While we all like to consider ourselves to be safe drivers, accidents do occur. If you ever find yourself in the regrettable situation of having been involved in a car accident, here are some general tips on what you should (and should not) do.
Unquestionably, the first and most important thing to do is to check to see if anyone was injured in the accident. If not, take a deep breath and try to keep things in perspective: damaged property can be fixed, but people can’t get unhurt. If someone was unfortunately injured, make sure that they promptly get any medical attention that they need.
After any medical emergencies have been attended to, the next thing to do is to determine whether or not law enforcement needs to be notified of the accident. In Maine, a driver that has been involved in an accident has a legal obligation to immediately notify law enforcement about the accident if any of the following apply:
- The accident resulted in death to any person;
- The accident resulted in bodily injury to any person; or
- The accident resulted in apparent property damage of $1,000 or more.
Car repairs are costly, and even modest looking damage can creep up to that $1,000 threshold. Since failing to report an accident in any of the above-listed scenarios constitutes a Class E crime, you should definitely err on the side of caution if you are unsure whether or not there has been $1,000 worth of damage in your accident.
Next, you should be sure to exchange information with the other driver. The more information you can get about the other driver the better, but at a minimum you should make sure you obtain the following: their full name; their contact information (phone number and address); the name of their car insurance carrier; their car insurance policy number; the make and model of their car; and the state and registration number for their license plate. If you have a smart phone or a camera on you, see if you can take a photo of their driver’s license, proof of insurance, and license plate.
One note about conversing with the other driver(s) involved in the accident—you should never admit fault. It is sometimes human nature to want to apologize when something bad happens, especially if someone is hurt or upset. However, who is at “fault” for an accident is a legal conclusion which you are most likely not qualified to make. And, importantly, you may not be aware of all of the facts at that point in time. Maybe the other driver stopped abruptly in front of you without any warning, and the accident was unavoidable. Perhaps the other driver was speeding, or blew through a stop sign or a yield sign that you didn’t notice they had. Or, maybe the other driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There could be any number of facts that bear on who caused the accident, but which you are unaware of in the heat of the moment. That is precisely why you should not admit fault when speaking with the other driver. If you do, and if the other driver ever files a lawsuit over the accident, you can bet on the fact that your admission will come back to haunt you in court. The same is true for speaking with any police officers—do not admit fault for the accident for all of the reasons discussed above. Don’t lie to the police, but don’t admit fault either (a simple “I don’t know if I’m qualified to say who was at fault” should suffice).
You should also contact your automobile insurance company promptly after the accident. The purpose for doing so is twofold. First, if your car was damaged in the accident, you need to let your insurance company know so that they can process your repair claim. Just as importantly, you need to put your insurance company “on notice” of the accident in case the other driver sues you. As part of your automobile insurance contract, your insurance company has agreed to do two important things if you ever get sued: (1) provide you with an attorney to defend against the lawsuit, at the insurance company’s expense; and (2) indemnify you for any liability you incur as a result of the accident, up to the limits of your insurance policy and subject to the terms of coverage and any pertinent exclusions. However, that requires you to put the insurance company “on notice” of the claim in a timely fashion. So, don’t delay in reporting the accident to your insurance carrier.
Once the dust has settled, the other driver’s insurance company will likely call you to obtain your statement about how the accident happened. These phone calls are virtually always recorded, and anything you tell the other driver’s insurance company will be admissible against you in court if there is a lawsuit. You are not under any obligation to speak to the other driver’s insurance company, and it is often best to decline any such conversations if there is any chance that the other driver may file a lawsuit against you. If you are unsure of what you should do, consult an attorney. To follow the common theme from above, under no circumstances should you admit fault for the accident.
Along those same lines, do not talk about the accident to third parties. Generally speaking, if a lawsuit is filed, any statements you make to third parties about the accident can be used against you. The more statements you make, the greater the likelihood you’ll end up saying something that could end up hurting your case.
Finally, if the other driver does end up suing you, you will be served with a Summons and Complaint. You have 20 days from the date you are served to file an “Answer” with the court, and if you fail to do so within that deadline you will be defaulted. Therefore, it is imperative that you notify your car insurance carrier as soon as you are served with a lawsuit. Make sure that they know exactly when you were served, and receive confirmation from them that they are going to retain an attorney for you and that the attorney will file a timely Answer. Check in with your carrier routinely to make sure that your file has not fallen through the cracks. If the 20-day deadline is drawing near and your insurance company has not retained an attorney for you, get your own lawyer and make sure that she files a timely Answer for you. The absolute worst thing that you can do is ignore the lawsuit and the applicable deadlines, as you will be defaulted and your case will effectively be over before it even began.
Hopefully, you will never need any of the foregoing information. If you are ever in an accident, however, keep these general steps in mind. I will leave you with one final (but important) tip: if you are involved in an accident, consult with an experienced civil litigation attorney early in the process to make sure that you and your rights are protected.
These materials have been prepared by Rudman Winchell for educational purposes only. They should not be considered legal advice. The transmission of this information to you is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship. Readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel. You should not send any confidential or private information to Rudman Winchell until a formal attorney-client relationship has been established, in writing.
 Title 29-A M.R.S. § 2251(1) & (2).
 Id. at § 2251(8).
 This article is limited solely to civil cases, and is not intended to include cases in which criminal charges are possible. If you think it is possible that you are going to be charged with a crime as a result of an accident you have been involved in, take advantage of your Miranda rights and seek the assistance of a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.