The Complete Colorado Car Accident Guide

Colorado car accidentToday’s cars are safer than ever. Advanced safety features make accidents less common and keep passengers from sustaining serious injuries. But even with the technology today, accidents continue to occur at an alarming rate. Last year alone there were over 6 million car accidents in the United States reported to law enforcement.¹

“I’m a great driver.” “Accidents happen to the other guy.” “I’ve never been in an accident.” Sound familiar? The reality is, if you’re an average driver you will be in 3 to 4 car accidents during your lifetime.²

What you need to know if you’ve been in a Colorado car accident…

The aftermath of a car accident is full of issues you may be dealing with for the first time. Suddenly you must figure out accident reports, car repairs, medical bills, missed work, dealing with insurance companies, and the police.

If you are the victim of a car accident, it is crucial that you are prepared to deal with these issues. Knowing what to say and do can make or break a successful property damage or personal injury claim.

In this article, we’ve provided 10 steps to guide you through the post-accident process. We’ve also provided answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that arise after a car accident. Where applicable, we’ve placed links to applicable Colorado Statutes.

 


Step 1 – Stop, Seek Out the Injured, and Call 911

Colorado stop help callWhen you’re involved in a car accident on a Colorado roadway, you must stop immediately as close to the scene as possible. Once stopped, check for injuries and call 911.

Should I call 911 even if no one is injured?
Yes. Calling 911 creates a record of the accident. If the police respond, they will create an accident report. This report will be especially important in the event there is a disagreement about fault in the accident. Additionally, Colorado State law requires drivers involved in car accidents to immediately contact local law enforcement and report the accident.

What information will the 911 operator need?
While the operator will have specific questions to ask, be prepared to offer the following:

The location: Include street names, highway exits, and mile markers, traffic signs, intersections and landmarks. Be sure to let the dispatcher know which side of the street you are on and what direction you were going.

Injuries: One of the most important things to convey to the dispatcher is if there are any injuries. Let the 911 operator know if anyone is unconscious or has obvious signs of injuries. Also, let them know if anyone is complaining of nausea, vomiting, pain or discomfort.

The accident scene: Accidents scenes are by their very nature dangerous. Drivers and passengers may be walking along the road by the scene, investigating the damage to their cars, while oblivious to oncoming traffic.  Cars can be pointed in different directions or protruding into traffic lanes. Let the 911 dispatcher know what the scene looks like. This will help determine which emergency personnel need to respond, and whether tow trucks will be required.

Will the police respond to the accident?
Each law enforcement agency has its own policies governing when investigating officers and paramedics will respond to an accident scene. Most emergency personnel will not respond unless there are obvious injuries or the accident presents a danger to others.

Do I have to file an accident report if the police respond to the accident scene?
No. If you are involved in an accident and a police officer responds to the scene, you are not required to provide any forms unless you receive a letter from the department.

What if the police don’t respond? Do I have to file an accident report?
Yes. If law enforcement does not respond to the accident scene and the accident resulted in property damage or injuries, you must complete and file a Colorado Accident Report. You can obtain an online Accident Report form using the Colorado Online Accident Reporting System, or you can download the Accident Report and mail it to the State of Colorado Motor Vehicle Division at:

Colorado Motor Vehicle Division
1881 Pierce St.
Lakewood, Colorado 80214

Where can I obtain a copy of a crash report previously filed?
You can obtain a copy of a Colorado Crash Report by downloading and completing a Requestor Release and Affidavit of Intended Use form. Be sure to read the directions thoroughly and check the 4th box from the top. Once completed, mail the form to:

Colorado Department of Revenue
Division of Motor Vehicles Driver Control
Room 164 PO Box 173350
Denver, CO  80217-3350

What if there are injuries or property damage?
If the accident resulted in injuries to any person or damage to any property, you must stop immediately at the accident scene. Once stopped, you and the other driver(s) involved must exchange the following information:

  • Names
  • Addresses
  • Registration number of the cars involved in the accident
  • Driver’s license information

Am I required to help someone who is injured?
Yes. You must render aid to any person injured in the accident, including transporting, or making arrangements to transport them to a hospital for medical treatment. This is a requirement when it is apparent that medical treatment is necessary, or if the injured person asks you to.

