The Complete Virginia Car Accident Guide

Virginia car accidentThanks to the advanced safety features of most cars today, many accidents are no more than minor “fender benders.” However, despite this growing technology, a substantial number of car accidents result in serious injuries every day.

There were over 4.5 million people injured in car accidents in the United States last year alone.¹ In fact, the average driver will be involved in 3-4 accidents in their lifetime.²

Virginia is no exception. Last year there were over 120,000 car crashes on Virginia roadways. That equates to a crash every 4 minutes. There are 2 lives lost and 184 people injured on average each day in these accidents.³

What You Need To Know If You’ve Been In A Virginia Car Accident…

The decisions you make at an accident scene can be crucial to your property damage and personal injury claim. Knowing what to say and do can make the difference in a successful case settlement.

Below are 10 steps you should take on your way to building a powerful claim. Included in these steps are answers to many of the most frequently asked questions that come up at accident scenes.

 


 

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

Virginia stop call 911The accident scene is where your work begins. You’ll need to notify police, see if anyone has been injured, check for property damage and start exchanging information.

What should I tell the 911 dispatcher?
In the aftermath of an accident, many things need to be done immediately. The most important is notifying emergency services so you can get help to the scene as fast as possible. Tell the 911 dispatcher the following:

Location: Be specific. Look around to find the nearest street signs or highway exits. Be sure to tell 911 what side of the road you’re on and which direction you were headed.

Injuries: Ask the other people involved if they’re injured. Some injuries may be obvious while others may not. Tell the 911 dispatcher if anyone is complaining of pain or discomfort, nausea, dizziness, or has signs of head trauma.

Immediate Dangers: If you think the accident scene is dangerous, let the dispatcher know. By definition, car accidents are never neat and tidy. Shattered glass is everywhere, automotive fluid is leaking, metal is bent and twisted, and people may be dangerously close to oncoming traffic. If it’s dangerous, police will be dispatched to the scene to place flairs and take other protective measures.

Will the police respond to the scene?
It depends. Law enforcement agencies have their own policies concerning when police officers will be dispatched to an accident scene. Most law enforcement agencies will not respond unless there are injuries, or if the accident scene presents a danger to others on the road.

What should I do if people are injured?
Virginia law requires drivers involved in accidents to stop immediately at the scene or as close as possible. After stopping, drivers must share the following information with all people involved in the incident:

  • Full name and address
  • Driver’s license number
  • Car registration number

Drivers are also required to render “reasonable assistance” to anyone who appears injured. This includes driving the injured to a local hospital for medical treatment if necessary.

Do I have to report the accident to the police?
Yes. If a Virginia car accident results in property damage or injuries, you’re required to immediately contact the local police department to report the accident.

What should I do if I’ve been injured?
The injuries you sustain in an accident may be obvious, and can include bleeding, bruising, fractures, pain and discomfort. However, some symptoms can take hours, and even days before they manifest.

When paramedics arrive tell them if you’re experiencing dizziness, nausea, pain, or unexplained discomfort. Let them evaluate you and if necessary, transport you to the local emergency room for treatment.

Note: If you are injured but fail to seek immediate medical treatment, you could be setting yourself up for disaster. Not seeking immediate medical care gives the insurance company an open invitation to assert your injuries weren’t caused at the accident scene, but instead were the result of a separate and unrelated incident.

What if I crashed into a parked car or other property?
If you collide with an unattended parked vehicle, you must make a reasonable effort to locate the driver or owner. Once located, you are required to give them the following:

  • Full name and address
  • Driver’s license number
  • Car registration number

This requirement also applies to property other than cars, including fences, mailboxes, trash cans, and other private property.

If after making a reasonable effort to locate the property owner you are unsuccessful, then you must leave a note in a conspicuous place explaining what happened and giving sufficient information for the property owner to be able to contact you.  Once you leave the note, contact local or state police and report the accident.

