10 Critical Steps After a Tennessee Car Accident

Protect your rights and maximize your payout after a Tennessee car accident. We answer key questions and show you how to build a strong insurance claim.

Tennessee car accidentToday’s vehicles are built with advanced safety features that make them safer than ever. Unfortunately, despite the technological advancements, car accidents on U.S. roadways continue to result in serious injuries. Last year over 4 million people were injured in car accidents.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 at least 3 to 4 car accidents during your lifetime.²  

The State of Tennessee has its fair share of car accidents too. Last year alone there were over 238,000 accidents on Tennessee roadways.³

What you need to know if you are in a Tennessee car accident…

In the aftermath of a car accident, you’ll be faced with many important decisions. You will have to know what to do and say when it comes to your property damage, medical bills, accident reports, dealing with insurance companies, Tennessee state laws, and more.

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 arising after a car accident.

Step 1 – Stop, Call 911, and Help the Injured

Tennessee accident stop help callIf you’ve been in a car accident on a Tennessee State roadway, you’re required by law to stop immediately at the accident scene or as close to the scene as is safe. Once stopped, seek out the injured and call 911 to report the accident.

When I dial 911, what specific information should I provide?
Give the 911 dispatcher the following information:

The location: Look for the nearest street address, signs, intersections, and landmarks.  Giving the dispatcher specific location information will assure the police and paramedics arrive promptly.

If the scene poses a danger: Car accidents are messy. Glass can be shattered, bumpers mangled, doors dented, and fluids leaking. Accident scenes are often dangerous to drivers and others in the vicinity as traffic passes dangerously close. Let the dispatcher know if the scene poses a threat to anyone.

If anyone is injured: Tell the 911 dispatcher if there are obvious signs of injuries, or if anyone involved is complaining of pain, discomfort, dizziness, or nausea.

Will the police be dispatched?
Each law enforcement agency has its own policies dictating when police officers and paramedics are dispatched to an accident scene. Most agencies will not send officers unless there are injuries, the accident is blocking traffic lanes, or the accident scene presents a danger to others.

What are my legal obligations when an accident happens?
Whether the accident resulted in injuries, death, or simply property damage, all drivers are required to stop immediately at the accident scene, or as close to the scene as possible.

Once stopped, state law requires drivers to share their names, addresses and the registration numbers of the cars they were driving. If asked, drivers must also show their driver’s license and insurance information to any person injured or to the driver of a car which sustained property damage.

Additionally, if you’re involved in an accident resulting in injuries to anyone, you are required to render “reasonable assistance” to that person. That assistance includes making arrangements or driving them to a local hospital emergency room.

Do the same laws apply if the accident occurs on private property?
Yes. The requirements set forth in this state law also apply to Tennessee car accidents occurring on private property such as shopping mall parking lots, trailer parks, apartment complexes, and any other premises generally frequented by the public.

What if I crashed into a vehicle that was unattended?
Stop immediately at the accident scene, or as close to it as possible. Then make a reasonable effort to locate the owner. Once you find them, explain what happened and give them your name and address.

If after making a reasonable effort you’re unable to locate the owner, you are required to leave a note. Be sure to include an explanation of what happened, along with your name and address. Once completed, leave the note in a conspicuous place on the car.

What if my personal property was damaged in the accident?
When personal property (such as cell phones, electronic devices, jewelry, etc.) is damaged in a car accident caused by the negligence of another driver, that driver is responsible for the repair or replacement of the damaged property. In most cases, the negligent driver’s insurance company will cover those costs.

Can I be sued if I help someone who’s been injured in the accident?
No. Under Tennessee’s “Good Samaritan” law, a person who renders emergency aid at the scene of an accident (or while en route from the accident scene to a medical facility), is protected from civil liability. However, if the injured person makes clear to you they do not want your assistance, you must refrain from helping them.