Can someone I help sue me?
No. Under Colorado’s “Good Samaritan” law, a person who renders aid to another at an accident scene cannot be held civilly liable.

What if I crash into a car or other property and don’t see the owner?
If you collide with a parked car or other property and no one is attending it, you must stop and attempt to locate the owner. Once found, let them know what happened and give them your name and address.

If you are unable to find the owner, write down your name and address, along with a brief explanation of what happened. Leave the note on the vehicle or property where the owner can easily find it.

What if I’m injured and physically unable to immediately report the accident?
If you are physically unable to report the accident because of the injuries you suffered, any passenger who was in your car at the time of the accident may report it on your behalf.

Am I liable if my child is in an accident?
It depends. If your child was at fault in a car accident, you may be liable for any property damage. However, Colorado law limits a parent’s’ liability to $3,500.

Step 2 – Gather Evidence

Colorado gather evidenceThe immediate aftermath of a car accident can be crucial in the development of a successful property damage and personal injury claim. It won’t be long before cars are driven or towed away, drivers, passengers, and witnesses gone, and the police on their way back to the station. That is why time is of the essence and you need to collect as much evidence as possible while you have the opportunity.

If you’ve sustained property damage or injuries in a car accident due to the negligence of another driver, you will need credible evidence to support your claim. Costs for items such as property damage, medical bills, and related items generally fall under the category of “damages.”

What are damages?
Damages are unique to every accident and to every person involved. In car accidents, your damages may include the following:

  • Medical, dental and therapy bills
  • Diagnostic tests (X-Rays, Ct Scans, MRI’s, etc)
  • Out of pocket expenses
    • Prescription and over the counter medications
    • Slings
    • Crutches
    • Wheelchairs
  • Costs of travel to and from treatment
  • Nursing care
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering

Where do I start?
Photographs and Video: Photos and video taken at the accident scene can be extremely helpful in your property damage or personal injury claim. Use your digital camera, cell phone, iPad or other electronic device to take multiple photos and videos of the accident scene.  Be sure to include sound if possible.

Photographs and videos serve several purposes. They can:

  • Identify the position of cars immediately after the collision
  • Show property damage to vehicles (including dents, broken glass, bent bumpers, etc)
  • Reflect weather conditions
  • Identify potholes, road obstructions, damaged traffic signs, and traffic control devices
  • Record beneficial statements such as admissions of fault and signs of intoxication
  • Help assure drivers and witnesses cannot later change their statements

Witness Statements: Witness statements can also be extremely helpful. Unfortunately, people who witnessed the incident are not under any legal obligation to speak with you or give you a written statement. However, if you can find one or more witnesses who will speak with you, see if they would be willing to give you an official statement.

Provide them with paper and a pencil and ask them to write down what they saw and heard. Don’t worry about legal formalities. Just ask them to sign and date each page of their statement. Also, be sure to get their names and addresses.

Is there additional information that will be helpful to my claim?
Yes. In addition to information required under Colorado law, try to obtain the following:

About the vehicles involved:

  • The make
  • Model
  • Year
  • License plate number
  • Registration expiration date
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN)

Note: The VIN number is usually on the car’s dashboard in the left corner where it meets the windshield. It is also often on the driver’s insurance card or inside the driver’s side door jam.

About the people involved:

  • Full name
  • Home and business addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • Email addresses
  • Date of birth
  • Driver’s license numbers

Diagram of the accident scene:

  • Location of the cars immediately before and after the collision
  • Current weather conditions
  • Time of day the accident occurred
  • Approximate speed of each car

Step 3 – Report the Accident to Your Insurance Company

Colorado call insuranceYour car insurance policy is a binding contract between you (the “insured”) and your insurance company (the “insurer”). Within your car insurance policy is language often referred to as the Notice of Occurrence and Cooperation clause.