Step 2 – Start Collecting Evidence

Virginia gather evidence2The true causes of a car accident are often ambiguous and negligence can be subjective. Collecting hard evidence helps avoid the uncertainty of who is truly liable. The more reliable evidence there is, the better chance a driver has of proving his or her injury claim.

When do I start collecting evidence?
The minutes following an accident are fleeting. Collecting evidence in real-time is critical. Once the accident scene is cleared and everyone has gone their separate ways, much of the evidence will disappear with them.

What evidence should I collect?
Virginia law requires drivers at accident scenes to exchange basic information, including full names, addresses, driver’s license numbers, and registration numbers. However, to create an “air-tight” property damage and personal injury claim will require additional substantive evidence. Here’s additional information which will help your claim:

People Involved (drivers and passengers):

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

Note: If the driver isn’t the owner of the car, you’ll need the owner’s name, address, telephone number, and email address.

Vehicles Involved:

  • The make, model and year
  • License plate number
  • Registration expiration date
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

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

Witness Information:

Note: It’s a good idea to ask witnesses to remain at the scene until the police arrive.  While witnesses aren’t legally required to stay, convincing them to do so will afford you time to speak with them to determine if what they saw will help your claim.

Accident Scene Information:

  • Diagram of the accident scene
  • Location of the cars immediately before and after the collision
  • Current weather and road conditions
  • Exact time of day the accident occurred
  • Approximate speed each of the cars was traveling before the collision
  • Direction each car was headed

Step 3   – Call Your Insurance Company

Virginia call insurance2Reporting a car accident to your insurance carrier isn’t an option – it’s a contractual duty set out in the cooperation clause of your policy. The sooner you notify your insurance company, the faster they can take the actions necessary to protect you.

What is a Cooperation Clause?
The cooperation clause in your insurance policy requires you to promptly notify your insurance company after an accident, and to cooperate in the investigation of the accident.

By complying with the cooperation clause, your insurance company will have ample time to investigate the circumstances of the accident, and take whatever action may be necessary to protect you from unwarranted claims from others.

A common cooperation clause found in most auto insurance policies will have wording such as:

“The insured shall:
–  Cooperate with the company by reporting the accident promptly after it occurs
–  Assist in making settlements, in the conduct of lawsuits, in enforcing any rights of contribution or indemnity
–  Attend hearings, trials, depositions
–  Assist in securing and giving evidence and obtaining the attendance of witnesses.”

Why do I have to report the accident to my insurance if no one was hurt?
Some drivers believe if they report a minor accident to their insurance company, their premiums will go up, or their policy won’t be renewed.  In some cases, especially where the driver has been in multiple accidents, that may be true.  However, most of the time, premiums will not rise and the policy won’t be adversely affected. This is especially true when the driver is not at fault.

If you’ve been in a minor accident where there appears to be no damage to either car and neither driver appears injured, you may be tempted not to report the accident to your insurance company. That can be a serious mistake. Here’s why….

Delayed Symptoms: The other driver may sincerely believe he was uninjured, but because the onset of symptoms for some injuries can take hours and in some cases even days to manifest, the driver didn’t begin to experience pain until some time after the accident. The same holds true for passengers.

No Insurance: The other driver may not have insurance and doesn’t want you to know. Moreover, the driver may be afraid if the police are notified they will be ticketed or even arrested for not carrying required insurance.

Fraud: While at the scene the driver and his passengers may say they weren’t injured. But later they decide to “cash-in” on the accident by filing multiple claims of whiplash and other minor soft tissue injuries.

When should  I contact the other driver’s insurance company?
Call the at-fault driver’s insurance company immediately after the accident. Report what happened and if applicable, tell the insurance company you sustained property damage or personal injuries. You will be assigned a claim number.

Soon after you will be contacted by an insurance company claims adjuster. You may be contacted by one adjuster handling the damage to your car, and another handling your personal injury claim.

If your injuries are minor you may be able to handle your own injury claim. If though, your injuries are serious, you will need to contact a personal injury attorney. After reviewing the circumstances of the accident, including a determination of fault, you may be entitled to compensation for your “damages.”

