The Complete Pennsylvania Car Accident Guide

Pennsylvania car accidentToday’s cars are built with safety features designed to minimize property damage and reduce injuries.

Despite the fact that most accidents today are “fender-benders”, there are still an estimated two million people who will be injured in car accidents this year.¹

In fact, the average driver will be involved in three or four car accidents during their lifetime.²

The State of Pennsylvania is no exception. Recent statistics show that over 80,000 people are killed or injured in a Pennsylvania car accident each year.³

What You Need to Know if You’ve Been in a Pennsylvania Car Accident

The decisions you make at an accident scene are crucial. Knowing what to say and do can make all the difference in a successful property damage or personal injury claim.

To help you through this critical time, we’ve compiled 11 steps you should take after an accident, along with answers to the most frequently asked questions.

 


Step 1. Stop, Help the Injured, Call 911 

Pennsylvania stop call helpPennsylvania law requires drivers involved in a car accident to stop immediately at the scene, or as close as safely possible.

Once stopped, see if anyone was injured and call 911 to report the accident.

If possible, assist the injured while waiting for help.

What accident information should I give the 911 dispatcher?

Give the 911 dispatcher the following information:

Location: Be specific. Tell the dispatcher the street you’re on,  or the nearest mile marker. Describe any landmarks. Emergency services will get there faster if they know where to find you.

Scene:  Tell the 911 dispatcher if traffic is blocked or coming close to the vehicles involved, or if there are any immediate dangers like leaking fuel or vehicle fires.

Injuries: Tell the 911 dispatcher if anyone is injured, asking for help, or trapped in a car.

Will the police be dispatched to the accident?

Police are usually sent to accidents with injuries, reported hazards, or traffic problems.

In busy jurisdictions, an office may not be available to respond to minor, non-injury accidents.

What are my legal duties at the accident?

Drivers involved in an accident must render “reasonable assistance” to anyone hurt in the accident. That assistance includes driving the injured to a local hospital or arranging transportation for them.

What information should I give to others involved in the accident?

After a Pennsylvania car accident drivers should give anyone with injuries or property damage the following information:

  • Their full names
  • Name of car owner (if different from driver)
  • Residence addresses
  • Car registration information
  • License plate number

What if I’m injured in a car accident?

Some kinds of injuries are painfully obvious, like bleeding wounds and broken bones. Unfortunately, other injuries may not be so easy to see. Some serious, possibly critical injuries like internal bleeding or brain trauma may not show clear signs until hours and even days after the crash.

Never refuse medical treatment at the scene. Shock and worry can hide signs of injuries.

Let paramedics look you over. This ins’t the time to put on a brave front. If the paramedics want to take you to the hospital, let them take you.

If you aren’t taken to the hospital by rescue squad, you’ll need to have a medical evaluation right away. If your regular medical provider isn’t available,  go to the nearest urgent care of hospital emergency department.

Refusing or delaying medical treatment after a car accident can seriously undermine your auto insurance claim. The insurance company will jump at the chance to deny your injury claim, arguing that your injuries weren’t caused by the collision.

Step 2. Report the Accident to Police

Pennsylvania accident call policeDo I have to report the accident to the police?

Drivers are required to report any car accident  that causes death or  injuries to anyone, or vehicle damage bad enough that the car can’t be driven.

What if I crashed into a car and the owner can’t be found?

If you hit a car or other property,  stop immediately and try to find the owner. Give the owner your name, address, and insurance information.

If the property owner can’t be found,  leave a note describing what happened along with your name, address, insurance information  and registration number. Then call local police to report the accident.

Are police required to file an accident report?

Yes. When police investigate an accident, they are required to file a written accident report. The report must include:

  • Names of drivers and passengers
  • Witness statements
  • Weather conditions
  • Date and approximate time of the accident
  • Cause of the accident
  • A diagram of the accident scene
  • Any other relevant and pertinent information

Can I get a copy of the police report?

Yes. To get a copy of an accident report, Fill out an Application to Obtain Copy of Police Crash Report.

Send the completed form with a money order or certified check in the amount of $22 to:

Pennsylvania State Police
ATTN: Crash Reports Unit
1800 Elmerton Ave
Harrisburg, PA 17110

You you may have to wait 15 days before the accident report is made available to you.

Step 3. The Role of Law Enforcement

Pennsylvania police at accidentPolice officers are highly trained in accident investigations. When police arrive on the scene, it’s important to let them do their  job.