Do we have to notify the police?
It depends. If anyone was injured, or there is property damage that appears to be $50 or more, you are required to report the accident to law enforcement. If the accident occurred in a city or town, you must immediately notify the local police department. If outside city limits, report the accident to the county sheriff or the nearest office of the state highway patrol.

What if I crash into property on the side of the road?
If you crash into and cause damage to property along a road, you must take reasonable steps to locate the owner. Once located, give that person your name, address, and the registration number of the car you were driving. If asked, you must also show them your driver’s license.

Step 2 – Report the Accident

Tennessee report accidentAfter notifying the police, do I have to notify anyone else?
It depends. If the accident resulted in bodily injury or death, or the property damage appears to be $400 or more, you are required to complete an accident crash report. You have 20 days from the date of the crash to complete and forward the form to the Tennessee Department of Public Safety.

What if I’m injured and unable to file a collision report within the 20 day time limit?
Filing the accident report is not required from any driver who is physically incapable of doing so. However, if the owner of the vehicle is not injured, they are required to file the accident report within the 20 day time limit, regardless of whether they were involved in the accident or not.

Where can I obtain a copy of a previously filed accident report?
If the crash was investigated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), local police or sheriffs department, a copy of the accident report can be obtained online within seven days of the crash. You can request a copy of the report by visiting the Tennessee Highway Patrol website. The cost of an online Collision Report is currently $10.

Step 3 – Start Collecting Evidence

Tennessee accident photo evidenceThe accident scene is the first (and often best) opportunity to collect evidence to start building your claim. But it’s important to remember that time is of the essence. Once the accident is cleared by police, the other people involved, their vehicles and any potential witnesses will be gone. This makes the time immediately following a collision critical.

Where do I begin?
There are several items and information you will want to try to collect while you are at the accident scene and have the opportunity:

Individuals Involved:

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

Vehicles Involved:

  • Make, model and year
  • License plate number
  • Registration expiration date
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN)

Note: The VIN number can be found on the dashboard in the left corner where the dashboard and windshield meet. It can also be found on the driver’s insurance card or inside the driver’s side door jamb.

Witness Information:

  • Full name
  • Home and business addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • Email addresses

Note: Ask witnesses to remain at the scene until the police arrive. While they aren’t legally required to remain, convincing them to do so will give you time to speak with them and determine if what they saw will 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 car was traveling
  • Direction each vehicle was headed
  • Road obstructions, potholes, etc.

How about photographs and videos?
Photographs and video can be very important. Use your digital camera, cell phone, iPad or other electronic recording device. This evidence can help identify the position of the cars, weather conditions, traffic signals, street signs, potholes and more.

Be sure to include sound on any videos you take. Video can capture the demeanor of the drivers, record statements, and show obvious injuries or signs of intoxication. Additionally, this type of evidence makes it difficult later for anyone to try changing their story.

How about witness’s statements?
Witness statements can be quite helpful. However, bystanders are not under any legal obligation to speak with you. If they do agree to speak with you, ask them to write down what they heard and saw regarding your incident. Be sure to have the witnesses sign and date each page of their statement.

Step 4 – Call Your Insurance Company

Tennessee accident call insuranceYour car insurance policy is a binding legal contract between you (the insured) and your insurance company (the insurer). The policy likely contains something called a “Cooperation Clause” and “Notice of Occurrence” Clause. These clauses require you to notify your insurance company in the event you’re involved in a car accident.

Once reported, you are contractually obligated to cooperate with your insurance company in their investigation of the claim.

Example of a Cooperation and Notice of Occurrence Clause:

“The …Insured agrees to notify the underwriter of any accidents and thereafter to provide all information, assistance and cooperation which the underwriter reasonably requests. Further, the insured agrees that in the event of a property damage or personal injury claim or lawsuit filed by a third party, the insurance company and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurance company’s position….”

Why should I report the accident to my insurance company if no one was injured?
While most car accidents are minor fender-benders, they still must be reported to your insurance company immediately. There are several reasons why:

Delayed Symptoms: The people involved may initially believe they aren’t injured. But some symptoms can take hours or even days to appear. The other driver and their passengers may not realize they are injured until sometime after the accident.