What are damages?
Damages are unique to every accident and each person involved. These items are the expenses you will try to be compensated for through your claim. Typical car accident damages can include:

  • Medical bills
  • Ambulance transport to a hospital
  • Ongoing physical therapy
  • Cost of travel to treatment
  • Medical devices (slings, crutches, neck collars, etc.)
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering

What if the other driver says the accident was my fault and demands I pay without involving our insurance?
Don’t! Let your insurance company handle the matter. That’s why you pay insurance premiums. Failing to report a Virginia car accident to your insurance company could be a huge mistake.

If you pay the driver directly, they may decide to later come back time and again with stories of new found injuries. Plus, paying the driver at the scene can often be seen as an admission of guilt.

If you report the accident to your insurance company right away, they will investigate the cause of the accident. Under the terms of your policy, your insurance company is bound to investigate the claim and defend you at no cost, even if you’re sued by the other driver. This includes providing legal representation for you if the case goes that far.

What can my insurance company do if I don’t report the accident?
While cancelling a driver’s policy is not common when someone fails to report an accident, the insurance company can still decide not to renew the policy, or raise premiums for failing to do so.

Step 4 – Virginia’s 3rd Party Liability Insurance Law

Virginia 3rd party liability2The State of Virginia is NOT a no-fault insurance state. Instead, they follow the 3rd party liability tort doctrine.

What is 3rd party liability?
With 3rd party liability, when one driver is found at fault in an accident, the victim has the right to turn to the negligent driver for compensation of their damages.

The at-fault driver may be responsible for the cost of medical treatment, repairs to the other person’s car, as well as personal property damaged in the accident. This can include such items as jewelry, computers, electronic devices in the car, as well as property outside the car like mail boxes, traffic signals, light stands, guard rails and fences.

What are my rights under Virginia’s 3rd party liability doctrine?
In the State of Virginia, as a victim you may be entitled to damages from the at-fault driver. Under the 3rd party liability doctrine,  you have three options. You can:

  1. File an accident claim with your own insurance company (if you have Personal Injury Protection, or PIP)
  2. File an accident claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  3. Sue the at-fault driver

Step 5 – Virginia’s Auto Insurance Requirements

Virginia insurance requirements2The State of Virginia requires all drivers to have insurance coverage to compensate other drivers, passengers and pedestrians for injuries caused by driver negligence. Virginia does not require drivers to have coverage for their own injuries or property damage to their own vehicles.

The law is designed to ensure drivers have a means to pay for damages they may cause to others while driving their cars. As a result, the State of Virginia has set minimum limits for all auto insurance policies.

What’s the minimum insurance coverage required for drivers in Virginia?
Virginia’s personal injury and property damage minimum required amounts are:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury to, or death of one person in one accident
  • $50,000 for bodily injury to, or death of two or more persons in one accident
  • $20,000 for damage to, or destruction of property of others in one accident

Step 6 – Law Enforcement at the Accident Scene

Virginia dealing with police2After a Virginia car accident occurs, you must report it to the local police or to the State Highway Patrol within 24 hours.

When law enforcement officers arrive at the accident scene you must follow their orders. Police are trained in accident scene investigation and management. They have several important things to do while at the scene such as securing the area, ensuring the safety of all people on the roadway, gathering information regarding possible causes of the accident, and more.

It is important to let them do their job and not get in the way. It may seem as though your side of the story is not being heard fast enough, but be patient. A proper investigation will involve speaking to every person involved in the incident. Interfering could get you in trouble, and in some cases, may even end in your arrest.

Do I have to answer questions from the police?
Yes. If asked questions about the accident, answer them truthfully. However, if you are being questioned about your role in driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated, or for any other reason related to criminal charges being brought against you, you have the right to remain silent.

What if the police issue a traffic citation?
When the police are dispatched to the accident scene, they will investigate its causes. The officer may speak with you, the other driver, passengers and witnesses. They will look for skid marks, road and weather conditions, and other factors which may have contributed to the accident.

