Car Accidents: Frequently Asked Questions

Car Accidents: Frequently Asked Questions

Who is at fault for a car accident?

This is usually the first question in peoples’ minds—and for good reason.  It’s important.

The overwhelming majority of the time, the police officer who arrives at the scene of the accident will decide who he or she believes to be at fault.  Usually, the officer will issue a citation, commonly called a “ticket,” to the person at fault.  In an urban or metropolitan area like Atlanta, Lawrenceville, Jonesboro, or Sandy Springs (where we have offices), an officer normally arrives at the scene of the accident fairly quickly.  If you were struck in the rear by another driver, that other driver will almost always be cited with “following too closely” in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-49.  Other common citations in Georgia include failure to maintain lane under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48, failure to yield under O.C.G.A § 40-6-71, and failure to obey a traffic light under O.C.G.A § 40-6-20.

Not everyone realizes it, but Georgia law allows for percentages of fault under O.C.G.A. 51-12-33.  That can make sense if both parties did something wrong—if, for instance, the first driver pulled out from a stop sign without looking, and a second driver who was speeding hit him or her, then both parties are at fault.  If you were in a car accident and the other driver was 80% at fault, then you could recover 80% of the total damages (in other words, 80% of your medical bills, pain and suffering, etc.).  As long you were 49% at fault or less—in other words, as long as the other person(s) are mostly at fault—you can recover at least some damages under Georgia law.  Of course in many cases, only one party is at fault.  If you were lawfully sitting at a red light when another driver struck your car in the rear, the other driver should bear 100% of the fault.

Whose insurance pays for a car accident?

This is another common question, and another good one.  Usually, the at-fault driver’s insurance will pay first.  But it can depend on a few factors.

Generally, the auto insurer of the at-fault driver must pay for the injuries of the person who was not at fault, as well as for the damage to that person’s car.  But the at-fault driver’s insurance company will only pay up to the limits of that policy, which could be as low as $25,000 in Georgia.  If your injuries or damages are severe enough to go over those insurance policy limits, then another insurance policy may kick in.  If the at-fault driver has any additional liability insurance—like an umbrella insurance policy—then that additional “layer” of insurance should pay next.  But umbrella policies are rare.

Sometimes, there may be additional insurance coverage for the vehicle that caused the accident.  If the accident was caused by an Uber or Lyft driver, for instance, additional coverage usually applies.  If the accident was caused by a tractor trailer or other commercial vehicle, the trucking company generally has insurance policies with higher limits, which will be a good thing if you or a loved one was seriously injured.

More often, underinsured motorist or uninsured motorist insurance (commonly called “UM”) pays next.  This can be your insurance company or the insurance company of a person who lives with you and is related to you (the law uses the term “resident relative”).  Many people have UM insurance and don’t even realize it.  Your UM insurance limits could be as high as your liability insurance limits.  Determining how much UM insurance you have usually requires looking at a piece of paperwork called a “declarations page.”  Even if you were told that you have “full coverage,” that doesn’t actually tell you what dollar amount of insurance is available—you need to see the declarations page.

Finding out how much insurance is out there isn’t always easy.  Often, discovering the available insurance requires sending what lawyers call a “letter of representation” coupled with an official request for insurance information under Georgia law O.C.G.A. § 33-3-28.  Other times, it may be necessary to file a case with a court before you can discover all the available insurance.  For instance, it is often necessary to file the case with a court in order to find out if the at-fault driver had any resident relatives whose auto insurance policies may provide coverage.  Whether the insurers of the at-fault driver’s resident relatives provide coverage for the car accident usually depends on the fine print in their insurance policies.

Will the other driver have to pay for my medical bills?

If you’re hurt and the other driver is at fault, the answer is generally yes.

Anyone who has been in a car accident and has been hurt should seek medical attention, either at the emergency room, at an urgent care facility, or from a primary care doctor.  Since you’ve been charged with those bills but didn’t do anything wrong, the general rule is that you have a right to be paid back for what you were charged, even if you were wise enough to have health insurance.

 

Will the other driver have to pay for my pain and suffering?

If you’re in pain and the other driver is at fault, the answer is generally yes.

