Today we drive safer and more efficient cars, yet the number of car accidents throughout the U.S. is rising, with more than 4.6 million crash injuries and 40,000 fatalities reported annually.¹
With more traffic on the roads than ever before, accidents are bound to happen. These days, the average American can expect to be in three or four car accidents during their driving career.²
Montana has its share of car accidents, most recently reporting over 22,000 car accidents that injured more than 9,000 people in one year.³
Car accidents occur without warning. You’re traveling along at a safe speed, minding your own business when it happens. After the crash, how will you financially recover from your injuries and losses?
What You Need to Know if You’ve Been in a Montana Car Accident
Your financial recovery starts with building a strong auto insurance claim. To be adequately compensated for your damages, you’ll need to know what to do, and what not to do. This guide can help.
Here are ten steps to building a successful insurance claim. Also included are answers to the most frequently asked questions about Montana car accidents.
You’ve been in a car accident. Stop as close to the accident scene as you safely can. Check to see if anyone is hurt, then call 911.
Montana law requires drivers to notify police when an accident has caused injuries, death, or property damage over $1,000. Calling 911 is usually the fastest way to report the accident to authorities.
Until help arrives, drivers must provide reasonable assistance to anyone who is injured or asking for medical attention. Reasonable assistance can include making arrangements to get the injured person to the nearest medical facility.
Drivers are required to provide their names, address, and car registration number to anyone involved in the crash. If asked, the driver must also show their driver’s license.
If law enforcement hasn’t filed a written report for an accident, and the accident caused injuries, fatalities, or property damage over $1,000, the drivers involved in the wreck are legally obligated to file a Montana Highway Patrol Vehicle Crash Report within ten days of the accident.
The 911 operator will need to know the nature of your emergency, where you are located, if anyone is injured, and what’s going on around you.
Be specific when describing your location. Emergency responders can get there faster if they know where to find you. Tell the operator the road you’re on, which direction you were heading, the nearest intersections or mile markers, and describe nearby landmarks.
Tell the operator if you or anyone else is hurt and if there are possible fatalities.
The 911 operator will need to know what’s going on at the scene so the necessary emergency personnel can be dispatched. Tell the operator of any dangerous situations, like someone pinned in their car, if any vehicles are overturned or on fire, or if there are hazards like downed power lines or leaking fuel.
Law enforcement will usually respond to an accident involving injuries, death, or where the scene has reported hazards or requires traffic management.
In busy jurisdictions, police may not be available to respond to minor accidents, like parking lot fender-benders.
When anyone is injured in a Montana car accident, drivers are required to stay on the scene and offer “reasonable assistance” to the injured.
Reasonable assistance includes the driver’s efforts to help an injured person as best they can, including arranging for the injured person to be transported to the nearest medical facility.
That usually means calling 911 and waiting for the rescue squad, but in an extreme situation the driver may take the injured person to the nearest facility for medical treatment rather than wait for paramedics to arrive.
Car accidents happen fast. The shock of impact can leave you stunned. Some car accident injuries are obvious like gaping wounds, twisted limbs, and amputations. But some potentially life-threatening injuries, like internal bleeding or closed head trauma, may not show symptoms until hours or even days after the crash.
Never refuse medical treatment at the accident scene. This is not the time to tough it out. Be completely up-front with paramedics about every symptom you’re experiencing, even if it’s mild. Shock and fear can mask serious symptoms.
If emergency responders want to transport you to the hospital, let them take you.
If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital from the accident scene, you’ll need to be evaluated by a medical provider as soon as possible after the accident. You may see your primary care provider, or go to an urgent care center or hospital emergency room, but don’t put it off.
Refusing or delaying medical care after an accident can significantly weaken your insurance claim when the insurance company takes the position that your injuries were not caused by the crash.
When you’ve hit a parked and unattended vehicle, stop at the scene. Locate the car’s owner and provide your name, address, and car registration number.
If you can’t find the owner, leave a note on the car with your name, address, and an explanation of what happened.
