11 Critical Steps After a Washington Car Accident

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

washington car accidentToday’s cars are safer than ever. But even with all the modern technology, car accidents continue to injure people everyday. In fact, over 4 million people are injured in car accidents on US roadways each year.¹

Most of us think serious car accidents only happen to “the other guy.” Unfortunately, that’s just not true. The average driver will be involved in 3 – 4 car accidents during their lifetime.²

The State of Washington has its fair share of car accidents too. According to a research study, a car accident occurs in Washington every 5 minutes.³

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

Car accidents occur in the blink of an eye. After an accident, you’ll find yourself making important decisions that will affect any future property damage or personal injury claims. You need to know how to deal with at-fault drivers, witnesses, police, insurance companies, state laws, and more.

We’ve compiled a list of 11 steps to follow after a Washington car accident. These steps will help you build a viable insurance claim. We’ve also answered some of the most frequently asked questions that come up after an accident.

Step 1 – Stop, Help the Injured and Call 911

washington stop call 911Car accidents normally result in property damage and in some cases, personal injuries. If you’ve been in a car accident, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Stay calm, focus, and follow the law.

What are my legal duties after a car accident?
If you’ve been in a car accident, pull over immediately in a safe area, as close to the accident scene as possible. If you’re physically able, check to see if anyone has been injured. Once you’ve confirmed everyone is alright, call 911 and report the accident.

If there are any injuries or damaged property, you must remain at the scene of the accident until you fulfill the following requirements:

  • Exchange name, address, and license plate numbers with other drivers involved
  • Exchange insurance company information including policy numbers
  • Show your driver’s license to anybody injured in the crash

What should I say to the 911 operator?
The operator’s job is to learn what happened and send appropriate help to the location. Avoid stating your opinion of who was at fault, or what the other driver or witnesses said. Instead, remain calm and give the 911 operator the following information:

The accident location: Be as specific as possible. Look for nearby street signs, highway mile markers, exit numbers, and landmarks. Let them know what direction you were traveling and which side of the street the accident occurred. Giving the dispatcher a specific location will ensure the police and paramedics arrive as quickly as possible.

A description of the scene: Accidents often leave vehicles in disarray, with bumpers mangled, glass shattered, fluids leaking, and cars turned in different directions. People may be walking around the accident scene oblivious to oncoming traffic. Describe the accident scene as clearly as possible so police know what to expect when they arrive.

If anyone is injured: Some car accidents result only in property damage, while others leave victims with various levels of injuries. Injuries may be obvious, such as abrasions, contusions, bleeding, fractures, and other easily identified wounds. However, others may be not so obvious. Some symptoms can take hours or even days to manifest.

Tell the 911 dispatcher if anyone is clearly injured, or complaining of pain, discomfort, nausea or dizziness.

Will the police be dispatched to the accident?
Law enforcement agencies each have their own policies governing when officers and paramedics are dispatched to accident scenes. Most will not send officers unless there are obvious injuries, or the scene presents a danger to others.

What if I’m injured?
You may suffer from obvious injuries that include bleeding, bruising, abrasions, or severe pain from broken bones. But sometimes injuries are not so obvious. You may think you escaped without being hurt, but could in fact be injured and simply not realize it.

When a car accident occurs, your body releases adrenaline which can mask pain and other symptoms. As that adrenaline wears off, symptoms can begin to appear, hours and sometimes even days later. Because of this, it’s very important to seek immediate medical treatment following a car accident.

If paramedics are dispatched to the scene, let them decide if your injuries are serious enough to require transporting you to the emergency room. Failing to seek immediate medical treatment is an open invitation to an insurance company to deny your claim. They can take the position your injuries didn’t result from the accident, but instead, were from an entirely different event.

What if others are injured?
When calling 911 to report the accident, tell the operator if anyone is injured or in pain. Washington State law requires you to render “reasonable assistance” to anyone injured. This includes transporting or making arrangements to get them to a local hospital for emergency treatment. This legal requirement can be fulfilled by asking the 911 operator to dispatch paramedics to the scene.

Complying with state law by rendering assistance to the injured is not an admission of liability or fault for the accident. The law makes clear:

“Under no circumstances shall the rendering of assistance… be evidence of the liability of any driver for such accident.”

What should I do if no one is injured and only our cars are damaged?
If the accident resulted only in property damage, it is still your legal duty to pull over as close to the accident scene as possible without blocking traffic. Once you are safely off the road, begin exchanging information with the others involved.