It isn’t right of fair for someone who did nothing wrong in a car accident to be in pain, or to be unable to live his or her normal life, just because he or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There isn’t anything a lawyer or court can do to take the pain away, but the person who was at fault for the wreck should have to compensate the person who was not at fault for that pain and the difficulty that injuries have caused.  That is why the law allows victims to collect money for pain and suffering.

 

Can I get a rental car after an accident?

If someone else caused the accident, the answer is generally yes.

However, this can be tricky.  Even though the at-fault driver’s insurance company should pay for your rental car, getting them to do it in a reasonable amount of time is not easy.  For instance, the at-fault driver’s insurance company may refuse to pay for your rental car until they can “determine” who is at fault for the accident.  If the insurance company drags its feet (and they often do), then you could miss days or even weeks of work because you don’t have your car for transportation.  Or the at-fault driver might not have carried auto insurance, even though the law requires it.

Another alternative is to use your own auto insurance company.  Not everyone has rental car coverage, but some policies do provide it.  If your policy does cover a rental car, your insurance company may be able to get you into a rental car faster than the other driver’s insurance company would do it.  Your insurer can later demand that the at-fault driver’s insurer pay it back for that cost.

 

Should I call my insurance company after a car accident?

It isn’t a bad idea to do this—but if you do, be careful.  If you prefer, a lawyer can do this for you.

Many people believe that after they’ve been in a car accident, their own insurance company will be their friend.  Insurance companies’ advertisements and commercials suggest that, telling people that they’ll be “in good hands,” will get top-quality service from a nice woman named Flo, or will speak with a peppy green lizard with a British accent.

That’s rarely true.  Often, your own insurance company works against you.  Most insurance companies are more worried about protecting their own bottom lines by making sure that they don’t have to pay any UM insurance money to you (even though you may have been paying premiums to them for years).  Since your insurance company won’t have to pay UM money if you were at fault, your own insurance company may try to argue that you caused the collision.  Since your insurance company won’t have to pay as much if injuries weren’t serious, your own insurance company may try to argue that you weren’t hurt very badly.  To do those things, the insurance company may record what you say over the phone and try to use it against you later.  So be careful.

Having said all of that, the fine print of many insurance policies says that if you don’t notify your own insurance company relatively quickly after a car accident, the insurance company doesn’t have to pay you.  So it’s usually a good idea for the insurance company to be notified.  You can do that yourself or, if you decide to hire a lawyer, your lawyer can do it for you.  Good lawyers notify insurance companies immediately as a matter of course and have pre-written letters ready to be sent so that the insurance company will be promptly notified in writing.

Do I need a lawyer for my car accident?

This is a good question, and the decision is all yours.  There is no law saying that you have to hire an attorney.

We’ve written a detailed response to this question on a different page, but here’s the summary: decide carefully.  We think there are some accidents where a lawyer really isn’t necessary.  For instance, if you call us and say that your car was damaged but you weren’t hurt, we’ll politely explain that we don’t handle cases of that type and will give you another number to call if you choose.

But if you were hurt, hiring a lawyer is usually a good idea.  You’ll be negotiating against a professional insurance adjuster who negotiates settlements all day every day, and that person’s job is to pay you as little as possible.  Think about it: that person may act like your friend, but his or her employer loses money every time he or she pays someone.  Do you think the insurance company would hire, or keep, adjusters who paid lots of money to injured people?  The company would be losing money if it did.

You’ll be negotiating against a professional, so it may be a good idea to have a professional on your side.

 

What if I’ve been in a car accident and I don’t have health insurance?

This can be a really hard situation.  If you’ve been hurt and you need medical treatment but don’t have any way to pay for it, you’re in a tough spot.  You can still go to an emergency room and get treatment, but you don’t want to be dealing with the calls of bill collectors afterward.

A good lawyer can help.  There are companies that can provide funds for you to see a doctor, even if you don’t have health insurance or can’t immediately pay for the medical treatment.  There are also some doctors or treatment providers who are willing to help victims of car accidents, even if they won’t get paid immediately.  A good lawyer who specializes in personal injury cases will know companies that can help with funding treatment, or doctors who can wait until later to be compensated for the treatment they provide.