Police have an important job to do when they arrive at an accident scene. Highly trained in accident investigation and crash scene management, officers are authorized to:
- Secure the accident scene and manage traffic
- Coordinate with other emergency services for the care and transport of the injured
- Conduct sobriety tests
- Question drivers, passengers, and witnesses
- Gather evidence, including photographs
- Issue traffic citations
No. While you may attempt to tell police your side of the story, they have no legal obligation to listen to you. When a law enforcement officer asks you to wait or gives you instructions, you should cooperate.
Never argue with the police. Yelling, arguing or making confrontational remarks will not only impede the officer’s accident investigation, but in some cases it can also get you a traffic ticket, or worse, lead to your arrest.
When the investigating officer determines that you’ve violated Montana traffic laws, you may be issued one or more citations. While it’s okay to try to talk the officer out of giving you a ticket, once the citation is issued, you should accept it. If asked, go ahead and sign the ticket.
Accepting or signing a ticket is not an admission of guilt. You can argue about the merits of the citation in court, not at the accident scene.
Good evidence is the cornerstone of a strong insurance claim, especially if your injuries and property damage are caused by a negligent driver. The crash scene is the best place to begin gathering proof that the at-fault driver directly caused the crash or failed to act responsibly.
Accident scenes change quickly. Cars are towed, and the drivers and witnesses leave. When drivers leave an accident scene, crucial evidence may leave with them.
Take advantage of the short window of opportunity right after an accident to gather your important evidence.
Start by exchanging your name, address, and car registration number with the other driver. You’ll also want to ask for the other driver’s business addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, date of birth, and driver’s license number, as well as their insurance company name and auto policy number.
If the driver isn’t the owner of a car, you’ll need the owner’s name, home and business address, telephone number, and email address.
Gather information on the other vehicle in the crash. Get the make, model, year, license plate number, expiration date, and vehicle identification number (VIN). The VIN can normally be found on the left side of the dashboard by the windshield, on the driver’s insurance card, or inside the jamb of the driver’s side door. Don’t go into the other driver’s car without permission.
Passengers from the other car aren’t required to speak with you or give you information, but you can ask for their full names, dates of birth, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
If the passengers refuse, you can make notes for yourself about the number of passengers, their approximate ages, how they were behaving, and anything you may have seen them do or heard them say.
Draw a diagram of the accident scene. Show the location of the cars before and after the crash, and which direction they were heading. Indicate unusual road conditions, like ice or potholes.
Make detailed notes of the date, time, weather, lighting conditions, traffic, distractions, or anything else that may have contributed to the crash. Write down everything you remember about what you saw, heard, or even smelled (like marijuana or alcohol) before and after the crash.
Yes. Taking photographs and video with a camera, cell phone, tablet, or other device is very important. Photographs and videos can sometimes reveal important details about the cars, road conditions and related factors that are critical to your claim.
Photographs and video can also capture the demeanor of the drivers, apparent injuries, potential intoxication, and admissions of fault.
Photographic evidence makes it difficult for the driver and occupants of the other vehicle to change their stories later.
Witnesses aren’t under any obligation to speak with you or give you a written statement. However, you should try to talk to any potential witnesses long enough to find out if they could be helpful to your claim. If you have a cooperative witness, ask them to write down what they heard and saw, with the date and their signature.
Be prepared with a free Car Accident Information Form. Store copies of the form with a pen in your car, in the same place you keep your insurance card. You’ll always be ready to gather the evidence you’ll need for a successful insurance claim.
Most American auto insurance policies have a Notice of Occurrence and Cooperation clause. The clause means that you’re required to tell your insurance company if you’re in an accident, and you agree to cooperate with the insurance company’s accident investigation.
The clause in your policy will have language something like this:
“Insured (you) agrees to notify the insurer (your insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter comply with all information, assistance, and cooperation which the insurer reasonably requests, and agrees that in the event of a claim the insurer and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurer’s position…”
Your insurance company is supposed to protect you when you’re in an accident, but you must do your part. For your own protection, you’ve got to tell your insurance company about every kind of accident, even when no one is hurt, or the accident wasn’t your fault.
