The Complete New Jersey Car Accident Guide

New Jersey car accidentToday’s cars are safer than ever. Nonetheless, there were still over six million car accidents on U.S. roadways last year. These accidents resulted in almost 3 million injuries. ¹

If you think car accidents only happen to the “other guy,” think again. In fact, the average driver will be involved in 3 – 4 car accidents during their lifetime.²

The State of New Jersey has its fair share of car accidents. In fact, New Jersey roadways average over 50,000 car crashes per year.³

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

If you’ve been involved in a car accident on a New Jersey roadway, you’ll be faced with decisions involving state laws, insurance companies, law enforcement, accident reports, car repairs, medical treatment and more.

To assist you during this chaotic time, we’ve listed ten steps drivers should follow after an accident. These steps will help reduce the confusion, frustration and anxiety often associated with car accidents, and help you build a strong insurance claim.

We’ve included many frequently asked questions that come up after an accident, as well as links to many of the applicable New Jersey Statutes and regulations, accident report forms, reference articles, and more.

Step 1 – Stop, Look for Injuries and Call 911

New Jersey stop call for helpIf you’ve been in a New Jersey car accident, the law requires you to stop immediately at the accident scene. Once stopped, see if anyone is injured and call 911.

What information will the 911 dispatcher need?
When you call 911 and report the accident, the dispatcher will have specific questions about the accident and those involved. Stay calm. The dispatcher will need the following information:

Location: Street names, intersections, highway exits, mile markers, and even landmarks are helpful. Tell the dispatcher which side of the road you are on and what direction you were traveling. Detailed information will help emergency personnel arrive quickly.

Injuries: Tell the 911 dispatcher if people are injured, or if anyone is complaining of pain, discomfort, nausea, dizziness, or if anyone is unconscious.

Hazards: Accidents scenes are dangerous, not only for those involved in the accident, but also for their passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and to drivers passing by the scene. The people involved may be walking around checking for 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 be called to the location.

Will the police be dispatched?
Each law enforcement agency, including local police, county sheriff, and New Jersey State Patrol, has their own policy and directives dictating when their personnel will be dispatched to an accident scene.

In most cases, they will be dispatched when there are reported injuries or suspicions a driver is intoxicated or impaired. If law enforcement is dispatched to the scene they may set out flares, direct traffic, tow cars, take measurements, interview witnesses, issue traffic citations, and investigate the circumstances surrounding the collision.

What if people have been injured?
If the accident caused injuries, the drivers must stop immediately, or as close to the accident as possible. Once stopped, drivers must exchange their names and addresses, and show their drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.

What if there is only property damage and no one is injured?
If no one was injured and there was only vehicle damage, drivers must still exchange their names and addresses, and show their drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations.

What if I collide with a parked car and no one is in it?
Once stopped, you’re required to try to locate the owner or driver of the car and tell them about the collision. Once you’ve found them, give your name and address.

If after making a reasonable effort to locate the owner or driver, you are unsuccessful, you need to leave a note. Include your name and address, and a statement detailing the circumstances of the collision. Leave the note in a conspicuous place on the car. Additionally, you’re required to notify the nearest police or sheriff’s department, or the State Police.

What if my personal property is damaged in the accident?
An at-fault driver can still be responsible to compensate you for personal property damaged in the accident, such as a computer, jewelry, cell phone, etc. New Jersey law specifically includes property owned by any person involved in the collision.

Can I be sued if I help someone who’s been injured in the accident?
No. Under New Jersey’s “Good Samaritan” law, if you render emergency care to a victim at an accident scene or transport victims to a hospital, you will not be liable for any civil damages as a result of your actions.

Am I required to notify the police if I’m in a car accident?
If you’ve been involved in a car accident involving injuries, or if the property damage resulting from the accident is $500 or more, you’re required to immediately notify the nearest law enforcement agency. You must also file a New Jersey Motor Vehicle Accident Report within ten days after the accident.