The Notice of Occurrence and Cooperation clause contractually obligates you to do the following:

  • Give notice to your insurance company if you have been in an accident
  • Cooperate with them in the investigation of the accident
  • Assist them in making settlements
  • Attend hearings and trials
  • Assist them by giving evidence and obtaining the attendance of witnesses

Failing to timely notify your insurance company of the accident and cooperate with them in the investigation of the accident can lead to a non-renewal of your policy, a rise in premiums, or even a cancellation of your policy.

Why do I have to notify my own insurance company if I didn’t cause the accident?  Won’t they increase my premiums?
Prompt notification and subsequent cooperation with your insurance company gives them the time they need to investigate the accident. Your insurance company wants to hear your version of the events as soon as possible. This is especially important if the other driver suddenly decides the accident was your fault and not theirs.

The at-fault driver may have caused the accident by texting, speeding, rolling through a stop sign or by some other negligent act. However, even when it is obvious they caused the accident, they may later speak to an attorney and suddenly decide you were also to blame.

Are there mobile applications to report accidents to insurance companies?
Yes. Today there are many free mobile applications available to help report accidents to insurance companies. These mobile applications can perform the following functions:

  • Store and transmit personal information
  • Driver names and contact information
  • Driver’s license details
  • Insurance information
  • Take and store pictures and videos
  • Create and send state required crash reports to authorities
  • Help you draw a diagram of the accident scene
  • Access GPS locations of accident scenes
  • Store witness statements, and contact information

Here are some of the applications presently available:

Do I have to report the accident to my insurance company if no one was injured and the damage to cars was minimal?
Yes. Even minor accidents like door dings, bumper scratches, broken taillights, and other seemingly minor damage can be significant. There are several examples of when this happens.

Delayed Symptoms: At the scene, the other driver may appear uninjured. However, the onset of symptoms began to appear the next day and continued to worsen. The injured sought medical and chiropractic treatment, and retained an attorney. Weeks go by and suddenly you receive a letter in the mail from an attorney demanding you pay thousands of dollars to his client. Unfortunately, if you failed to notify your insurance company, they would have no idea a claim against you exists. They would be at a clear disadvantage. Witnesses and passengers may already be interviewed, statements taken, and a lawsuit even filed.

Fraud: Unfortunately, there will always be people who decide to file fraudulent injury claims, especially whiplash and other soft tissue injuries. After the accident, they may collude with others to concoct non-existent evidence showing you were at fault.

When should I contact the at-fault driver’s insurance company?
If the evidence shows the other driver caused the accident, you’ll want to contact the driver’s insurance company right away. Using the insurance information you obtained from the driver, call the driver’s insurance company and tell them you want to file a property damage or personal injury claim. Once you’ve reported the accident, you will speak to a claims adjuster who will open a claim.

In most cases, there will be two claims adjusters. One will handle the property damage aspect of the claim and the other will take care of the personal injury aspect. Be sure to ask for both claim numbers. You’ll need them for future reference when dealing with the insurance company.

If the accident was my fault and there is only property damage, should I just pay the other driver directly?
No! Paying the other driver or agreeing to pay them, is often an implied admission of guilt. Once you pay, it will be very difficult for you and your insurance company to take the position you were not at fault.

Example of the danger of failing to report an accident to your insurance company:

Miriam and Peter were involved in a minor accident. Upon inspection, the only damage appeared to be a broken taillight on Peter’s car. They exchanged insurance information, driver’s license information, and their names and addresses.

Peter told Miriam there was no reason to get the insurance companies involved. Instead, he said he would obtain an estimate for the repair of the taillight and send it to Miriam so she could send him a check to cover the costs.

Because of their agreement, Miriam chose not to report the accident to her insurance company. She didn’t believe there was any practical reason to and feared that if she did, her insurance company would raise her premiums.

The next morning, Peter was barely able to turn his neck and his shoulders were stiff and painful.  After seeing an ad on television by a personal injury attorney, Peter made an appointment to see him. The attorney suggested he seek immediate medical treatment because he might have suffered a “whiplash” injury. Peter did as the attorney suggested.