Once the police complete their investigation they may decide you, the other driver, or both have violated one or more of Virginia’s traffic laws. If so, they may issue traffic citations.

While you have every right to attempt to dissuade the police from issuing a citation, once the ticket is issued you must accept it. If asked, you must also sign the ticket. Not doing so can result in your arrest. A traffic citation is only circumstantial evidence of guilt. You’ll have an opportunity to fight the ticket in court, which may ultimately result in a dismissal.

How can I request a Crash Report from the State of Virginia?
To request a copy of a crash report for all car accidents reported in the State of Virginia, go to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles website.

Step 7 – Contributory Negligence

Virginia contributor negligence2Car accidents occur because of poor weather, dangerous road conditions, car system failure, and driver negligence. When driver negligence is alleged, there’s usually a debate over who was at fault. If more than one person contributed to the accident, both sides may share liability. Each party’s percentage of fault is known as Contributory Negligence.

Why shouldn’t I admit I caused the accident if I know the accident was my fault?
After an accident, you may feel guilty and want to apologize to the driver because you think the accident was your fault.  Unfortunately, admitting fault can come back to haunt you.

While honesty is admirable, it’s never a good idea to discuss fault at the accident scene.  You may be unaware of factors which may have contributed to the accident. These factors may decrease your negligence or wholly eliminate it.

For example, you may not know the other driver was texting, talking on their phone, distracted by their passengers or otherwise not paying attention. They may have rolled through a stop sign, entered into an intersection prematurely, or engaged in some other form of contributory negligence. Any of these actions could clearly decrease your percentage of fault.

Why is Contributory Negligence Important?
The State of Virginia follows the Pure Contributory Negligence rule. Pure contributory negligence means that if the victim of a car accident is even slightly negligent, they’re entirely barred from recovering any amount of compensation for their damages.

Virginia’s pure contributory negligence rule is considered by many to be quite harsh. Most other states follow some form of a comparative negligence rule where they divide the fault according to the percentage of each party’s contribution to the accident.

Example of Virginia’s Pure Contributory Negligence:

Joe and Sally were both driving to work. They came to an intersection where Sally was on the left heading north, and Joe was on the right heading west.  They both stopped at the same time. After stopping, Joe proceeded through the intersection at the same time Sally did. Unfortunately, both cars collided in the middle if the intersection.

Joe was injured and sued Sally for $5,000 for his injuries and related damages. The insurance companies were unable to settle the claim and it went to trial. At trial, the jury found Sally violated Virgina § 46.2-820 which reads in part:

“…when two vehicles approach or enter an uncontrolled intersection at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right.”

However, the jury found Joe was texting at the time he entered the intersection.  Although Sally was clearly in violation of  Section 46.2-820, the jury found Joe’s texting momentarily distracted him. The jury found Joe might have avoided the accident, and that his injuries might have been less serious if he hadn’t contributed to the accident by texting.

As a result, the jury assessed Sally’s negligence a 95%, and Joe’s negligence at only 5%. Because of Virginia’s pure contributory negligence law, Joe was completely barred from recovering any amount of compensation for his damages because he contributed to the accident, if even only slightly.

Step 8 – Represent Yourself or Hire an Attorney

Virginia self-represent vs hire attorney2There are some personal injury claims which can be handled by a victim without having to retain an attorney. Then there are others which require legal representation.

How do I know if I need an attorney?
Knowing whether or not you need legal representation depends largely on the type of injuries you sustained. There are two types of injuries: “soft tissue” and “hard injuries.”

Soft tissue injuries can include strains and sprains to tendons, muscles, ligaments, minor bruising, and abrasions, minor burns, and similarly mild injuries.  These injuries are normally straightforward and don’t often result in substantial medical bills. Treatment can include several doctor visits, perhaps some physical therapy, and a minimum amount of medication.