What if I hit an unattended vehicle or other property?
If you crash into a parked car or other property that’s unattended, you must make a reasonable effort to locate the owner. If you can’t locate the owner, you must leave a written note in an obvious location on the property. Be sure to leave your name and address, and explain what happened. Once you do this, you must also report the crash.

Step 2 – Start Gathering Important Evidence

washington photo evidenceCar accident scenes are fluid. Damage must be assessed, injuries treated, cars towed, and police need to complete their on-site investigation. All these events move along quickly.

Because of how quickly things move at an accident scene, important evidence can easily be lost. You must stay focused and begin gathering evidence to support your claim as soon as possible. Once drivers, passengers and witnesses leave the scene, crucial evidence may be gone forever.

What evidence do I need?
Make sure you exchange all information required under Washington State law as set out in Step 1 above. Then be sure you have the following:

People Involved (Drivers, passengers and witnesses)

  • Full names
  • Home and business addresses
  • Emails
  • Telephone numbers
  • 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 normally be found on the car’s dashboard in the left corner at the bottom 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.

Scene Information (Diagram of the accident)

  • Current weather conditions
  • Location of the cars immediately before and after the collision
  • Any road obstructions
  • Time of day
  • Approximate speed of the cars immediately before the collision
  • Direction each car was traveling

Should I take photographs and video?
Yes! Photographs and video are very important. They capture the accident scene in”real time.” Images clearly identify drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and even police officers. They show the position of the cars, weather conditions, traffic light locations, and other evidence related to the scene.

Real-time photographs and video not only support your claim, but also serve as a deterrent to others who may later want to change their account of the accident.

Can I take witness statements?
It depends. You can certainly attempt to speak with potential witnesses, but they are under no obligation to speak with you. Be sensitive and polite when approaching someone you think witnessed the accident. They may have seen the other driver on their cell phone, speeding, rolling through a stop sign, or otherwise contributing to the accident.

Ask the witness if they would be willing to write down what they saw or heard. Any paper will serve the purpose. Be sure the witness signs and dates each page.

Step 3 – Report the Accident to Law Enforcement

washington accident call policeWhen do I have to report the accident to law enforcement?
If the accident resulted in injuries or death, or property damage of $500 or more, you must file a written report within four days. The report must be submitted to the City’s Chief of Police, County Sheriff, or State Patrol if the accident occurred outside incorporated cities and towns.

Do I have to report the accident if the police respond?
No. If law enforcement is dispatched to the accident scene, you are exempted from reporting the accident.

How can I obtain a copy of an accident (collision) report?
The Washington State Patrol Collision Records Section is the repository for the state’s collision records. You can obtain a copy of your accident report at their website. The CRS receives all Vehicle Collision Reports from law enforcement agencies all over the state of Washington, along with civilians who report their own collisions.

Step 4 – Report the Accident to Your Insurance Company

washington accident call insuranceYour auto insurance policy is a binding legal contract between you (the insured), and your insurance company (the insurer). Your policy contractually obligates your insurance company to provide coverage in the event of a car accident. In return, you are obligated to cooperate with them in the investigation and processing of claims.

The language obligating you to cooperate is contained in the Notice of Occurrence and Cooperation Clause. These sections of your policy require you to promptly notify your insurance company in the event of a car accident, and to then cooperate with them throughout their investigation. This is true whether you caused the accident or not.

Failing to cooperate can result in your premiums being raised, your policy not being renewed, or in extreme cases, your policy being cancelled.

Example of a standard Cooperation and Notice of Occurrence clause:

“The insured (you) agree to notify the underwriter (your insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter to provide all the information, assistance and cooperation which your insurance company reasonably requests. The insured also agrees that in the event of a property damage or personal injury claim the insured will fully cooperate with his (or her) insurance company and do nothing that shall prejudice the insurance company’s position in the property damage or personal injury claim.”

Why do I have to notify my own insurance if I didn’t cause the accident?
Cooperating with your insurance company gives them time to investigate the accident. They need to be sure you are protected in case the other driver decides the accident was your fault, or that you both share the blame. By reporting the accident to your insurance company, you are not admitting fault, nor are you filing a claim for compensation against them.

Failing to promptly report the accident to your insurance company may give the other driver or their attorney a substantial time advantage. While the other driver may have clearly caused the accident, and maybe even admitted it at the scene, they could later decide to change their mind. You might be surprised to learn these “changes of heart” occur all the time.

