Determining Liability and Compensation for Parking Lot Accidents

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 20 percent of all auto accidents happen in commercial parking lots. Although parking lot accidents are usually just property damage, there are those occasions when injuries and even death occur.

“Backing-over” injuries to pedestrians are among the most serious injuries. Minor injuries include whiplash, cuts, bruises, and swollen muscles, tendons, or ligaments. They are mostly due to both the driver and pedestrian not paying attention.

Pedestrians and drivers alike often suffer from a false sense of security while in parking lots. The driver may not look while adjusting his seat belt or turning on his radio. The pedestrian might be pushing a grocery cart or speaking on their cell phone. A split second of inattention can result in serious injuries.

In this section, we cover these topics:

  • What to do if you’re involved in a parking lot accident
  • The relevance of fault
  • Preserving evidence
  • Making an insurance claim
  • Handling the claim yourself or hiring an attorney

Most non-residential or commercial parking lots don’t have traffic signals. Because of the relatively low speeds cars travel, many businesses don’t think spending money on stop or yield signs is necessary. Also, many local jurisdictions require commercial property owners to obtain zoning variances to install traffic markers.

Another problem for owners is enforcement. The nature of a stop, yield, or other traffic sign implies someone who ignores the sign is breaking a traffic law.

Although some larger commercial establishments hire security vehicles to patrol their parking lots, security personnel don’t have the authority to issue tickets. Further, with traffic signals in place, the parking lot owners make themselves targets of lawsuits. Even if no one sues them, they may have to testify about the placement of the traffic sign.

Instead, commercial parking lot owners leave the issue of liability between the drivers involved in the accidents, and on some occasions, the pedestrians who are hurt.

What if you’re in a parking lot accident?

Parking lot accidents are essentially no different from accidents on the road, but they can be deceptive. While initially the damage may appear to be minor, the possibility always remains someone may have injuries, or at least claim injuries. Never leave the scene of an accident without exchanging insurance information with the other driver.

Leaving the scene of an accident without exchanging insurance information is a crime as is not rendering aid to those who are hurt. Don’t agree with a driver who says, “Let’s leave the insurance companies out of this.” Even if you’re at fault, don’t agree to pay the other driver and “call it even.”

Although you may have the best of intentions, there are those unscrupulous people who will accept your money and later claim injuries so they can file a personal injury claim with your insurance company. They’ll do it in spite of your payment, and even file a property damage claim as well! They can use the check you innocently wrote as proof you admitted fault.

Call the Police

Although today it’s rare for the police to respond to a parking lot accident, if there are injuries or the accident is blocking the flow of traffic, the police will respond. If they come, they first check for injuries and summon fire rescue, if required. They then write an accident report.

In the report, they list the names of the drivers, passengers, and possible witnesses. They also enter insurance information from both drivers. The police officer often draws a diagram of the scene, which places fault against one driver or the other. You can pick up the report at the police station a few days later for a nominal fee.

Even if the police don’t respond, you can still complete your own informal accident report. The report is a reference you can submit to the insurance companies.

Incident reports

If there aren’t any injuries and the police decide not to respond, look for security personnel. In large commercial parking lots, especially in mall settings, security personnel drive around, primarily looking for car break-ins and ensuring customer safety.

When security personnel arrive, they should complete a management incident report. In the report, they enter the drivers’ names and contact information. The report notes the day and time of the accident and an informal description from both drivers about the cause of the accident.

They may or may not make the incident report available to you. Because a private company owns the parking lot, you don’t have a legal right to the report. If management doesn’t voluntarily give you a copy, your attorney can always subpoena one if a lawsuit becomes necessary.

The Relevance of Fault

In most parking lot accidents, no one wants to admit fault. Many drivers often point the finger at each other, each claiming he had the right of way (especially due to the lack of traffic signs). Don’t get pulled into an argument over fault. Some people are just ornery and argumentative. Instead, just exchange names, addresses, phone numbers, and insurance information.

Admitting or denying fault at this stage is unnecessary. Let the dust settle. Gather your wits and move on. If your car is inoperable, call a towing company. There’s no reason to linger at the accident scene. At this point, coming to an agreement with the other driver isn’t necessary. Tell him it’s up to the insurance companies to work out the details.

Although debating the issue of fault at the scene isn’t necessary, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself against a future property damage or injury claim. After exchanging contact and insurance information, you need to gather evidence that may serve to clear you of fault.

Collecting Evidence

Look for witnesses

As in any car accident, witnesses can be quite helpful in proving the other driver was at fault. It doesn’t have to be a formal affair. Just ask the witnesses what they saw, and whether they can write a brief informal statement about it.

You don’t need a notary public or to give a statement under oath. Just grab the closest pen and paper and ask the witnesses to write their names, contact information, and a description of what they saw. Tell them the insurance company may contact them to verify their statements. Some witnesses will want to help, others won’t want to “get involved.”

Photograph and video the accident scene

If you don’t have a camera, use your cell phone. If at all possible, don’t move the cars until you take photographs and video of the accident scene, point of impact, and surrounding area. Photographs and videos don’t lie. They tell it like it is – or was – at the time of the accident.

Check for surveillance cameras

Many commercial parking lots have surveillance cameras. The cameras may have recorded the accident in real time as it happened. That’s powerful evidence. The only problem is whether the management will give you a copy of the video. As with incident reports, if it’s a privately owned company it legally doesn’t have to release copies. If there were injuries involved and a lawsuit becomes necessary, an attorney can subpoena any videos.

Be honest with yourself

After taking some time to think about what happened, if you believe the accident was your fault, tell your insurance company. Honesty is always the best policy. There’s also no use in filing a claim with the other driver’s insurance company if, after a lengthy investigation, the company rightly concludes the accident was your fault.

Insurance Claims

When it comes to property damage to your car, it normally doesn’t matter whether you live in a no-fault or a traditional liability state. Most no-fault insurance policies don’t cover property damage, they’re limited to personal injury (with some exceptions). Although you must report any accident to your own insurance company, if you believe the other driver was responsible for the collision, file a property damage claim with his insurance company also.

When You Need an Attorney

If the parking lot accident results only in property damage to the cars and to personal property (computers, stereo equipment, jewelry, etc.), you probably won’t need an attorney. The type and severity of your injuries will determine whether or not you need a lawyer.

If your injuries are soft tissue, such as whiplash, cuts, bruises, swollen or strained muscles, tendons, or ligaments, you can usually handle the claim yourself. If the accident is the other driver’s fault, his insurance company will contact you to negotiate a settlement.

If your injuries are the more serious hard injuries, such as broken bones, head trauma, scarring, internal bleeding, organ damage, or other injuries that may require an extensive hospital stay, you’re best served by seeing a personal injury attorney. Most won’t charge any fee for an initial visit.

The insurance settlement or court award will include compensation for your damages. The most common form of damages are the cost of your medical bills, therapy, out-of-pocket expenses like bandages and medications, your lost wages, if any, and an amount for your pain and suffering.

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