After conducting an MRI and Ct Scan, the doctor diagnosed Peter with a soft tissue whiplash injury. Peter went back to the attorney and retained him to pursue a personal injury claim against Miriam. Over the next few weeks, Peter received treatment from a local chiropractor. The chiropractor confirmed in a narrative that Peter was under his care for a whiplash injury. Peter’s wife gave a statement to Peter’s attorney confirming she had to help him shower and dress, and that he appeared to be in serious pain and discomfort.

Sixty days after the accident Miriam received a certified letter from Peter’s attorney informing her of Peter’s injuries from the car accident that she caused. She was in shock. She hadn’t contacted her insurance company after the accident and the attorney was now demanding $35,000 for injuries and related damages.

Miriam didn’t know what to do. She thought if she contacted her insurance company at this point, they would refuse to defend her. By failing to report the accident to her insurance company, Miriam not only violated the terms of the cooperation clause, but she also gave Peter’s attorney a substantial head start on the claim. By the time she received the letter from Peter’s attorney, he had already located witnesses to the accident, obtained copies of his medical records and bills, a medical narrative from his chiropractor confirming his injuries, and a statement from Peter’s wife.

If Miriam had contacted her insurance company right away, they would have opened an investigation into the claim two months ago. They were now 60 days behind the claim, scrambling to investigate the accident and decide whether to settle Peter’s claim.

Step 4 – Colorado is a 3rd Party Liability State

Colorado 3rd party liabilityThe State of Colorado follows a 3rd party liability rule. In a 3rd party fault state, a victim in a car accident has the right to pursue the at-fault (negligent) driver for compensation. This can include the cost of repair or replacement of damaged property and for medical bills and related damages sustained as a direct result of the accident.

What are my options in Colorado?
If you’ve been in a car accident and sustained property damage or personal injuries as a result of another driver’s negligence, you have the following options:

  • File a property damage or personal injury claim with your own insurance company (1st party claim)
  • File a property damage or personal injury claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company (3rd party claim)
  • File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver

Step 5 – Colorado’s Comparative Negligence Law

Colorado comparative negligenceThe State of Colorado has adopted the modified comparative fault system. Under this law, drivers are held responsible according to their percentage of fault in an accident. However, when a claimant’s percentage of fault is 50% or higher, they are barred from receiving any compensation from the other driver or their insurance company.

How does Colorado’s Comparative Negligence law apply?
Here are three examples:

Example A: One driver is entirely at fault in the accident

Jimmy was driving home when Eva ran a red light and crashed into his car, causing him to be seriously injured. Jimmy had been traveling at the posted speed limit and had the required car insurance on his vehicle. The police arrived and cited Eva for running a red light.

Jimmy sued Eva for $100,000. In this case, Eva was 100% at fault and Jimmy was entitled to 100% of his damages.

Example B: The driver and the victim share some percentage of fault in the accident

Jimmy was driving home when suddenly Eva came out of the mall parking lot and struck his car, causing Jimmy to be seriously injured. He sued Eva for $100,000 representing his damages. Witnesses saw Jimmy speeding right before the crash. When the police arrived, they issued traffic citations to each driver.

Later at trial, the jury found Jimmy contributed to the accident. They concluded that Eva was the primary cause of the accident and apportioned her negligence at 80%. The jury also found that Jimmy was liable because he was speeding and apportioned his fault at 20%.

Applying Colorado’s Comparative Negligence law, the jury awarded Jimmy $80,000, representing his 20% comparative fault for the accident.

Example C: The victim’s comparative fault is determined to be 50%

Eva was driving home from work with her earphones on listening to music. Jimmy was driving to the local gym and had several friends in the car. He was looking back at his friends laughing and talking, causing his car to veer from one lane to another several times. He eventually struck Eva’s car, causing both vehicles to crash. Jimmy was injured. When the police arrived, they issued a traffic citation to each driver for their negligence. Jimmy sued Eva for $100,000, representing his medical bills and related damages.

At trial, the jury concluded that Jimmy’s comparative fault amounted to 50%. Under Colorado’s Comparative Fault statute, because his negligence was determined to be 50% he could not recover any compensation from Eva.