Where can I obtain the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Accident Report?
The report, also known as Form SR-1 (R4/11), can be obtained from your local law enforcement agency, or you can download it from the state’s website.

Step 2 – Collect Evidence for your Claim

New Jersey car accident evidenceIt’s important to think clearly and act quickly after an accident. Evidence you gather at the scene can be vital to your property damage and personal injury claim.

Before long, cars will be driven or towed away, and the other drivers, passengers and witnesses will leave. If you’ve been injured or sustained damage to your car, you’ll need evidence to support your claim against the at-fault driver and their insurance company.

What are Damages?
Damages are unique to every car accident and every person involved. Personal injury claims can involve damages such as:

  • Medical, dental and therapy bills
  • Diagnostic tests (X-Rays, CT Scans, MRIs)
  • Out-of-pocket expenses (travel and parking costs)
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Slings, crutches or wheelchairs
  • Nursing costs
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering

Is there additional information which will help my claim?
Yes. The more information you obtain at the scene, the stronger your claim will become. Try hard to obtain the following information:

Other People Involved

  • Full names
  • Home and business addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • Email addresses
  • Dates of birth
  • Driver’s license numbers

Vehicles Involved

  • Make, Mode & Year
  • License plate number
  • Registration expiration date
  • Vehicle Identification Number (The VIN can normally be found on the car’s dashboard in the left bottom corner. It can also be found on the driver’s insurance card, or inside the driver’s side door jamb.)

Witness Information

  • Witness statements
  • Full names & addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • Note: While witnesses aren’t legally required to remain at the scene, convincing them to stay will give you time to speak and determine if what they saw can help your claim.

Diagram of the Scene

  • Location of the cars immediately before and after the collision
  • Current weather conditions
  • Time of day the accident occurred
  • Approximate speed each of the cars was traveling and the direction they were headed

Are photographs and video important?

Yes! Photographs and videos will capture the following:

  • Position of the cars immediately after the collision
  • Weather conditions
  • Potholes and road obstructions
  • Traffic lights, street signs, bridge abutments, and more
  • Demeanor of the drivers, passengers, and witnesses
  • Signs of intoxication
  • Admissions of fault

How about witness statements?
While witnesses are under no legal obligation to speak with you, they can be a rich source of information and evidence in support of your claim. If you can find a witness who will speak with you, ask them to write down what they saw and heard.

For example, the witness may be able to tell you he saw the other driving texting, or swerving, or speeding. Be sure to have them sign and date each page of their statement.

Step 3 – New Jersey’s No-Fault Insurance Law

New Jersey no fault insuranceThe State of New Jersey is a “Choice No-Fault” car insurance state. Under this law, people injured in an auto accident must turn to their own insurance companies and file a “first-party” claim.

Are there any exceptions to the No-Fault requirement?
Yes. There are two:

1) New Jersey drivers are not required to file a first-party claim with their own insurance if one of the following threshold injuries have occurred:

  •  Dismemberment
  •  Significant scarring
  •  Displaced fractures
  •  Loss of a fetus
  •  Permanent injury (other than scarring or disfigurement)

2) While New Jersey is a no-fault insurance state, it offers its drivers a choice. Drivers have the option of choosing a no-fault insurance plan or a third-party insurance plan.

If you choose to forego no-fault insurance, and instead chose a third-party liability plan, you have the right to pursue the at-fault driver directly, without having to file an insurance claim with your own insurance company.

Under a third party claim, if you sustain property damage or personal injuries because of the negligence of another driver, you may take one or more of the following actions:

  1. File an accident claim with your own insurance company
  2. File an accident claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  3. Sue the negligent driver

Does the No-Fault Rule apply to property damage claims?
No. The no-fault insurance requirement does not apply to property damage claims. Property damage claims may be filed separately and directly against the at-fault driver.

