California car accident may pursue the at-fault driver for any property damage or personal injuries they sustained.
What are my options if another driver crashes into me?
If you’ve been in an accident and sustained property damage or personal injuries because of the other driver’s negligence, you have the following options:
- File a property damage or personal injury claim with your own insurance company (this is referred to as a “First party claim”)
- File a property damage or personal injury claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company (this is referred to as a “Third party claim”)
- File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver
In car accidents, pure comparative negligence refers to comparing the negligence of each driver and then distributing any compensation according to each driver’s percentage of fault for the accident.
Under the Pure Comparative Negligence Rule, the victim of a California car accident can still seek compensation from a negligent driver even if the victim shared some responsibility for the accident. This is true whether the victim was 1% at fault or 99% at fault for the accident.
The amount of compensation the victim receives will be reduced by the percentage of the victim’s own negligence for the accident.
Paula was driving to work northbound in the far right lane on Pacific Coast Highway heading toward Malibu. Joey was also in the right lane, driving right behind her. He wanted to pass Paula so he slowly moved into the center lane and increased his speed. Once he thought he had passed Paula, he moved back into the right lane in front of her.
Unfortunately, when Joey moved back into the right lane, his car collided with the driver’s side front quarter panel of Paula’s car, causing both cars to veer off the road. The crash fractured Paula’s left wrist against the steering wheel. Both drivers called 911.
Two other drivers pulled off the road to see if anyone was injured. When the police and paramedics arrived, they treated Paula and transported her to the local hospital. Both witnesses spoke with the officer and gave their accounts of what they believed caused the crash.
The police issued a traffic citation to Joey under § 21750 (a), which reads:
“The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle, subject to the limitations and exceptions set forth in this article.”
The investigating officer determined Joey moved back into the right lane in front of Paula before it was safe to do so, therefore causing the crash.
However, Paula was also issued a citation under California Code § 21753, which reads in part:
“… the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall safely move to the right-hand side of the highway in favor of the overtaking vehicle and shall not increase the speed of his or her vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.”
The investigating officer determined that instead of allowing Joey to safely pass, Paula increased her speed, and therefore contributed to the accident.
Paula filed a personal injury claim with Joey’s insurance company, demanding $50,000 for her medical bills and related damages. Both sides could not agree on a settlement amount and the case went to trial. During trial Paula, Joey, the investigating police officer, paramedics, and both witnesses testified.
During deliberation, the jury determined Joey’s negligence was the primary cause of the crash. However, they also determined Paula’s injuries would not have been as severe if she had been wearing her seat belt.
Basing its verdict on California’s Pure Comparative Fault Statute, the jury apportioned Joey’s percentage of negligence at 75% and Paula’s at 25%. That percentage translated into a jury verdict in Paula’s favor. However, the amount of $50,000 demanded by Paula was reduced by 25% (the percentage she was at fault), resulting in Paula’s net jury award of $37,500.
*Under California’s Pure Comparative Fault Statute, even if the jury had determined Paula was 99% at fault, she still would have been able to recover $50, representing Paula’s 99% fault, and Joey’s 1%.
Do the police have to respond to my accident?
No – Because of the sheer number of California car accidents occurring each day, it’s virtually impossible for police to respond to each one. Each city, town and county law enforcement agency has their own policies regarding dispatching officers to the scene of an accident. Police officers will not normally be dispatched to the scene unless there are injuries involved, the cars are blocking traffic, or if there is an issue that presents a danger to others.
Depending upon the location of the accident, the appropriate law enforcement agency will be dispatched to the accident scene. These may be city police officers, sheriff’s’ deputies, or highway state troopers. In some cases, when there is overlapping jurisdiction, more than one agency may be dispatched.
- Secure the accident scene so it’s safe for others
- Summon fire and rescue if necessary
- Investigate the cause of the accident, including skid marks, driver demeanor, road obstructions, and weather conditions
- Question drivers, passengers, and witnesses
- Run background checks on those at the scene
- Issue traffic citations where appropriate
- Administer field sobriety tests where applicable
- Make arrests if necessary
Does law enforcement have to listen to my side of the story?