Example of why you need to notify your insurance company:

Piper was driving home from work, heading south on Main Street. As she approached the intersection of Main and Elm, she noticed Stan’s car in the northbound lane waiting at the intersection to make a left turn across Main onto Elm.

Stan was late for work and rushing to his office. Believing he could make the left turn across the southbound lane on Main before Piper reached the intersection, he turned left in front of her. As he did, he collided into the rear driver’s side quarter panel of Piper’s car.

Stan and Piper pulled over to inspect the damage and to see if either of them was injured. The damage to both cars appeared minor and neither said they were hurt. Stan apologized, saying it was his fault because he was rushing to get to work. After exchanging insurance information they went their separate ways.

Believing Stan was at fault, Piper decided not to report the accident to her auto insurance. She was sure Stan’s insurance company would pay for the damage to her car.

Later that week, Stan complained to his wife that his back was sore and his left leg was hurting. Stan’s wife drove him to the local emergency room where he was diagnosed with a hairline fracture to his left tibia. Stan hired a personal injury attorney.

A month later Piper opened her mail to find a letter from Stan’s attorney informing her that he sustained serious injuries in the accident. The letter also alleged that her negligence was the cause and that she was speeding down Main Street. Stan’s attorney had witness statements maintaining Piper was speeding at the time of the accident.

By failing to promptly report the accident to her insurance company, Piper violated the terms of her policy. Unfortunately, she also gave Stan’s attorney a substantial head start on his personal injury claim. If Piper had promptly contacted her insurance company after the accident, they could have immediately opened an investigation and prepared a defense. 

Are there cell phone apps to help me report accidents to my insurance?
Yes. Many insurance companies offer a free app you can download. Check with your provider to see if they have one available. In the event of a Washington car accident, you can use the app to promptly report it. These apps can:

  • Take and store pictures and videos
  • Store and transmit personal information
  • Create and send state-required crash reports to authorities
  • Help you create a diagram of the accident scene
  • Access GPS location of the accident
  • Store witness statements and contact information

Here are just a few of the apps presently available:

Allstate Mobile
State Farm
Google Accident Report
iTunes Auto Accident Report

Should I admit it to the other driver if the accident was my fault?
No! When it comes to car accidents, there is no legal or practical reason for you to admit, accept or even discuss fault at the accident scene. There are too many variables and it’s impossible to know everything at the time.

While you may believe the accident was entirely your fault, the other driver could very well share some responsibility. As a result, you may only be partially responsible for the accident. When that’s the case, the amount of compensation paid to the other driver may be reduced according to their percentage of fault. The sharing of fault in Washington falls under the “Pure Contributory Fault Doctrine.”

Step 5 – Washington’s Pure Contributory Fault Rule

washington pure contributory faultThirteen states, including Washington, recognize the Pure Contributory Fault Rule. This law allows an aggrieved party to recover damages or compensation from another party even if they were 99% to blame for the incident. The damages the aggrieved party receives will be lessened by the amount equal their percentage of contributory fault.

What are “Damages”?
In car accident claims, damages can include medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket costs (for items such as medications, costs of travel to treatment, crutches, slings, etc.), lost wages, and pain and suffering.

How does Washington’s Pure Contributory Fault rule affect me?
In a Washington car accident, a driver filing a property damage or personal injury claim is entitled to recover damages even if they were partially to blame. However, the amount of damages they will be eligible to receive will be reduced by the percentage of their own fault.

Example of Pure Contributory Fault:

Two drivers were involved in a Washington car accident. Alice claimed Bob was entirely at fault. The insurance claims couldn’t be settled so Alice sued Bob for $100,000, representing her property damage and personal injuries.

During trial, evidence was presented that Bob turned left at an intersection in front of Alice, without allowing Alice to pass thorough first. Alice offered a copy of a traffic citation issued to Bob for failing to yield the right of way while entering the intersection. The citation was based on Washington State Statutes § 46.61.185, “Vehicle Turning Left” which reads:

“The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection or into an alley, private road, or driveway shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

However, Bob entered into evidence testimony showing Alice was speeding at the time she entered the intersection, in violation of Washington State Statutes §46.61.400, “Basic Rule – Maximum Limits” which reads:

 “The driver of every vehicle shall… drive at an appropriate reduced speed when approaching and crossing an intersection or railway grade crossing, when approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hillcrest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, and when special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions.”