 

What if I was hit by a tractor-trailer or a commercial vehicle?

Tractor-trailers and large commercial vehicles can be especially dangerous because they travel with such momentum.  They’re so big that when they hit something, the collision is usually serious.  For that reason, commercial vehicles are subject to certain rules or regulations that other cars aren’t.

For instance, drivers of most commercial vehicles must have commercial drivers’ licenses, which require the truckers to take certain special precautions (like making left turns in a certain way, or taking regular breaks to stay alert).  Trucking companies have to follow special laws called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, which require medical examinations for truckers and regular maintenance procedures on the trucks.  Trucking companies also have to carry higher levels of insurance than other cars.  When a lawsuit is filed against a trucking company, the case can also be filed directly against the truck company’s liability insurance carrier in what is called a “direct action.”  Good lawyers fight hard to keep the truck insurance company in the case.

Trucking companies are notorious for playing fast and loose with the evidence.  They often have “rapid-response teams” that rush to the scene of a collision so that the trucking company can prepare for litigation before the victim can even hire a lawyer.  Some truckers illegally keep two sets of logbooks—one real set that shows how much they actually drove, and one clean-looking set that they’ll show to police officers who ask for it.  Truck companies often fail to preserve GPS tracking evidence that shows what their trucks did and when they did it.

Truck companies are serious litigators.  If you or a loved one was hit by a tractor-trailer or commercial vehicle, be ready for battle.

How long will my car accident case take?

This is common question and unfortunately, it’s hard to answer.  We’ve written in greater detail about how long a Georgia personal injury case takes here, but the short version is that our firm wraps up most personal injury cases within three months to two years from the date that we become involved in the case.  Of course some cases take more or less time, but most fall somewhere in the middle.  We know our clients like fast resolutions—and we do too.

How long your car accident case takes depends on several factors.  First, it depends on how long it takes for your medical treatment to be complete.  Faster treatment (and following doctors’ orders) leads to a faster legal result.  Second, it depends on how eager the insurance company or at-fault driver is to settle your case.  If the damages are big (meaning your injuries are significant) but the available insurance amount is small, the case may settle very quickly.  Third, it depends on how patient you are.  Sometimes it makes sense to fight it out for awhile before settling the case, even though neither you nor our firm receives any money until the end of the case.  Good lawyers are willing to fight it out when necessary; bad lawyers always insist on fast settlements.  Fourth, it depends on where the case is filed.  Cases filed in rural Georgia tend to get to trial faster than cases filed Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah, or Augusta.  Georgia’s urban courts are busier, so cases tend to move faster in rural counties.

 

How long do I have to file a car accident case?

Generally, the statute of limitations in Georgia for personal injury cases is two years from the date of a car accident.  But in some circumstances, that period can be shorter or longer.

If you were hurt by a government entity—for instance, a vehicle operated by the state of Georgia, a county, or a city—there can be an earlier deadline called an ante litem deadline.  That deadline could be as short as a year or six months.

In other circumstances, the limitations period could be longer.  For instance, if a criminal prosecution was brought or could have been brought against the at-fault driver, the statute of limitations may be paused (or “tolled,” to use the legal term) for the duration of that prosecution, up to six years.  O.C.G.A. § 9-3-99.

Of course, waiting even as long as six months is not usually a good idea.  It’s best to move fast so you (or your lawyer) can notify the UM insurance carrier as described above, speak to witnesses, get pictures of the damaged cars, and gather other evidence.  The longer a victim waits, the harder it can be to gather the evidence.

 

Should I write down witness information?

It’s smart to think about witnesses—not everybody does.  Many people assume that the police officer who investigates the accident will copy down the names and contact information for all witnesses, but that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes, witnesses stop on the scene to see if anyone is hurt and needs help, or to make sure the true story gets told.  But if those witnesses leave before the police officer arrives, or if the police officer forgets to write their name and contact information down in the police report, the names of those witnesses can be lost for good.  (We have handled cases where this happened.)  If there is any question as to who is at fault for a car wreck, it is a smart idea to write down the names and contact information for any witnesses.

 

The personal injury lawyers at Butler Tobin specialize in car accidents, truck accidents, and sexual assault cases.