Step 4 – New Jersey Car Insurance Requirements

New Jersey insurance requirementsTo protect everyone on New Jersey’s roadways, the State requires drivers to carry specific minimum amounts of property damage and personal injury insurance. Of course, driver’s can also purchase higher amounts of coverage.

What are New Jersey’s minimum car insurance requirements?
Drivers on New Jersey roadways must carry the following types and amounts of insurance:

  • $15,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in one accident
  • $30,000 for bodily injury or death to two or more persons in one accident
  • $15,000 for personal injury protection (PIP)
  • $5,000 for property damage in one accident

Step 5 – New Jersey’s Contributory Negligence Rule

New Jersey contributory negligenceThe State of New Jersey follows what is commonly referred to as a “Modified Contributory Negligence Rule.” Under this rule, drivers involved in car accidents may share liability for the accident and its resulting costs.

When this occurs, compensation paid to the primary victim can be reduced according to his or her percentage of contribution to the accident.

Is there a limit to the percentage of contributory negligence?
Yes. As the victim of a car accident you’re eligible to receive compensation from the at-fault driver as long as your percentage of contribution to the accident does not exceed 50%.

If it’s determined your percentage of  blame for the accident was 51% or higher, you are wholly barred from recovering any compensation from the other driver or their insurance company.

Example of how Contributory Negligence applies:

Brittany and Bob were driving their cars on the Garden State Parkway when they collided with each other. When police arrived at the scene, Bob admitted to the officer he didn’t see Brittany’s car because he was texting. Based on Bob’s admission, the police officer issued Bob a traffic citation for texting while driving.

However, after speaking with witnesses, the police officer determined Brittany contributed to the accident by driving carelessly. The witnesses told the police they saw Brittany swerving from lane to lane, while she was looking over her shoulder laughing with passengers in the back seat. Police then issued Brittany a traffic citation for Careless Driving.

Brittany was severely injured in the crash. She retained a local personal injury attorney and sued Bob for $100,000, representing her damages. In the lawsuit, Brittany’s attorneys alleged Bob’s texting was the exclusive cause of the crash. Under the terms of Bob’s insurance policy, the insurance company provided an attorney to represent him in the lawsuit.

At trial, Brittany’s attorneys entered into evidence proof of Bob’s admission to the police officer that he was texting at the time of the crash, and the fact that he received a traffic citation for doing so. In turn, Bob’s attorneys entered into evidence Brittany’s receipt of a ticket for careless driving.

After hearing all the evidence the jury deliberated and reached the following verdict:

  • Bob’s negligence (texting) represented 60% of the crash
  • Brittany’s contributory negligence (careless driving) represented 40% of the crash

The jury awarded Brittany $60,000, representing the reduction of her 40% contribution to the crash. If the jury had found Brittany’s contribution to the crash at 51% or more, Brittany would have received nothing.

Step 6 – Report the Accident to Your Insurance Company

New Jersey call insuranceCar insurance policies contain what is generally referred to as a “Notice of Occurrence” or “Cooperation Clause”. These clauses require you (the insured) to notify your insurance company (the insurer) when you’re involved in a NJ car accident.

Your insurance policy is a legally binding contract between you and your insurance company.

Here’s a summary of a Cooperation and Notice of Occurrence clause:

“The Insured agrees to promptly notify the underwriter (insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter to provide all information, assistance and cooperation which the insurance company reasonably requests.

Further, the insured agrees that in the event of a property damage or personal injury claim, the insurance company and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurance company’s position….”

What do the “Notice of Occurrence” and “Cooperation Clause” mean to me?
Your insurance company needs to hear from you as soon as possible after the collision. The information you give your insurance company assists them in promptly pursuing an at-fault driver.

Your cooperation also helps the insurance company protect you from frivolous and unwarranted claims of property damage and personal injuries filed by others.