When you promptly notify the insurance company of an accident, you are giving the company the best opportunity to protect you if, for example, the other driver decides to blame you, or a passenger from the other car begins to complain of injury symptoms several days after the crash.
If someone from the other cars hires an attorney, you can bet their attorney will be contacting your insurance company with demands for money. Your insurance company would be at a tremendous disadvantage if you hadn’t already notified them of the accident.
Failing to disclose an accident to your insurance company is a breach of your policy that can lead your insurer to raise your premiums, decline to renew your policy, or cancel your policy.
Here’s a sample Notice of Occurrence Form with examples of accident info to tell your insurance company.
Yes. There are mobile applications that make it easier and faster to report a Montana car accident to your insurance company. Apps can help you to:
- Identify the GPS location of the accident scene
- Gather driver and passenger information
- Take pictures and video
- Create a diagram of the scene
- Write or dictate notes
- Notify your insurance company
- File a claim
Here’s a sampling of some free car accident reporting apps. Your insurance company may offer a similar application.
When it comes to auto insurance, if you make a claim under your own insurance policy it’s called a first-party claim. If you make a claim under someone else’s policy, you are making a third-party claim.
Unlike No-Fault insurance states, where both parties in a car accident must rely on their own policy for compensation, Montana allows for third-party liability claims. In other words, if you are the victim of a Montana car accident, you can file a claim with the at-fault (liable) driver’s insurance company.
You have three options for compensation:
- File a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
- File a claim with your insurance company (if the at-fault driver was uninsured or underinsured)
- Sue the at-fault driver
Your policy’s liability coverage will pay for injuries and property damage to others if you are at-fault for an accident.
Montana auto insurance policies must provide for bodily injury liability coverage in the amount of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident, as well as $20,000 per accident for property damage.
Under Montana’s Modified Comparative Negligence rule, you can still pursue compensation for an accident, even if you are partly to blame (liable) for the accident, so long as you aren’t more to blame than the other driver.
In Montana, your settlement from an accident claim will depend on how much you are to blame for causing the accident. If you are more than 50% to blame, you won’t be able to recover anything. If you are 50% or less to blame, any amount of compensation will be reduced accordingly.
Here’s an example of the modified comparative negligence rule affecting a settlement:
Dan was in a hurry to get to work. In his rush he ran a red light, colliding with Janice’s car and causing serious injuries to Janice.
Janice filed a liability claim with Dan’s insurance company, demanding $10,000 for her injuries and pain and suffering. The insurance company refused to pay $10,000, arguing that Janice was partly to blame for the accident because she was speeding.
Janice filed a lawsuit against Dan, demanding the full $10,000.
At trial, the jury was convinced that Dan did run the red light. But Dan wasn’t the only one at fault. The jury heard witness testimony that Janice was speeding right before the crash.
The jury concluded that Dan was 60% liable for the accident, but Janice was 40% to blame because the crash wouldn’t have been as severe if she hadn’t been speeding.
While the jury agreed that her claim was worth $10,000, since Janice was 40% to blame for the crash, her award was reduced by 40%. The jury awarded Janice $60,000 after subtracting 40% from her claim’s value for her share of liability.
Under the modified comparative negligence rule, Janice could recover a portion of her damages so long as she was not more than 50% to blame. If the jury had determined she was 51% or more to blame for the accident, Janice would have left the courtroom empty-handed.
Some insurance claims can be successfully settled without an attorney. Other claims require the skill of an experienced personal injury attorney to get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.
Before deciding to go it alone in negotiations with the insurance company, give some thought to the type of injuries you’ve suffered and what it will take to get the compensation you deserve.
“Soft tissue” injuries can include sprains and strains, scrapes and minor bruising, cuts that don’t need stitches, whiplash, and similarly minor injuries. Soft tissue injury claims aren’t complicated and mainly consist of moderate costs for treatment and therapy, some lost wages, and a nominal amount for pain and suffering. Soft tissue injuries can usually be successfully settled without the aid of an attorney.
