Maybe you were rear-ended on the highway. Maybe someone ran a red light. Maybe a driver didn’t see your vehicle coming and pulled out right in front of you. What are your first steps?
At the crash site
First, very first – check to see if you are injured or if other occupants in your vehicle are injured, and how badly. If you or anyone has serious physical injuries requiring immediate emergency medical attention, call 911 immediately. When you speak to the 911 operator, advise them as clearly as possible about the injuries and the accident. Also, identify your location as clearly as possible to allow emergency personnel to get to you as quickly as they can in order to render assistance. When emergency personnel or police are onsite, follow their instructions and let them help you – they are the professionals in this situation and handle motor vehicle accidents nearly every day. They also have training to help them help you in the best way possible.
Say, however, that you know you were injured, but your injuries do not seem severe enough to warrant an ambulance. What then? Call 911 anyway! You will want emergency personnel to come out to the scene to evaluate your potential injuries, and you will want the police to arrive to document the crash. An EMT is in a much better position than you are to assess whether your “minor” head injury is, in fact minor or may need further attention. Additionally, the police report will come in handy, especially if there is a dispute about what happened in the accident or if the other driver leaves the scene without providing information.
One important Missouri-related issue following a motor vehicle crash is the “Steer it, Clear it” law, which requires drivers to pull their vehicles off to the side of the road after an accident unless a serious injury or death occurs. The Statute states: Except in the case of an accident resulting in the injury or death of any person, the driver of a vehicle which for any reason obstructs the regular flow of traffic on the roadway of any state highway shall make every reasonable effort to move the vehicle or have it moved so as not to block the regular flow of traffic. Missouri Revised Statute Section 304.151 (https://revisor.mo.gov/main/OneSection.aspx?section=304.151).
When speaking to the police, it is often your very first opportunity to tell your side of the story. Don’t waste the chance! Often people are distracted and rattled by what happened. It’s completely understandable to be distracted; a motor vehicle crash can often be a traumatic event, even without injury. Do not allow your distraction to prevent you from letting the police know what happened. If the other driver ran a red light, tell the police exactly that! Do not hold back to be “polite” or out of concern, the other driver may get in trouble. It is up to the police to decide whether there are any criminal consequences for the other driver’s actions. It’s not your job to protect them.
When you speak to the police, be as detailed as possible to allow the officer to understand exactly what happened in the crash. If you saw the other driver on the phone prior to impact, tell the officer. If the other driver was speeding, tell the officer. Tell the police as much as you remember. Let the officer decide whether or not that information is relevant; that’s their job. If the other driver disagrees with your account of the crash, that’s okay. Don’t just defer to the other driver or assume his or her memory is better than yours.
Similarly, when you speak to an EMT, or later a doctor, tell them everything about the crash and what happened. Doctors and medical personnel will be in a better position to diagnose your injuries if they know exactly what happened to you.
If possible, document the scene and vehicles as best you can. Cell phones are great tools for this – you can take photos and record video! Go ahead and do it. Take pictures of the vehicles involved and the surrounding area. If the other driver tells you it’s his or her fault, see if they will say it on a video for you. You would be surprised how often their story changes when they later speak to the police or to your insurance company.
Seeking medical care
After you leave the crash site, you will want to get examined if you have any kind of physical symptoms at all. Many types of injuries do not have immediate symptoms or do not have immediate severe symptoms. For example, you can tear ligaments and not even feel it occur right away because the ligaments themselves don’t have nerve endings, you may not feel the injury until the ligament tear irritates the surrounding tissue. An Emergency Room visit or an Urgent Care visit is often your best bet for immediate after-care because it is often difficult to get in to see a primary care doctor right away. Make sure the doctors perform any scans or examinations they believe are necessary to diagnose you. Also, make sure you report EVERY symptom to the doctor, even if you believe it is unrelated. Similar to the police officer above, the doctor is a medical professional and is in a much better position than you to decide whether a symptom is related to a crash or not. Again, don’t assume your injuries are unrelated.
You will want to be examined as soon as possible after the crash to document your symptoms and injuries at that point in time. Then, if you subsequently have any change in symptoms or worsening symptoms, you want to make sure your providers are aware of those changes, and you will want to follow up with them as needed, following the instructions they give you. You do not want to be in a situation down the line where you are having to explain why you ignored your doctor’s advice.
Seeking legal advice
I am often asked when should I speak to an attorney. Missouri has an unusually long statute of limitations for personal injury cases – five years! The Statute of limitations means that you have five years from the date of your crash to file suit because of the crash. I believe only Maine and North Dakota have longer statutes, at six years. Despite this lengthy time to file a suit, you will want to speak to an attorney as soon as possible after your crash. An ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes. An attorney will be able to help you communicate with your auto insurance company, the other driver’s auto insurance company, your health insurance company, and even with your medical providers if needed. Often medical insurance companies will deny coverage for treatment if it was the result of a motor vehicle crash, and an attorney can help you navigate these obstacles, and others, in order to make sure you get the treatment you need after your crash. Any reputable attorney (this one included) will not charge you any consultation fee to discuss your crash and any possible claims you may have. Additionally, if your case is one where you do not need legal assistance, I will be happy to let you know that as well, rather than have you hire an attorney when you don’t need one.
Automobile accidents are common. For example, in 2019, more than 18,000 occurred every day in the United States. (https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813060). Despite how common these accidents are, they can often be one of the most traumatic events in your life. You want someone in your corner to help you through the experience and to make sure you protect your rights, yourself, and your family along the way. If you or a family member have been injured in a motor vehicle crash in Missouri, please give me a call. I’d love to help.