No Insurance: The other driver may not be insured and doesn’t want you to know. This can be especially true if they fear the police will be involved and they could be ticketed for not having insurance.

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

Are there cell phone apps available to report accidents?
Yes. Today there are mobile applications to help notify insurance companies when an accident occurs. The apps can also be used in gathering evidence your insurance company will need to investigate the claim.

Most of these applications can be used to:

  • Transmit the other driver’s information
  • Draw a 3D sketch of the accident scene
  • Initiate a claim with your insurance company
  • Take photos of the event
  • Get an exact GPS location of the accident scene
  • Store witness names and contact information
  • Send the Tennessee Collision Report

Below are just a few of the companies offering mobile accident reporting apps:

C.A.R – Car Accident Report
Allstate Insurance Company
Google Accident Report
iTunes Auto Accident Report

Step 5 – 3rd Party Tort Liability

Tennessee 3rd party liabilityUnder Tennessee’s 3rd party liability rule, drivers who are injured or sustain property damage in an accident due to the negligence of another driver, have the right to pursue the at-fault driver for compensation.

What does Tennessee’s 3rd party tort liability mean for me?
If you sustain property damage or personal injuries due to the negligence of another driver, you may do one or more of the following:

  • File an accident claim with your own insurance company
  • File an accident claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  • File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver

What are the minimum amounts of auto insurance required in Tennessee?
To protect everyone on its’ roadways, the State of Tennessee requires all drivers to carry minimum amounts of property damage and personal injury insurance.

Minimum liability coverage amounts are:

  • $25,000 for injury to one person in one accident
  • $50,000 for two or more people injured in one accident
  • $15,000 for property damage in one accident

Step 6 – Comparative Negligence Law 

Tennessee comparative negligenceThe State of Tennessee has adopted the Modified Comparative Fault System. Under this rule, each driver may be held responsible for damages sustained in an accident. The amount of their liability will be determined in proportion to each driver’s percentage of fault.

A victim filing a claim will be entitled to recover damages from the other driver as long as their own comparative fault was not 50% or greater. If they contributed to the accident by at least 50%, Tennessee law prohibits them from recovering any compensation from the other driver.

What are some examples of Tennessee Comparative Negligence law?
Here are the three different scenarios:

Scenario A: One driver is entirely (100%) at fault in causing the accident

Doris was driving home when suddenly Joe ran a red light and crashed into her car. This caused Doris to be seriously injured. She was driving within the posted speed limit and had the required insurance amounts.

In this case Joe was 100% at fault and Doris would be entitled to receive 100% of her damages. Damages include medical and therapy bills, related out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Scenario B: The driver and victim share some percentage of fault

Doris was driving home when suddenly Joe ran a red light and crashed into her car. This caused Doris to be seriously injured. When the police came to investigate, they heard from witnesses who saw Doris texting right before the crash.

Later in trial, the jury found that Doris contributed to the accident. The jury came to the conclusion Joe was the primary cause of the crash and assessed his liability at 80%. However, they found Doris was also partially at fault by texting, and believed if it weren’t for that, she might have avoided the accident. The jury apportioned Doris’s comparative fault at 20%.

Doris sued Joe for $100,000 in damages. Since the jury found her to be 20% at fault for the collision, they awarded her only $80,000.

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

Doris was driving home and was in a hurry. She was traveling slightly faster than the posted speed limit when suddenly Joe ran a red light and crashed into her car. This caused Doris to be seriously injured.

While Joe ran the red right, Doris was driving above the speed limit at the time of the accident. In this case, the jury decided that Doris’s comparative fault amounted to 50%. Under Tennessee’s Comparative Fault statute, because Doris’s negligence was determined to be 50%, she was barred by state law from recovering any compensation from Joe.