Step 6 – Colorado’s Car Insurance Requirements

Colorado insurance requirementsColorado law requires drivers to be financially responsible for the accidents they cause. In Colorado, drivers are required to carry sufficient insurance to cover the repair or replacement of another vehicle and for damage to personal property. Drivers are also required to carry personal liability insurance to cover the medical bills and related damages sustained by another driver if they were at fault.

What are the minimum amounts of car insurance required for drivers in Colorado?
The State of Colorado requires drivers to carry:

  • $25,000 for injuries to one person in one accident
  • $50,000 for injuries to two or more persons in one accident
  • $15,000 for property damage arising out of one accident

The State of Colorado requires insurance companies to offer drivers $5,000 in medical payment, called “med-pay coverage”. As a driver, you can “opt-out” in writing if you choose. If you fail to affirmatively opt-out, the med-pay insurance will be automatically added to your coverage.

Step 7 – The Role of Law Enforcement

Colorado role of policeDepending upon the location in which the accident occurred, one or more law enforcement agencies will have jurisdiction. It can be city police officers, sheriff’s’ deputies, or highway state troopers responding to the scene.

What is the role of law enforcement at an accident scene?
Law enforcement officers are highly trained to deal with car accident scenes. When arriving at an accident scene they will:

  • Secure the scene to make it safe for others
  • Summon paramedics when required
  • Investigate causes of the accident, including skid marks, road obstructions, weather conditions, and driver intoxication
  • Question the people involved
  • Run background checks on driver, passengers, and even witnesses
  • Issue traffic citations when necessary
  • Administer field sobriety tests (when applicable)
  • Make arrests when appropriate

Does law enforcement have to listen to my side of the story?
No. When the investigating officers arrive at the scene, they are there to perform very specific functions. 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 it happened.

However, it is likely in the course of their investigation a law enforcement officer will ask you questions. These can include requesting identification, production of proof of insurance, car registration, driver’s license information, and more.

What if the officer gives me a traffic citation?
If the investigating officer decides you were in violation of a traffic law, they could issue a traffic citation. While you may attempt to dissuade the officer from issuing the citation, once issued you must accept and sign it as well.

A traffic citation is not proof of guilt. It is merely an accusation by law enforcement that you have violated one or more of Colorado’s traffic laws. By signing the citation, you are not admitting guilt. Rather, you are only agreeing to appear in court at a later date and time to answer for the citation.

At that time, you can choose to contest the citation and ask for a trial. You may also be able to negotiate a plea with the prosecutor where you will be 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 completed, the citation may be dismissed and not appear on your driving record.

Step 8 – Hire an Attorney or Represent Myself?

Colorado attorney self representMany car accident claims are adequately handled by a victim without legal representation. These generally include accidents resulting in property damage and “soft tissue” injuries. However, there are other accident claims that usually require skilled legal representation. These include more serious “hard injuries.”

What are soft tissue injuries and how are they different from hard injuries?
There are two classifications of injuries. Soft tissue injuries can include sprains and strains to ligaments, tendons, muscles, minor bruising, cuts not requiring stitches, 1st degree burns, whiplash, and similarly minor injuries. Soft tissue injuries are normally not complex, and generally don’t require substantial medical treatment. These injuries normally require physical therapy from a few weeks to a few months, a minimal amount of prescribed medications, some lost wages, and a relatively low amount of pain and suffering.

Hard injuries can include head trauma, fractures, 2nd and 3rd degree burns, deep gashes requiring stitches, and other serious injuries. These often require extensive and prolonged medical treatment, including surgery, diagnostics, and more.

There’s just too much to lose by representing yourself in a serious hard injury claim. No matter how smart you are, you just don’t have the legal skills necessary to negotiate a successful serious injury claim. A skilled claim adjuster can easily lead you to believe you are as good as any attorney would be. Don’t fall for that.

A claims adjuster won’t tell you the policy limits of the insured. There is no legal requirement for the adjuster to do so. As a result, you won’t know if the at-fault driver has the minimum amounts of liability insurance or much more. Once the insurance company claims adjuster tells you that’s their final offer, it’s basically take it or leave it.

In serious injury claims, experienced personal injury attorneys have a plethora of legal tools to rely upon when dealing with insurance companies. Attorneys have the power to discover policy limits, drivers past records of traffic accidents, citations, prior arrests, and more information you could never find on your own.