Do I have to I report the accident to my insurance company if no one was injured?
Yes. If you’re involved in a minor fender-bender, you may be tempted not to report the accident to your insurance company, especially if the other driver was at-fault and you’re pursuing your property damage claim with their insurance company.

You may also be tempted not to report the crash to your insurance company because you and the driver agreed to work out the property damage between each other, and not to report the crash to your respective insurance companies.

Or maybe you don’t want to report the crash out of fear your insurance company will raise your premiums, fail to renew your policy, or worse, cancel your policy altogether.

Don’t fall into that trap! Your fender bender may appear to have been injury free, but if you take a closer look you’ll find not reporting the accident to your insurance company can be a very serious mistake.

Here’s why….

Delayed Symptoms: The other driver or passengers may believe they were uninjured, but because the onset of symptoms for some injuries can take hours, and even days to appear, the injuries you thought were non-existent, suddenly become very real.

No Insurance: The other driver may not have property damage or personal liability coverage. If so, that’s last thing he or she wants you to know.  If the police were going to be called, that would be bad news for the other driver. They could be ticketed, or worse, arrested.

Fraud: At the scene, the driver and passengers may have said they weren’t injured, but hours, or even days later they decide to “cash-in” on the accident by filing multiple fraudulent claims of whiplash and soft tissue injury claims. They may have planned this from the beginning, even before the crash.

Are there mobile apps I can use to report an accident to my insurance company?
Yes. Today many insurance companies offer free mobile apps to help their insured report accidents promptly. Check with your insurance company to see if they offer a downloadable app.

Mobile apps can do the following:

  • Take and store pictures and videos
  • Store and transmit personal information, including driver’s license, vehicle and insurance information to your insurance company
  • Create and send state-required crash reports to authorities
  • Help you to 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.

What happens if I don’t report the accident to my insurance company?
Failing to report an accident to your insurance company can be interpreted as a violation of your insurance policy’s Notice of Occurrence or Corporation Clause. As a result, your insurance company may decide not to renew your policy at its expiration, raise your premiums, or in some cases, cancel your policy.

Won’t my insurance company raise my premiums if I report the accident?
A decision to raise your premiums depends on several factors. Like other major insurance companies, your insurance company has a proprietary system to help them determine whether an insured’s premiums will be raised. The factors relied upon can include prior accidents, severity of injuries, issuance of traffic citations, property damage, and other factors.

In most cases, insurance premiums will not be raised when the insured was not responsible for causing the accident.

Should I be honest and tell the other driver if I know the accident was my fault?
No. There is no reason to tell the other driver the accident was your fault. There may be factors you’re unaware of which may have contributed to the accident. These factors may prove the other driver contributed to the accident, and as a result was wholly or partially at-fault as well.

If so, under New Jersey’s Contributory Negligence Rule, the amount of compensation awarded may be much less than the other driver was demanding.

Step 7 -The Police and Accident Scenes

New Jersey role police accidentLaw enforcement officers dispatched to the scene of a car accident may be local police, county sheriff, or state troopers. These officers are all highly trained in accident scene investigation.

What’s the role of law enforcement at accident scenes?
When law enforcement arrives at the accident scene they will:

  • Seek out the injured, render assistance and summon fire and rescue (when required)
  • Secure the scene by setting out flares, pylons, and taking other cautionary measures meant to protect others
  • Search for causes of the accident, including skid marks, road obstructions, weather conditions, and driver negligence, and drivers who may be intoxicated
  • Interview drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bystanders
  • Run background checks on those at the scene
  • Issue traffic citations where appropriate
  • Make arrests for intoxication, outstanding warrants, and other offenses

Do I have to answer questions from the police?
It depends. When law enforcement arrives at the accident scene you’re required to identify yourself and give the officer your full name, address, registration of the car you were driving at the time of the crash, and proof of insurance.

An accident scene is no place to be belligerent. If the officer tells you to wait or be patient, you must follow his direction. Making demands or other antagonizing statements may work against you. In extreme cases, not heeding the officer’s direction can result in your arrest.