Step 7 – Dealing with the Police

Tennessee accident policeState and local law enforcement officers, including city police, county sheriffs and Tennessee Highway Patrol, are all highly trained in accident scene investigation. When they arrive, they have multiple duties and responsibilities to take care of. You must obey their orders and cooperate with them in their investigation of the accident.

Are the police officers required to listen to my version of the story?
You have a right to speak with law enforcement to give your version of events. However, you must obey the officer’s orders and remain patient until s/he is ready to hear from you. Refrain from asserting yourself or making confrontational statements. Doing so may impede the accident investigation, and may result in you being cited or even arrested.

What is the role of law enforcement at an accident scene?
When law enforcement is dispatched to a Tennessee car accident scene, they will:

  • Call for paramedics or fire and rescue when required
  • Secure the accident scene to protect others (setting out flares or pylons, closing roads, etc.)
  • Look for physical evidence such as skid marks, obstructions, and weather conditions
  • Question drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other witnesses
  • Administer field sobriety tests for suspected intoxicated drivers
  • Issue traffic citations where required
  • Run checks for outstanding warrants

Do I have to answer questions from the police?
If a law enforcement officer asks you to identify yourself, you must give your name, address, proof of registration, and proof of financial responsibility. 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 or your arrest, you have the right not to answer.

What if the police gave me a ticket?
If the police officer decides you violated one of Tennessee’s traffic laws, you may be issued a traffic citation. You can attempt to dissuade the officer, but once they issue the citation you must accept it, and if requested, sign it.

Signing a traffic citation is not an admission of guilt, nor is it admissible in court as conclusive evidence of fault. Rather, your signature is simply an agreement you will appear in court on a date and time to face the charge.  At that time you may enter a plea of not guilty and contest the citation.

You can also attempt to negotiate a plea bargain with the prosecutor. In some cases, if you are willing to pay a fine and attend a driver education course, the citation will be dismissed and will not appear on your driving record.

Step 8 – Hire an Attorney or Represent Yourself?

Tennessee hire attorney self representThere are some property damage and personal injury claims which can be handled without an attorney. Others always require legal representation by an experienced personal injury attorney.

Why should I hire an attorney?
In every claim, there are different types of injuries and degrees of difficulty in proving your damages. There are two classifications of injuries.  They are generally referred to as “soft tissue” and “hard injuries.”

Soft tissue injuries can include sprains and strains to ligaments, tendons, muscles, minor bruising, abrasions, first degree burns, whiplash, and similarly minor injuries. Soft tissue injuries are normally not complex, and don’t require substantial medical, chiropractic, or therapy treatment. They may require limited physical therapy, minimal prescribed medications, some lost wages, and a relatively low amount of pain and suffering.

Hard injuries can include head trauma, fractures, third degree burns, deep gashes, and other serious injuries. These cases usually require extensive and prolonged medical treatment, including surgery, X-Rays, MRIs, CT Scans, and more.

There’s just too much to lose in a serious hard injury claim. You don’t have the legal skills required to settle these claims and don’t have an attorney’s experience. A reputable personal injury attorney will get you a much higher settlement, even after their fees are deducted.

Insurance companies know victims’ negotiation skills are limited. Claims adjusters are expert at leading victims to believe they are getting the best deal, when in reality, that’s just not true. There is no legal requirement for the adjuster to tell you the policy limits of their insured. As a result, you won’t know if the at-fault driver has the minimum amounts of liability insurance, or much more.

And once the insurance company’s claims adjuster gives their final offer, your perceived leverage is gone. At that point, it’s basically take it, or leave it.

In serious injury claims, an experienced personal injury attorney has a variety of legal tools to rely on. They have the power to learn the other driver’s policy limits, if the driver has a past record of traffic accidents, citations, prior arrests, and other valuable information you could never find on your own. An attorney can file a lawsuit and then begin pretrial discovery, including depositions, interrogatories, subpoenas for production of documents, and more.