What can I expect from police at the accident scene?

Officers dispatched to a car accident are authorized to:

  • Coordinate care for the injured
  • Secure the accident scene
  • Manage traffic problems
  • Conduct sobriety tests
  • Investigate how and why the accident occurred
  • Determine fault
  • Issue traffic citation

Do the police have to listen to me?

No. While you can try to tell police your side of the story, the officer doesn’t have to stop and listen.

When the officer gives you instructions, you should cooperate.  continuing to argue with the police will not only interfere with the accident investigation,  it can also get you arrested.

What if the police give me a traffic citation?

It’s okay to try and talk the officer out of giving you a ticket, but once the citation is issued, you should accept it.

Accepting or signing a traffic citation is not an admission of guilt. Argue about the ticket in traffic court, not at the accident scene.

Step 4. Gather Evidence From the Scene

Pennsylvania accident photo evidenceThe information you gather from the accident scene will  help you build a strong car insurance claim.

When you’ve been in a car accident caused by someone else, you’ll need proof that the other driver did something wrong, or failed to drive responsibly.

What kind of damages will insurance pay me for?

When it comes to car insurance claims, you’ll want to be compensated for the losses you’ve suffered from a car accident.

Your losses are called “damages” and can include:

  • Costs for medical diagnosis and treatment
  • Out-of-pocket expenses for medications, medical devices, and travel for treatment
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Car repair costs
  • Costs for other property damaged in the accident
  • Rental car fees while your car is in the shop

What information will help my car insurance claim?

While at the scene of the accident, try to obtain the following:

Vehicle information:

  • Make, model, and year
  • License plate number
  • Expiration date of the tags
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN)

The VIN number can normally be found on the car’s dashboard in the left corner where it meets the windshield. It can also be found on the driver’s insurance card, or inside the door jam of the driver’s side door.

Drivers and passengers information:

  • Full names and addresses
  • Telephone numbers and email addresses
  • Dates of birth
  • Driver’s license numbers

If the driver isn’t the owner of the car, you’ll need to get the owner’s name and contact information as well.

Diagram of the accident scene:

  • Location of the cars immediately before and after the collision
  • Approximate speed of the cars immediately before the collision
  • Direction each car was headed
  • Weather conditions at the time of the accident
  • Time of day the accident occurred

Are photographs and video important for my insurance claim?

Yes! Photographs and video taken at the scene can be very valuable in property damage and personal injury cases. Use a digital camera, cell phone, iPad or other electronic device to take multiple photos and videos of the crash scene.

Be sure to include sound so you can capture possible witness statements, other drivers’ admission of fault, possible intoxication, etc.

Photos and videos can also help identify the position of the cars immediately after the collision, weather conditions, or any road hazards that could have contributed to the accident. They can also reflect the demeanor of the other drivers, passengers, and any witnesses at the time of the accident.

By taking photographs and video, you’re essentially recording evidence that’s difficult for anyone involved to dispute later.

Are witness statements important for my insurance claim?

Yes! Witness statements can be extremely helpful to your claim.

Witnesses don’t have to talk to you. But if  you can find a cooperative witness, ask for their contact information.

Get some paper and a pen and ask the witness to write down what they saw and heard. If they believe the other driver was at fault, make sure they put that in writing, as well as their reason for feeling that way. Ask them to sign and date each page of the written statement.

Step 5. Contact Your Insurance Company

Pennsylvania accident call insuranceYour car insurance policy is a binding contract between you (the “insured”) and your insurance company (the “insurer”). Your policy likely has something called Cooperation Clause somewhere within the policy information.

The clause means you have to notify the insurance company after an accident, regardless of fault, and to cooperate in your insurance company’s investigation of the accident.

The standard Cooperation clause will read 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…”

How does the Cooperation Clause affect me?

This cooperation clause in your insurance policy can affect you in several ways.

By requiring that you notify the insurance company when you’re in an accident, it gives them time to investigate and prepare for any potential claims made by the other driver.

The clause also protects you if you report an accident that the other driver claims was your fault.  Your insurance company will protect your interests, and will even hire an attorney to defend you if you get sued over the accident.

Will my premiums go up if I report the accident?

Insurance companies have different policies with regards to increasing rates after an accident. Usually your rates will not increase after a single incident, especially if it was not your fault.

Many of them allow one minor accident without any increase in your premium. Other companies allow multiple accidents before a rate increase, but that comes with a higher base premium.