If the attorney is unable to settle your claim for a fair amount, they can file a lawsuit. Once filed, your attorney may begin pretrial discovery, including taking depositions, interrogatories, subpoenas for production of documents, and more.

Insurance companies don’t like lawsuits. Personal injury lawsuits cost insurance companies millions of dollars a year in legal fees and related costs. As a result, rather than having to defend a lawsuit, the insurance company would prefer to settle the claim whenever possible.

How much do personal injury attorneys charge?
Most personal injury attorneys will not charge any fee for an initial office consultation. During the consultation, the attorney will review the facts of the case, examine medical records, and decide whether your claim is viable. If so, the attorney will likely agree to represent you.

Once you retain the attorney, they will accept your case on a “contingency fee” basis. A contingency fee means you will not have to pay the attorney any money until they settle your case or win it at trial. If the attorney is unable to settle your claim or they lose at trial, you will owe the attorney nothing.

However, if your attorney does get you a favorable result, you will owe the attorney a percentage of the settlement amount or court verdict. Those percentages range from 25% to 40% depending on the complexity of the case, and the agreement you negotiated when you retained their help.

How do I choose an attorney?
Gather copies of your medical, chiropractic, and therapy records, all your bills, the accident report, photographs, witness statements and other documents you have related to the accident. Seek out appointments with several personal injury attorneys in your area. After reviewing your information, the attorneys will be able to tell you the viability of your claim, the likelihood of a settlement, the general amount it may settle for, and likelihood of having to a file a lawsuit.

Step 9 – Small Claims Court

Colorado small claims courtThere are times when filing a lawsuit against a driver may be your only option. When this occurs, you can consider suing the driver in one of Colorado’s Small Claims Courts.

When would I consider filing a lawsuit in one of Colorado’s Small Claims Courts?
You would consider a small claims lawsuit when:

  • The at-fault driver’s insurance company denies your claim
  • The at-fault driver’s insurance company offers a settlement well below what is fair
  • The at-fault driver was uninsured or under-insured
  • An attorney will not accept your case

How much can I sue for in Colorado’s Small Claims Courts?
Colorado Small Claims Courts have jurisdiction to hear cases up to $7,500.

Do I sue the driver or the driver’s insurance company?
If you decide to file a lawsuit in small claims court, you must sue the driver who caused the accident and not the driver’s insurance company. The insurance company did not cause the accident, nor did they have anything to do with it. The insurance company is an entirely separate entity that provided insurance to the driver who crashed into you.

Where can I learn more about filing a lawsuit in one of Colorado’s Small Claims Courts?
To access the forms you’ll need to file your small claims lawsuit or to learn more about the process, go to the Colorado Judicial Branch section of the State’s website.

Step 10 – Statute of Limitations

Colorado statute limitationsEach state has a statutory period of time in which a victim in a car accident must either settle their claim or file a lawsuit. That period is the “Statute of Limitations.”

If you are the victim in a car accident and you are unable to settle your claim with the insurance company, you must file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations period. If you fail to either settle the claim or file a lawsuit in that period, you will lose your legal right to pursue any compensation from the other driver.

What is the Statute of Limitations for personal injury claims in the State of Colorado?
The State of Colorado has a 3-year statute of limitations for action arising out of personal injury claims.

What if the insurance company won’t settle my claim and the statute of limitations period is about to expire?
The insurance company is under no legal obligation to settle your claim within the statute of limitations period, and don’t expect them to remind you if the period is about to expire. If you miss the statute of limitations, you are out of luck with no one to blame but yourself.

In order to continue any pursuit of compensation from the other driver, you must file a lawsuit. Either file the lawsuit with the help of a professional or on your own in one of Colorado’s Small Claims Courts. Once you file a lawsuit, the statute of limitations is “tolled” meaning it doesn’t apply to your claim anymore.

If the statute of limitations period is about to expire, consider seeking the advice and counsel of a local personal injury attorney. They may agree to file the lawsuit for you or advise you to file it yourself in Small Claims Court.

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