As a result, the jury assessed Bob’s fault at 70% and Alice’s at 30%. Therefore, Alice only received $70,000, representing the deduction of her 30% fault for the accident.

Note: Even if the Jury had found Alice was 99% at fault, she would still have been entitled to recover 1% of the $100,000 she was suing Bob for.

Step 6 – Third Party Liability

washington 3rd party liabilityIn car accident claims, Washington follows the 3rd Party Liability Rule. This means that drivers who sustain property damage or personal injuries caused by the acts of another, may turn to that driver for compensation.

Third party liability states like Washington also permit aggrieved drivers to demand compensation for pain and suffering as well.

What are my legal rights under Washington’s 3rd party liability rule?
If you become the victim of a negligent driver and have sustained property damage or personal injuries you may:

  • File a claim with your own insurance company (“first party” claim)
  • File a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company (“third party” claim)
  • File a lawsuit against the at-fault driver

Step 7 – Washington’s Auto Insurance Requirements

washington insurance accidentTo protect everyone on its roadways, Washington law requires drivers carry property damage and personal injury insurance. By requiring this insurance, drivers can have a sense of security knowing if they are a victim in a car accident, they will have access to the other driver’s insurance.

What are the minimum amounts of auto insurance required for Washington drivers?
In Washington, an auto insurance policy must provide, at minimum, the following basic types and amounts of coverage:

  • $25,000 for injuries to one person in one accident
  • $50,000 for injuries to two or more person’s in one accident
  • $10,000 per accident for property damage

Step 8 – The Role of Law Enforcement at Accident Scenes

washington dealing with policeLaw enforcement consists of many different agencies. There are city police officers, sheriff’s’ deputies, highway state troopers, and more. Depending upon the severity of the accident, one or more of these law enforcement officers may be dispatched to the scene.

What’s the role of law enforcement at accident scenes?
When dispatched to an accident scene, officers will:

  • Secure the scene
  • Summon fire and rescue
  • Search for causes of the accident (including skid marks, driver demeanor, road obstructions, weather conditions. etc.)
  • Question drivers, passengers and witnesses
  • Run background checks on those at the scene
  • Issue traffic citations where appropriate

Do the responding officers have to listen to my side of the story?
Not really. When law enforcement arrives, they need to perform specific functions. While you have a right to speak with a police officer, the officer is under no legal obligation to engage in conversation with you or listen to what you have to say about the accident and its causes.

However it is likely that while in the course of their on-scene investigation, an officer will want to ask you questions. These can include requesting identification, proof of insurance, car registration, and driver’s license.

What if I’m issued a traffic citation?
During their investigation, the responding officer may decide you violated one or more traffic laws. If so, you may be issued a  traffic citation. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to talk the officer out of issuing a citation, once issued you must accept and sign it.

A traffic citation, even after you’ve signed it, is not proof of guilt. It’s simply an agreement you will appear at a certain time and date to answer for the ticket. At that time you can choose to contest the ticket and ask for a trial. Depending on your driving record, you may be able to negotiate a plea with the prosecutor, wherein you will not have to plead guilty. Instead you may be placed on a probationary period in which you agree not to receive any further citations.

You may also have to pay a fine and possibly attend a defensive driving course. However, once these are all completed, the citation may be dismissed and not appear on your driving record.

Step 9 – Retain an Attorney or Represent Yourself?

washington hire attorney represent yourselfMost property damage claims can be managed without legal representation. The same holds true for some personal injury claims. However, there are some injury claims which always require an experienced personal injury attorney.

What’s the difference between soft tissue and hard injuries?
There are two categories of personal injuries.  These are generally referred to as “soft tissue,” and “hard injuries.”

Soft tissue injuries can include sprains and strains, minor bruising, abrasions, minor cuts, first degree burns, whiplash, and similarly minor injuries. These injuries are normally not complex, and generally don’t result in substantial medical bills.

Soft tissue injuries also result in a nominal amount of prescribed medications, some lost wages, and a relatively low amount of pain and suffering.

Hard injuries are much more serious and can include head trauma, loss of body parts, compound fractures, third degree burns, deep gashes with scarring, poisoning and other similarly serious or permanent injuries. Treatment for hard injuries normally includes extensive medical treatment, surgery, many months or years of therapy, and more.

In hard injury claims, drivers representing themselves are at an immediate and substantial disadvantage. These “pro-se” drivers simply don’t have the legal skills required to motivate insurance companies to make fair settlement offers. Skilled claims adjusters are expert at leading victims to believe they have a chance in negotiations. The truth is, they don’t.