Because of the straightforward nature of soft tissue injuries, expert medical opinions, depositions, interrogatories, and other legalities aren’t required. As a result, attorneys aren’t usually needed. Moreover, because of the limited amount of damages in soft tissue claims, there often just isn’t enough money involved to make the victim whole after paying attorney’s fees.

However, more serious hard injuries like fractures, deep gashes requiring stitches, 3rd degree burns, head trauma, and similar injuries require expert legal representation. Insurance companies don’t like to give away their money. Serious “hard injuries” involve substantially higher amounts of compensation than soft tissue claims.

Convincing insurance companies to pay fair amounts in hard injury claims often requires expert medical testimony, pre-trial discovery, depositions of witnesses, and filing a lawsuit in higher court. There’s just too much to lose for a victim to represent himself or herself.

The insurance companies know a self-represented victim can only go so far. Once an insurance company decides what they believe is a fair payout in an injury claim, the victim has to “take it or leave it,” even if the claim is actually worth a lot more money. In serious injury claims, the only way an insurance company will pay a fair settlement amount is under the threat of lawsuit from an attorney.

How much will an attorney cost?
Most personal injury attorneys don’t charge legal fees for an initial office consultation.  Injury attorneys are like other business people – they work hard to make a profit. That means they won’t accept a victim’s case unless the underlying facts of the accident point towards clear negligence of the other driver. Moreover, an attorney won’t accept a case unless they believe there’s enough money for the attorney to make a profit and for the victim to be fairly compensated.

After several experienced personal injury attorneys review your medical records, police reports, witness statements and more, the attorneys will be able to tell you the strength of your claim, the approximate time it will take to settle, the probability of having to go to trial, and the general amount your claim could settle for.

If you find an attorney you’re comfortable with and s/he agrees to represent you, the attorney will not charge any legal fees or other costs until, and unless the claim is settled or won in court.  When this happens, you will be obligated to pay the attorney anywhere from 25% to 40% of the gross settlement or court verdict, depending on the difficulty of your case.

Step 9 – Filing a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court

Virginia small claims court2Insurance companies don’t always settle injury claims. In fact, they often deny claims based on medical evidence, questions of liability, and other factors which bring into question the viability of a claim. And when they agree to pay a claim, the offer is often well below what is fair. Moreover, retaining an attorney may be difficult due to the nature of the claim.

Fortunately, Virginia has small claims courts in place where victims can represent themselves and fight for the compensation they believe fairly represents their injuries and resulting damages.

How much can I sue for in Small  Claims Court?
In Virginia Small Claims Courts, a victim can sue a negligent driver for up to $5,000.

How can I find out more information about filing a lawsuit in small claims court?
Read more about Virginia Small Claims Courts procedure and policies here.

Do I sue the negligent driver or his insurance company?
You must file your lawsuit against the negligent driver and not their insurance company. The driver is the one who caused the accident and your resulting damages, not their insurance. Of course, the negligent driver’s insurance company will still be available to compensate you in the event you succeed at trial. The insurance will pay the court verdict up to the limits of their insured’s policy.

Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
No. Virginia Small Claims Courts prohibit attorneys from representing victims or plaintiffs in Small Claims Court.

Step 10 – Don’t Forget About the Statute of Limitations

Virginia statut limitations2The statute of limitations is the time period in which a person has to either settle their personal injury claim or file a lawsuit. Virginia’s statute of limitations is 2 years.

What can I do if the insurance company is ignoring my calls or stalling?
Don’t trust the insurance company to take care of you. They are not your friends, no matter how nice you think the claims adjuster is.

It’s your responsibility as the victim to be aware of the statute of limitations period. Make sure you enter the date in your calendar, computer, and cell phone calendar app. Give yourself plenty of reminders. The insurance company’s claims adjuster will not remind you.

What happens if I miss the statute of limitations period?
If you don’t settle your claim or file a lawsuit within 2 years from the date of the accident, you will lose all your rights to pursue the negligent driver for compensation. Once the statute of limitations period ends, if you haven’t settled your claim or filed a lawsuit, the insurance company and the negligent driver won’t legally owe you anything.

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