However, if you are being questioned by the police about driving under the influence, possession of drugs, or for any other action which might result in criminal charges being filed against you, you have the right not to answer those questions and immediately ask for an attorney.

Does the police officer have to read me my rights if I’m being questioned at the scene?
No. While a traffic stop is a form of restraint by law enforcement, since you don’t feel free to leave, it is not a form of “custody” or “custodial interrogation.” Therefore, the Miranda warnings do not apply.

What if the police give me a ticket?
If a law enforcement officer decides you were in violation of one or more of New Jersey’s traffic laws, you may be issued a traffic citation. You can try to talk the officer out of writing the citation, but once issued, you must sign and accept it.

Signing a traffic citation is not an admission of guilt. It’s simply an agreement you will appear in court on a specified day and time to address the citation.

On your appearance date, you may enter a plea of not guilty and ask for a trial. You may also attempt to negotiate a “plea bargain” with the prosecutor. This may include paying a fine and attending a driver education course. Once completed, the citation will be dismissed, and in most cases, not appear on your driving record.

Step 8 – Retaining an Attorney

New Jersey attorney or self representMost property damage claims can be handled without an attorney. If your only losses were damage to your car, or personal property within the car, you probably don’t need an attorney.

There are also some personal injury claims which can be adequately handled without representation. Others however, always require an experienced personal injury attorney.

What’s the difference between soft tissue and hard injuries?
There are basically two types of personal injuries:

Soft tissue injuries often include sprains and strains to tendons, muscles, ligaments, minor bruising, whiplash, abrasions, cuts not requiring stitches, first degree burns, and similar injuries.

Soft tissue injuries are normally straight-forward, and don’t often require complex or extensive medical treatment. Soft tissue injuries also normally require a relatively short period of physical therapy, ranging from a few weeks to a few months.

Hard injuries are much more serious and include dismemberment, disfigurement, scarring, compound fractures, deep gashes, third degree burns, head trauma, and other similar serious injuries. Hard injuries often require expensive and protracted medical treatment, diagnostic testing (such as X-Rays, MRIs, CT Scans), and more.

There’s just too much to lose by representing yourself in a serious injury claim. By representing yourself you’re at an immediate and substantial disadvantage when dealing with the insurance company. You simply don’t have the legal skills required to negotiate effectively, nor do you have the legal tools available to experienced attorneys.

A claims adjuster won’t tell you the policy limits of his or her insured. Because of this you won’t know whether the at-fault driver carried the minimum insurance coverage, or a higher limit policy. And worse, once the adjuster tells you that’s their final offer, your leverage is gone.

In a serious injury claim, an experienced personal injury attorney can file a lawsuit, which is the ultimate leverage for obtaining a substantially higher settlement. And that’s even after attorneys fees and costs are deducted.

In an effort to obtain a higher settlement, an injury attorney can file subpoenas for witnesses to appear for sworn depositions, file motions to discover, send requests for production of documents, learn policy limits, prior traffic accidents, traffic citations, prior arrests, and so much more. This is all information you’d have a difficult time finding on your own, and the insurance companies know that.

Insurance companies don’t like plaintiff’s attorneys. Once an attorney becomes involved in the claim, the length of time to settlement increases, while the costs of defending the claim skyrocket. Lawsuits cost insurance companies millions of dollars a year in legal fees and related costs.

The at-fault driver’s insurance company knows once a skilled personal injury attorney is involved, the settlement will likely be much higher than the victim might have negotiated on his or her own.

How much will a personal injury attorney charge to review my case?
Most personal injury attorneys do not charge a fee for an initial office consultation. Seek out several injury attorneys in your area. Most have websites listing the types of cases they handle.

Once you choose an attorney to represent you, the attorney will likely accept your case on a “contingency fee” basis. This means you will not have to pay any fees until the attorney settles your claim or wins it at trial. Once either occurs, you will owe the attorney a percentage of the settlement amount or the court award. In the event the attorney is unable to settle your claim or loses at trial, you will owe the attorney nothing.