Contact your insurance company to learn more about rate increases, accident forgiveness, and other fees.

 Do I have to call my insurance company when no one is hurt?

Commonly referred to as “fender-benders,” these accidents involve very minor damage and no injuries. You may be tempted not to report the accident to your insurance company in these cases.

Not reporting the accident to your insurance company is a serious mistake. Here are a few reasons why:

Delayed Symptoms: The other driver or passengers may believe they weren’t injured, but the onset of symptoms for some injuries can take hours, sometimes even days to appear. This makes injuries you didn’t think existed suddenly become very real.

No Insurance: The other driver may not have property damage or personal liability coverage. If so, that’s the last thing they want you to know because you might call the police. The other driver knows that if that happens, they could be ticketed or even arrested.

Fraud: While at the scene, the driver and his passengers may say they weren’t injured. Later, they may decide to “cash-in” on the accident by filing fraudulent claims of whiplash and other injuries.

Your insurance company needs to hear your side of the story as soon as possible after the accident. This is especially important if the other driver decides the accident was your fault and not theirs.

What can happen if I don’t report the accident?

It’s important to know that failing to notify your insurance company of an accident is not only breaking your policy agreement, but the insurance company could raise your premiums, decline to renew your policy, or even cancel your insurance.

Do I need to contact the other driver’s insurance company?

Yes. If you’ve been in a Pennsylvania car accident and have an injury or property damage, contact the other driver’s insurance company and report the accident. You will be assigned a claim number and will be contacted by a claims adjuster.

In many cases, there are two adjusters assigned to your claim: one to handle the property damage and the other the personal injury aspect. Be sure to obtain both claim numbers. You’ll need them for future communication with the insurance company.

Are there insurance company apps for reporting accidents? 

Yes. There are many free mobile applications to help you report an accident to your insurance company. They can help you:

  • Take and store pictures and videos
  • Store and transmit personal information (including driver’s license info, insurance info, etc.)
  • Create and send crash reports to state authorities
  • Help you draw a diagram of the accident scene
  • Access GPS location of the scene
  • Store witness statements and contact information

Check with your insurance company to see if they have a mobile app. Here are some presently available:

Allstate Mobile
State Farm
Progressive
GEICO
Nationwide

Step 6. Car Insurance Requirements

Pennsylvania auto insuranceDrivers on Pennsylvania’s roadways are required to carry personal liability and property damage insurance. This assures anyone who sustains property damage or personal injuries in an accident will be fairly compensated for their losses.

How much insurance is required in Pennsylvania?

The State of Pennsylvania requires drivers to carry minimum coverage in the amounts of:

  • $15,000 for injuries to one person in one accident
  • $30,000 for injuries sustained by two or more people in one accident
  • $5,000 for property damage in one accident
  • $5,000 for no-fault Personal Injury Protection , or “PIP” coverage

Does Pennsylvania require underinsured or uninsured coverage?

No. Pennsylvania law does not require drivers to carry uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage.

How can I find out more about Pennsylvania car insurance requirements?

For more information on Pennsylvania car insurance requirements, read the insurance fact sheet and visit the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation website.

Step 7. Understanding No-Fault Insurance

Pennsylvania no-fault insuranceWhen it comes to car insurance, the State of Pennsylvania uses both a “no-fault” system and a 3rd party liability system. Under Pennsylvania’s no-fault system, after a car accident a driver may turn to his or her own insurance company for compensation for injuries up to the personal injury protection, or “PIP”  limit. This is the case regardless of who was at fault.

However, drivers also have the right to circumvent Pennsylvania’s no-fault law and proceed directly against the at-fault driver under certain circumstances. This can be done when the accident resulted in serious injury. According to Pennsylvania State law, this is generally defined as the impairment of a body function or permanent and serious disfigurement.

Unlike most states which rely solely on a no-fault insurance system, Pennsylvania drivers may choose between no-fault insurance, a 3rd party liability insurance system, or both.

How does Pennsylvania’s no-fault insurance work?
Under Pennsylvania’s no-fault system, drivers involved in accidents with personal injuries do not turn to the negligent driver’s insurance company for compensation. Instead, injured drivers must turn to their own insurance company to file a claim.

What are the advantages of no-fault insurance?
The primary advantage of a no-fault insurance system is not having to prove the other driver was to blame for the accident. The same holds true if you were at fault. Under this system, drivers simply turn to their own insurance company for payment.