For example, a claims adjuster won’t tell you the policy limits of the insured. There’s no practical or legal requirement for the adjuster to do so. As a result, you won’t know whether the at-fault driver had the minimum amounts of liability coverage, or much more. And once the adjuster tells you that’s their final offer, your perceived leverage is gone. It’s basically “take it or leave it.”

In serious hard injury claims, experienced personal injury attorneys rely on a substantial number of legal tools. These attorneys have the legal authority to find out policy limits, discover the driver’s past record of traffic accidents, citations, prior arrests, and more. This information would be difficult to find on your own, especially since much of it will be the product of a lawsuit and the ensuing pretrial discovery process.

Attorneys can issue subpoenas to witnesses to appear for their sworn depositions, file motions to discover, send requests for production of documents, and more.

Insurance companies don’t like lawsuits. They cost these companies millions of dollars a year in legal fees and related costs. As a result, rather than paying to defend a lawsuit, they prefer to settle the claim whenever possible. Luckily this will likely leave you with a net settlement amount much higher than you could have hoped to get on your own.

How much do attorneys charge to review my case?
Most personal injury attorneys do not charge for an initial office consultation. When you eventually settle on an attorney to represent you, they will accept your case on a “contingency fee” basis.

A contingency fee basis means you won’t have to pay the attorney any legal fees until they settle your case or win it at trial. When that happens, you will owe a percentage of the settlement amount or court verdict. Those percentages range from 25% to 40% depending on the complexity of the case. If the attorney is unable to settle your claim or they lose the case in trial, you will owe the attorney nothing.

Gather all of your medical records and bills, accident reports, photographs, witness statements and other documents related to the accident. After reviewing your documents, a personal injury attorney should be able to tell you the viability of your claim, whether it can be settled, the general amount it should settle for, and the likelihood of having to a file a lawsuit.

Can I negotiate the attorney’s fees?
You can try. There’s nothing wrong with visiting several attorneys and negotiating their fees, especially if you’ve already done some work gathering evidence. However, most personal injury attorneys will not agree to reduce their fee lower than 25%, with most agreeing to a 33% fee.

Remember, the attorney who accepts your case has to pay all the lawsuit costs in advance out of their own pocket. These can include private investigators, court reporter fees, filing fees, and more. These costs can be substantial, especially in a serious injury claim.

The good news is your attorney has a built-in incentive to get the highest settlement or court verdict possible. Not only do they have an ethical duty to do so, but the higher the amount, the more they will ultimately receive in attorney’s fees.

Step 10 – Filing a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court

washington small claims courtThere are occasions when you cannot settle your claim for an amount you believe is fair. The insurance company may deny the claim, or perhaps the at-fault driver was uninsured. On these occasions, you may consider filing a lawsuit against the at-fault driver in one of Washington’s Small Claims Courts.

What is the maximum amount I can sue for in Small Claims Court?
Each district court in the State of Washington contains a “Small Claims” division where victims of car accidents can file lawsuits against at-fault drivers. The “jurisdictional” or maximum amount a victim can sue for in these courts is $5,000.

Why would I file a lawsuit in Small Claims Court?
There are four reasons you might consider filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court:

  1. The at-fault driver’s insurance refuses to offer a fair settlement
  2. The at-fault driver’s insurance denies the claim
  3. The at-fault driver was uninsured or under-insured
  4. An attorney will not accept the case on a contingency fee basis

Do I sue the at-fault driver or his insurance company?
You are required to file your lawsuit against the at-fault driver and not their insurance company. The driver is the one who caused the accident and your resulting property damage, medical bills, etc. If you win at trial, the other driver’s insurance company will likely step in to pay the amount the court awards you.

How can I find out more about filing a lawsuit in small claims court?
To learn more about Washington’s Small Claims Courts, including procedure, filing fees, rules of court, and more, visit their website or the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.

Step 11 – Statute of Limitations

washington statute of limitationsA statute of limitations is the time period prescribed by law 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 Washington’s statute of limitations can result in forfeiting your right to compensation from the at-fault driver.

What is the Statute of Limitations period in Washington?
The State of Washington has a three (3) year statute of limitations for property damage and personal injury claims.

This means you must either settle your claim within three years from the date of the accident or file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver. If you don’t do this before the time period expires, you will lose your right to pursue the other driver for your damages.

Visitor Questions on Washington 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 >>