How much are contingency fees?
Most personal injury attorneys charge anywhere from 25% to 40% of the gross settlement or court award. The fee normally depends on the complexity of the case, if it goes to trial, and what you negotiated at the time you retained the attorney.

When considering contingency fees, it’s important to realize the attorney representing you is obligated to pay all costs required to successfully resolve your claim.

Costs can include private investigator fees, court reporter fees, lawsuit filing fees, medical expert fees, and more. These costs can be substantial.  Moreover, in the event your attorney fails to settle your claim, or loses the case in trial, you will owe nothing. The attorney has to absorb the costs.

However, your attorney also has a built-in incentive to get you the most compensation possible. The higher your settlement or court verdict, the greater the attorney’s cut.

Can I negotiate the attorney’s fees?
You can try. There is nothing wrong with asking the attorneys you consult with to reduce their fees. Some may agree to do so, while others may not.

Step 9 – Beware of New Jersey’s Statute of Limitations

New Jersey statute of limitationsLike all other states, New Jersey has specific statutory time periods for various legal actions. These time periods are referred to as Statutes of Limitations.

A statute of limitations refers to a specific time period in which a lawsuit must be brought. These include actions for medical malpractice, defective products, government tort, criminal cases, personal injuries, and more.

What is the Statute of Limitations for property damage and personal injury claims in New Jersey?
If you’ve been the victim of a New Jersey car accident, you must either settle your personal injury claim or file a lawsuit within two (2) years. If neither occurs, you lose your legal right to pursue the at-fault driver for compensation. In most cases, the statute of limitations period begins on the date of the accident.

What do I do if the insurance company is stalling and won’t return my calls?
The insurance company claims adjuster is not your friend. This is true no matter how important the adjuster makes you feel, or how empathetic s/he appears. The claims adjuster’s allegiance is to the insurance company and no one else.

The claims adjuster is under no legal obligation to settle your personal injury claim within the two year statute of limitations time period. Nor is the adjuster required to remind you that the limitations period is pending.

To avoid missing the statute of limitations and being barred from compensation, you must either settle the claim or file a lawsuit. If a lawsuit is filed, the limitations period no longer applies, even if it takes a year or longer to resolve the claim.

If you’re handling your own claim and the limitations period is rapidly approaching, immediately seek the advice and counsel of an experienced personal injury attorney. If the attorney believes your claim is viable, and agrees to accept the case, s/he will likely file a lawsuit to “toll” (extend) the statute of limitations. You can also file a lawsuit in small claims court to toll the statute.

Be sure you have entered the statute of limitations period in your calendar, into your computer, and into your cell phone calendar app. Give yourself plenty of reminders.

Step 10 – When to Consider Small Claims Court

New Jersey small claims courtNew Jersey Small Claims Courts were created by the legislature to provide a forum in which parties who believe they’ve been wronged may bring their cases before a judge. These courts are relatively informal, where strict rules of evidence do not apply.

When would I consider filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court?
Here are several reasons why you may consider filing a lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

  • The at-fault driver’s insurance company wholly denies your claim
  • The at-fault driver’s insurance company refuses to offer a fair amount of compensation 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

How much can I sue for in Small Claims Court?
New Jersey Small Claims Courts have limited jurisdiction. The maximum amount you can sue for is $3,000.

Do I need an attorney?
No. Realistically, because of the dollar limit you can sue for in Small Claims Courts, it is unlikely you would be able to find an attorney to represent you.

How do I find out more about filing a lawsuit in one of New Jersey’s Small Claims Courts?
The New Jersey Judiciary has published several documents, such as these Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, that should be able to help you.

Where Can I find the Small Claims Court nearest to me?
You can find the Small Claims Court nearest to you by visiting the NJ Judicial website.

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