The secondary advantage is the amount of time you save. Under no-fault insurance systems, a driver doesn’t have to wait until the other driver’s insurance company investigates the claim. Instead, the injured driver simply files a claim with their own insurance company and is paid promptly without regard for fault in the accident.

What are the disadvantages of no-fault insurance?
The primary disadvantage of no-fault insurance is the fact that there is no compensation for pain and suffering.

How about property damage claims?
Pennsylvania’s no-fault insurance does not apply to property damage claims. A driver who sustains property damage in an accident may turn to the at-fault driver and their insurance company for the cost of repair or replacement of a damaged car.

What are my options for compensation after a car accident? 

Victims of a Pennsylvania car accident, including drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists, have three options in seeking compensation for their personal injury or property damages:

  1. File a claim with their own insurance company
  2. File claim with the negligent driver’s insurance company
  3. File a lawsuit against the negligent driver

Step 8. Modified Comparative Fault Law

Pennsylvania comparative faultWhen it comes to assigning negligence in car accidents, the State of Pennsylvania follows the Modified Comparative Negligence Rule, otherwise known as the “51% Bar.”

Under Pennsylvania’s 51% bar, the victim of a car accident can recover damages from an at-fault driver even if it’s determined the victim was also negligent. This is possible only if the victim’s own negligence does not exceed 51%.

If it’s determined the victim’s own negligence was 51% or more, that victim is legally barred from receiving any compensation from the other driver.

How does Comparative Fault work? 

Since Pennsylvania follows a Modified Comparative Negligence rule, if you suffer injuries or property damage in a car accident, you can seek compensation from the other driver, or the other driver’s insurance company, even if you were partly to blame for the accident, so long as you were not more to blame than the other driver.

But if you are partially to blame, the amount of your compensation can be reduced accordingly.

Example of how Comparative Fault affects compensation:

Lenny was driving west on 80th Street to pick up his son from baseball practice. He was texting his wife to let her know he was on his way. Lydia was on her way home from the gym, driving northbound on Ocean Avenue.

As Lydia approached the traffic light, it turned yellow. Lydia increased her speed to try and make it through the intersection before the light turned red. Unfortunately, the light turned red before she made it all the way across. Lydia  T-boned Lenny, causing him serious injuries.

Lenny filed a claim for $100,000 with Lydia’s insurance company for his injuries, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Lydia’s insurance company denied the claim, arguing that Lenny was the driver most to blame for the accident because he was texting.

Through his attorney, Lenny filed a lawsuit against Lydia, seeking $100,000 in damages.

During trial, the evidence showed Lydia was to blame (liable) for the accident because she failed to stop at the red light. However, additional testimony showed Lenny was texting at the time the collision occurred.

After considering all the evidence, the jury found that Jenny was the driver most to blame for the accident.

But Jenny wasn’t the only one who caused the collision.

The jury determined that Lenny also shared part of the liability. As a result, they apportioned Lydia’s negligence at 60% and Lenny’s at 40%.

Lenny was awarded $60,000 of his $100,000 in damages, representing a reduction of 40%  for his portion of liability for the accident.  Lydia’s insurance company paid the $60,000 to Lenny.

Under Pennsylvania’s modified comparative negligence rule, if the jury had decided Lenny’s liability was 51% or higher, he would have walked out of court without any compensation from Lydia’s insurance company.

Should I ever admit the accident was my fault and agree to pay the other driver?

No. Never admit fault at an accident scene.

There are almost always variables at an accident scene you aren’t aware of. These can include bad weather, speed of the cars, malfunctioning of traffic lights, potholes, negligence of the other driver, and more. Any of these may have contributed to the accident.

Don’t say anything that can be used against you later.

Admissions of fault are difficult to take back. Let your insurance company investigate the accident. That’s their job. You can be confident they will do everything possible to protect you from an unwarranted claim of negligence.

Step 9. When to Hire an Attorney

Pennsylvania hire attorney self representThere are some personal injury claims which can be competently handled by a victim without legal representation. However, there are others where legal representation is essential. The difference is in the type and severity of the injury, and whether the injuries are “soft tissue” or “hard injury.”

What is the difference?

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

Soft tissue injuries generally don’t result in high medical bills. These claims are generally fairly simple and do not involve complex issues of law. Because of this, a victim can normally negotiate a fair settlement without an attorney.