“Hard” injuries are much more serious and include severe and sometimes life-threatening injuries like closed head trauma, spinal cord injuries, amputations, permanent disfigurement, and complicated fractures.
Hard injuries are often extremely costly and may require extensive diagnostics and specialized treatment, hospitalizations, surgeries, rehab, replacement services, and a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.
Hard injuries are high-dollar claims. Getting the insurance company to pay often takes the threat of litigation and the expert application of pretrial tactics like specialist testimony, records subpoenas, interrogatories, depositions, and more.
The insurance company is more concerned about their bottom line than the full extent of your damages. When they make their “final” offer, they know you probably won’t have the skills or energy to fight them. Insurance companies bank on that, and typically offer much smaller settlements to claimants who aren’t represented by counsel.
There’s just too much at stake for you to represent yourself in a hard injury claim.
Your personal injury attorney will have the necessary tools and talent to persuade the insurance company to pay the amount of compensation that’s appropriate for your injuries and suffering.
Your first meeting with a reputable personal injury attorney should be free. At the initial consultation, the attorney will review the facts of your case, hear your side of the story, estimate the value of your claim, anticipate how long it could take to settle, and advise if a lawsuit will have to be filed to get the insurance company to pay.
You can meet with as many attorneys as you wish before hiring the attorney who will fight for your claim.
Before your first attorney consultation, gather all your important paperwork related to the car accident. Your document file should include medical records, the accident report, photographs, witness statements, your notes, and records of any communication you’ve had with the insurance company.
Most attorneys are willing to represent personal injury clients on a contingency fee basis. Your attorney will be paid a percentage of your total settlement or court award. Typical attorney contingency fees range from 25% up to 40%, depending on the complexity of the case, and the need for a jury trial.
Your attorney only gets paid when you do. You won’t pay any fees if the attorney can’t settle your claim or win your court case.
Small claims court is an easier, faster, and less complicated way to resolve disputes over limited amounts of money. Montana small claims are handled in Justice Courts.
There are four reasons you might consider filing a lawsuit in small claims court:
- The at-fault driver’s insurance company offered a low-ball settlement
- The at-fault driver’s insurance company denied your claim
- The at-fault driver was uninsured
- An attorney won’t take your case on a contingency fee basis
You may file a case in Montana small claims court for up to $7,000. You can only sue for fixed amounts of your actual losses, like the costs of your medical bills or car repairs. Your claim cannot include an amount for pain and suffering or punitive damages.
You must file your lawsuit against the at-fault driver, not the insurance company.
You may have an attorney represent you in justice court. However, Montana small claims court procedures are designed to make it comfortable for you to make your case without an attorney. You’ll be able to tell your side of the story in your own words in a relaxed setting.
To learn more, go the Montana Department of Justice Guide to Small Claims Court.
The statute of limitations for Montana car accidents is the legal time period for you to either settle an accident claim or file a lawsuit. The statute begins to run on the date of the crash.
Montana has a three-year statute of limitations for property damage and personal injury claims. This means you must either settle your insurance claim within three years from the date of the accident or file a lawsuit against the negligent driver within the same period of time.
If you fail to settle your damages claim or sue the at-fault driver before the three-year deadline, you will lose any right to be compensated for your damages from the car accident.
You can’t trust the insurance adjuster to help you settle your claim before the statutory deadline, no matter what they promise. The insurance company has no authority to offer you an extension, and they certainly have no reason to make sure you know when the time is running short.
The insurance company knows what happens if you don’t have a settlement and haven’t sued their insured before the deadline. It’s up to you to keep an eye on the statutory deadline and act in time to save your claim.
Unless you have a signed settlement agreement in your hand, you must sue the at-fault driver before your statute of limitations expires, or you’ll never see a dime from the driver who caused your injuries or the insurance company.
Don’t be afraid of a lawsuit. Once the suit is filed, your attorney may still be able to negotiate a good settlement for you without the need to go to trial.
Give yourself plenty of time to act before your statutory deadline expires. Put reminders on your phone, your computer, your bathroom mirror, or anywhere that will help you stay aware of the deadline, so you can protect your accident claim.
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