No. When law enforcement officers arrive, they are there to perform very specific functions. These are functions they train for and in which they have extensive expertise. While you have a right to speak with a police officer, the officer is under no legal obligation to engage in conversation with you, nor listen to what you have to say about the accident or how you think it was caused.
However, it’s likely that during the course of their investigation a law enforcement officer will ask you questions. These can include requesting identification, proof of insurance, car registration, driver’s license information, and more.
It’s best to keep any frustration in check. Refrain from insisting you be heard, having snide remarks or making demands. Doing so may only impede the officer’s investigation. If you persist after the officer has asked you to step back, you may be arrested.
What if I’m issued a traffic citation?
During the accident investigation the officer may decide you were in violation of one or more traffic laws. If so, you may be issued a traffic citation. While you have every right to try talking the officer out of issuing the citation, you must accept it once it has been issued.
It’s important to remember that a traffic citation, even after signing it, is not proof of guilt. A traffic citation is merely an agreement you will appear in court to answer for the ticket. At that time you can choose to contest the citation and ask for a trial.
Depending on your driving record, you may be able to negotiate with the prosecutor a plea where instead of pleading guilty, you’re placed on a probationary period in which you agree not to receive any further citations. You may also have to pay a fine and possibly attend a defensive driving course. However, once these are all completed the citation may be dismissed and not appear on your driving record.
The State of California requires drivers to carry insurance policies to cover property damage and personal injuries sustained in car accidents.
The purpose of California’s “financial responsibility” law is to ensure drivers have a means to pay for any damages they may cause to others in an accident.
- $15,000 for injury or death to one person, in one accident (including the driver, passenger, or pedestrian)
- $30,000 for injury or death to two or more persons in one accident
- $5,000 for damage to property in one accident
Most property damage claims can be managed without legal representation. The same holds true for some personal injury claims. However, there are other injury claims which always require the expertise of an experienced personal injury attorney.
What’s the difference?
Whether or not you will need legal representation primarily depends on the type of injuries. There are two categories of personal injuries. These are generally referred to as “soft tissue” and “hard injuries.”
Soft tissue injuries can include sprains and strains, minor bruising, abrasions, minor burns, whiplash, or similar minor injuries. Soft tissue injuries are normally not complex, and generally don’t result in substantial medical, chiropractic, or therapy bills. These injuries require a minimal amount of medical treatment, few or no diagnostic tests, and a relatively short period of physical therapy, ranging from a few weeks to several months.
These soft tissue injuries also result in a nominal amount of prescribed medications, some lost wages, and a relatively low amount of pain and suffering, sometimes referred to as emotional distress or mental anguish.
Hard injuries are much more serious and can include head trauma, disfigurement, loss of body parts, compound fractures, third degree burns, deep gashes resulting in scarring, or other similarly serious injuries. Treatment for these injuries can include expensive and protracted medical treatment, diagnostic testing, and more.
In hard injury claims victims, representing themselves are at a substantial disadvantage. These “pro-se” victims simply don’t have the skills required to persuade insurance company claims adjusters to offer settlements which are fair….at least amounts which the victim believes is fair.
Skilled insurance claims adjusters are experts at leading victims to believe they are skilled negotiators. However, you can be sure the adjuster won’t tell you the policy limits of the insured, or how the settlement offer was arrived at.
Claims adjusters are not required to help you… period. No matter how empathetic the adjuster may seem, in most cases it’s just an act, played over and over many times a week. Adjusters are intent on saving their employers as much money as they can while offering victims the lowest settlement possible.
As a result, you won’t know whether the driver who crashed into you had the minimum amounts of liability insurance, or much more. Or whether the driver admitted fault, or had previous accidents. And once the insurance company claims adjuster tells you that’s his or her final offer, it’s basically “take it, or leave it,” whether you like it or not.
This is where the experience and expertise of a personal injury attorney is so important. Seasoned injury attorneys have a plethora of legal tools to rely on. They can learn the policy limits of the at-fault driver, discover the driver’s past record of accidents, citations, prior arrests, and more.