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

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

Once you retain the attorney, they will likely 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 the case in court, you will owe the attorney nothing.

However, if your attorney gets 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 the attorney.

Gather all of your medical and therapy records, bills, accident reports, photographs, witness statements and other documents related to the accident. After reviewing your documents with several personal injury attorneys, you will better understand the viability of your claim, whether it can likely be settled, the general amount it should settle for, and the likelihood of having to file a lawsuit.

Step 9 – Tennessee’s Small Claims Courts

Tennessee small claims courtThere are some property damage and personal injury claims which can’t be settled. When this occurs, you can take advantage of Tennessee’s Small Claims Court System.

What’s the maximum amount I can sue for in Tennessee’s Small Claims Courts?
At $25,000, Tennessee has one of the highest jurisdictional limits for small claims courts in the United States. Tennessee Small Claims Courts do not require parties to be represented by an attorney.  However, it may help to speak with an attorney to get advice about the law which applies to your case.

Why should I file a small claims court lawsuit?
There are five reasons you might consider filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court:

  1. Your medical bills exceed the at-fault driver’s insurance limits
  2. The at-fault driver’s insurance company refuses to offer a fair settlement amount
  3. The at-fault driver’s insurance company wholly denies the claim
  4. The at-fault driver was uninsured or under-insured
  5. A personal injury attorney will not accept the case

Note: Your small claims lawsuit for property damage can include a demand for compensation for the repairs to your car as well as repairs or replacement of other personal property damaged or destroyed in the accident. This can include computers, jewelry, cell phones, electronic devices, and more.

Do I sue the at-fault driver or his insurance company?
File your lawsuit against the at-fault driver and not the driver’s insurance company. The at-fault driver is the one who caused the accident, not his insurance company. If you succeed in trial, the at-fault driver’s insurance company will be responsible for paying the court verdict up to the policy limits.

Will I need an attorney to represent me in small claims court?
No. As a plaintiff, you have the right to have an attorney represent you in Tennessee Small Claims Court. However, in these courts the rules of evidence are relaxed and court procedure is relatively informal. The rules of evidence are normally waived so you can present your case without fear of objections based on hearsay, relevance and other legal tools used by attorneys in higher courts.

Where can I find information about the Small Claims Court in my area?
To find a Tennessee Small Claims Court nearest you, visit the State Courts website.

Step 10 – Tennessee’s Statute of Limitations

Tennessee statute limitationsA statute of limitations is the legal time period in which you have to either settle your claim or file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations period begins on the date of the accident.

Failing to comply with Tennessee’s statute of limitations can result in forfeiting your right to pursue the at-fault driver for property damage and personal injuries arising out of a car accident.

What is the Statute of Limitations period in Tennessee?
Tennessee has a one year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. This means you must either settle your claim within one year from the date of the accident, or file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

The statute of limitations period for property damage claims is three years.

If you fail to settle your property damage or personal injury claim within Tennessee’s statute of limitations period, you lose your legal right to pursue the at-fault driver for compensation.

What should I do if the insurance company won’t return my calls and the Statute of Limitations is pending?
The insurance company has no legal obligation to settle your property damage or personal injury claim within the statute of limitations time period. Nor are they required to remind you of an impending expiration of the statute of limitations.

The claims adjuster is not your friend. They are an expert in dealing with property damage and personal injury claims. You can be confident the last thing the insurance company wants is to pay you one penny more than required.

Be sure to enter the statute of limitations expiration date in your calendar, on your computer, and in your cell phone calendar app. Give yourself plenty of reminders.

If the statute of limitations period is pending and you haven’t been able to settle your claim, contact a personal injury attorney immediately. An injury attorney can file a lawsuit before the period expires. By filing a lawsuit, the statute of limitations is “tolled,” meaning it no longer applies to your claim. This means whether it takes a month, a year, or longer to resolve your claim, you will not be barred by Tennessee’s statute of limitations.

Visitor Questions on Tennessee Car Accidents

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>