Hard Injuries are much more serious. They include fractures, third degree burns, deep gashes requiring stitches, scarring, head trauma, and other injuries requiring extensive medical care.

When dealing with a hard injury claim, the compensation can be substantial. Don’t be fooled into  thinking that by representing yourself and avoiding attorney fees, you will end up receiving more money.

Hard injury claims are complicated. By representing yourself in a serious injury claim, you may actually end up settling for a much smaller amount than an attorney could have won for you, even after attorney fees.

When should I retain an attorney?

Insurance company claims adjusters love to deal directly with victims in serious injury claims. They are highly trained in personal injury settlement tactics and policies and very good at making victims feel they are top notch negotiators.

The main problem with self-representation is once the adjuster says “That’s our final offer,” there is little more you can do. At that point the insurance company is essentially saying your only option is take it or leave it.

Even if you could find your way through composing a petition and filing a lawsuit, you would quickly find yourself up against the insurance company’s attorney who is paid to crush self-represented plaintiffs and their lawsuits.

When it comes to serious hard injury claims you need an experienced personal injury attorney. These professionals have the legal skills required to get the highest settlements possible from insurance companies, in most cases substantially higher than you could ever hope to achieve on your own.

Your attorney can file a lawsuit, using all their experience and legal skills to win your case. Personal injury attorneys have the power to learn the other driver’s policy limits, whether the driver has a past record of accidents, previous traffic citations, prior arrests, and more. These are all matters you could never do on your own.

How much will an attorney cost me?

Reputable personal injury attorneys don’t charge for the initial office consultation.

They will also not charge you any costs in advance which will likely be required to pursue your claim, including the costs of depositions, investigation, expert medical testimony, and much more.

A personal injury attorney is only paid when they settle your claim or win it at trial. You will then be required to pay them a percentage of the settlement or court verdict, usually about 1/3rd.

The incentive for a personal injury attorney to succeed is substantial. An injury attorney wants to obtain the highest insurance settlement or court verdict possible for his or her client. The higher the client’s settlement or court verdict, the higher the attorney’s fees. It’s really a “win-win” for the attorney and the client.

Step 10. Small Claims Court

Pennsylvania small claims courtSometimes it’s difficult to find an attorney who will accept your case on a contingency fee basis, especially when your claim is for a relatively small amount of money.

When this happens, small claims court may be your best option.

Small claims courts were established for people with little or no legal experience. These courts have judges who relax the rules of evidence and procedure so claimants can present a case without an attorney.

When should I file a lawsuit in small claims court?

There are four reasons you would want to file a lawsuit in small claims court:

  1. The insurance company refuses to offer a fair settlement amount
  2. The insurance company denies your claim
  3. The at-fault driver was uninsured
  4. You can’t find an attorney to accept your case

How much can I sue for in Pennsylvania small claims court?

Pennsylvania’s small claims courts have jurisdiction over cases valued up to $12,000.

Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?

Yes. Pennsylvania allows attorney in small claims court, but you don’y have to have one.

Where can I file my small claims lawsuit?

You’ll need to file your small claims lawsuit case in one of the following places:in the county where the accident happened, or where the at-fault driver lives.

If the at-fault driver was an employee of a business and on the job at the time of the accident, you can file in any county where the company does business.

Where can I find the forms for a small claims lawsuit?

To file a small claims lawsuit, you will need to complete a Small Claims Civil Complaint Form. You can download this form and other paperwork from the Pennsylvania courts website.

Where can I find the nearest small claims court?

To find the Pennsylvania small claims court near you, check the Pennsylvania courts website.

Step 11. Beware of the Statute of Limitations

Pennsylvania statute limitationsIn property damage and personal injury claims, the term “statute of limitations” refers to the period of time you have to either settle your claim or file a lawsuit.

If the statute of limitations expires, you will lose the right to pursue the at-fault driver or the at-fault driver’s insurance company for the compensation you deserve.

What is the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania?

The statute of limitations period for property damage and personal injury claims in Pennsylvania is two (2) years.

What if the insurance company claims adjuster won’t cooperate?

The insurance company is under no legal obligation to settle your claim within Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations period. If the date is approaching, you must file a lawsuit or retain an attorney who will file one for you.

What happens if I file a lawsuit?

Once you file a lawsuit, the statute of limitations period no longer applies. This is known as “tolling” the statute. Once filed, it doesn’t matter if the case takes one week, one year, or longer.

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