This information would be extremely difficult for you to find on your own. Much of the information learned by an attorney is the product of a lawsuit and the ensuing pretrial discovery process. Attorneys can issue subpoenas to drivers and witnesses (to appear for their sworn depositions), file motions to discover, send requests for production of documents, and much more.
It’s fair to say insurance companies don’t like plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys. Lawsuits cost insurance companies millions of dollars each year in legal fees, settlements, and other costs. As a result, rather than having to pay legal fees to defend a lawsuit, the insurance company may prefer to settle your personal injury claim with your attorney, especially if they think your attorney is about to file a lawsuit.
How much do attorneys charge?
Most personal injury attorneys do not charge any legal fees for an initial office consultation. However, once you settle on an attorney to represent you, the attorney will accept your case on a “contingency fee” basis.
A contingency fee basis means you will not have to pay the attorney any legal fees until the attorney settles your case or wins it at trial. Once your claim is settled or won at trial, you will only have to pay the attorney a percentage of the gross settlement amount or court award. Those percentages range from 25% to 40%, depending on the complexity of the case.
If your attorney is unable to settle your claim or loses the case at trial, you will owe the attorney nothing.
Can I negotiate the attorney’s fees?
Yes. You have every right to negotiate legal fees before agreeing to retain an attorney. However, most personal injury attorney will not agree to negotiate legal fees lower than 25%, with most agreeing to 33.3% fee.
The attorney representing you has to pay all the costs of the lawsuit in advance out of his or her own pocket. The costs can include private investigators, court reporter fees, filing fees, and more. These costs can be substantial, especially in a serious injury claim.
Your attorney has a built-in incentive to settle your claim or win a court verdict as high as possible. The attorney not only has an ethical duty to do so, but the higher the settlement or court verdict, the greater the attorney’s fees.
If after speaking with the at-fault driver’s insurance company, they deny your claim, you may have to file a lawsuit to get compensation. If you have minor injuries and can’t find an attorney to take your case, you can sue the driver in small claims court.
California Small Claims Courts exist to help those who can’t afford, or don’t want to retain an attorney, but who have sustained some sort of personal injury or property damage and want the at-fault driver to pay.
Small Claims Courts were created by the California Legislature to provide a forum in which parties who believe they have been wronged may bring their cases before a judge, and do so in a relatively informal setting where the strict Rules of Evidence followed by licensed attorneys do not apply.
- The at-fault driver’s insurance company denies your claim
- The at-fault driver’s insurance company will not offer a settlement amount you believe fairly compensates you for your damages
- The at-fault driver was uninsured or under-insured at the time of the crash
- You choose not to file a claim with your own insurance company
- You can’t find an attorney who will agree to represent you
Do I sue the at-fault driver or the driver’s insurance company?
You’re required to sue the at-fault driver and not the driver’s insurance company. The insurance company did not cause the accident. It’s merely the entity which supplies compensation to you when warranted.
Where can I find out more information about filing a small claims lawsuit?
For more information about California Small Claims Courts see the California Department of Consumer Affairs or the California Courts web page.
In property damage and personal injury claims, each state has a statutory period of time in which a victim in a car accident has to either settle his or her claim or file a lawsuit. That period of time is called the “Statute of Limitations.”
If a victim, for just about any reason fails to settle his or her claim and does not file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations period, the victim loses his or her legal right to pursue that at-fault driver for compensation for damages arising out of the crash.
What is the Statute of Limitations in California for my personal injury claim?
There is a two year statute of limitations in California for personal injury claims. This means if you were injured in a California car accident and the other driver was at fault, you must either settle your personal injury claim or file a lawsuit within two years, or lose your legal right to compensation.
What do I do if my insurance company is stalling and the Statute of Limitations is about to expire?
It is your legal responsibility to know the statute of limitations period for your personal injury claim. Enter the date of the accident and mark the date two years after on your calendar, in your computer, and into your cell phone calendar. Give yourself plenty of reminders. If the insurance company is stalling and you can’t settle your claim before the statute of limitations date, seek the advice and counsel of a local personal injury attorney.
It’s important to know, once a lawsuit has been filed the statute of limitations is “tolled.” This means once you file a lawsuit (even a small claim lawsuit), the statute of limitations no longer applies.
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