COMPLETE GUIDE ON WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE INJURED IN A CAR ACCIDENT IN FLORIDA?
As a courtesy to our clients, we created a “frequently asked questions” guide concerning “the nuts and bolts” of a car accident case. This guide should answer many of the questions you may have following an accident. The guide will sequence what happens from “right after your accident” all the way to resolution of your claim.
YOU JUST GOT INTO A CAR ACCIDENT … WHAT ARE THE 1st STEPS?
- CALL 911 POLICE AND OBTAIN A POLICE REPORT (even if no one appears seriously injured). The police report will include: (1) the insurance details of the parties; (2) the parties’ license plate, VIN, and driver’s license numbers; (3) the parties’ contact information; (4) and a diagram of the accident scene. A police report is crucial to your case as it memorializes the accident and documents the insurance information.
- Obtain the contact information of any WITNESSES to the accident. Witness information is crucial in the event the “at-fault” party later claims that YOU were liable for the crash.
- TAKE INVENTORY OF YOUR MEDICAL CONDITION. GO TO THE HOSPITAL, IF WARRANTED. If you may have suffered any brain injury (i.e. concussion, nausea, issues with balance, issues with vision, loss of memory, trouble walking, trouble breathing), life threatening injury (i.e. punctured lung or spleen), broken bones, or torn tendon or ligaments, you are STRONGLY encouraged to go to the hospital. For common non-life threatening injuries (i.e. injuries to neck and back), you CAN go to the hospital OR you should immediately make the next available appointment with a chiropractor, pain management doctor or orthopedic surgeon.
- Take PICTURES of your (1) vehicle; (2) the at-fault driver’s vehicle; (3) at-fault driver’s license plate; (4) road conditions / accident scene; (5) and your visible injuries (i.e. bruising, scratches, casts, splints, walkers, etc.). Pictures memorialize the accident scene in case the at-fault driver later changes his/her story as to what actually transpired. The more pictures the better! Word of advice, take pictures from different angles and distances. It is inadvisable to only take close up photos.
WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT DO:
- PROVIDE A STATEMENT TO THE AT-FAULT’S DRIVER’S INSURANCE COMPANY. Although you are required to speak with your insurance company (if requested), you are NOT contractually obligated to speak with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. If you choose to speak to the at-fault driver’s insurance company concerning repairs to your vehicle, limit your conversation to ONLY the property damage – not your injuries, prior accidents or injuries, or the theory of liability. Remember, your own insurance company can handle the property damage aspect of your claim and seek payment (subrogate) from the at-fault driver.
- DISCUSS YOUR INJURIES OR THEORY OF LIABILITY WITH ANYONE BUT A MEDICAL PROVIDER OR A LAWYER. Many injuries as a result of car accidents (i.e. soft tissue injuries) have a delayed onset that may not manifest for up to 2-5 days. Even clients with multiple herniated discs as a result of an accident sometimes report only limited pain for the first 2-5 days after an accident. As a result, never advise law enforcement or the at-fault party that you are not injured. A more appropriate answer is that you are not sure of your injuries and plan to seek medical treatment.
- ADMIT LIABILITY (even to the police). Limit your conversation with the police to only the circumstances surrounding the accident.
- APOLOGIZE – even if you are just trying to console an injured (or upset) party. Insurance companies view apologizes as admissions of guilt and could limit your recovery.
- NEGOTIATE WITH ANY INSURANCE COMPANY / ACCEPT PAYMENT without first speaking with an attorney. The insurance company WILL try to take advantage of you and trick you into accepting a “low ball” offer. Do not fall into this trap. You could be leaving tens of thousands of dollars on the table.
- SIGN UP WITH A “RUNNER”. It is illegal for a “runner” from a personal injury law firm to contact an accident victim without their approval. Runners get illegal “kickbacks” by signing up cases. Runners are employed by the “bottom of the bottom” and should be avoided at all costs.
YOU ARE INJURED … NOW WHAT?
“SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT?!” – SHOULD I GO TO THE HOSPITAL AFTER A CAR ACCIDENT?
It depends. Every case is different and many unique factors must be considered before making the decision to go to the hospital. When in doubt, we recommend that you immediately have someone drive you to the hospital – especially if you may have suffered a closed head injury and are suffering from nausea, dizziness, vertigo headaches, loss of consciousness and/or double vision, etc. Closed head injuries can have a delayed onset. A closed head injury could occur from whiplash or hitting your head on the steering wheel or door during impact.
You can have a closed-head injury even in a “low-impact” case with or without a concussion.
Do not take any chances with these types of injuries as they could be life-threatening.
If you believe you MAY have suffered any “major” injury such as a broken bone (especially an open fracture), punctured lung or spleen or if you are having trouble breathing, the prudent course is go to the hospital to get checked out.
SHOULD I GOTO THE HOSPITAL OR A CHIROPRACTOR IF I INJURED MY NECK AND/OR BACK?
Again, it depends.
There is absolutely NO harm of going to the hospital for neck or back pain. Going to the hospital is a GREAT way to memorialize your injuries (i.e. causation to the crash). Your PIP benefits will pay for your treatment.
You should be aware, however, that your treatment will be limited and cursory. The ER doctors will take X-rays (and possible CT Scans) of your spine. They will likely give you a prescription for anti-inflammatories and/or pain relievers. They will refer you to a doctor for a follow-up visit. They will not take MRIs. They will not provide any real relief. In most cases, they will discharge you with a “clean bill of health”. This is misleading, however. A “clean bill of health” means you do not have any life-threatening injuries. It does NOT mean you have avoided an injury to your spine. Spinal injuries are very commonly overlooked and misdiagnosed by emergency room doctors. They are looking for punctured lungs and broken bones, not disc injuries.
In our experience, doctors that specialize in musculoskeletal pain (such as chiropractors, pain management doctors (physiatrists), neurologists, orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons) are usually best equipped to handle neck and/or back injuries.
Chiropractors, in particular, are oftentimes the best doctor to see for immediate relief. They specialize in the readjustment of the spine. He/she can send you out for MRIs and refer you to a specialist, like an orthopedic surgeon, if your injuries are significant.
Every client is different, however. Some clients have an aversion to chiropractors and demand to be seen by a medical doctor. You can see whomever doctor you like – just make sure you immediately make an appointment following your car accident. Many times, soft tissue injuries following a car accident have a delayed onset. You should plan for this an immediately seek medical treatment. Do no wait until the pain becomes debilitating.
It is worth noting, however, that primary doctors oftentimes provide very limited value following a car accident case as they do not specialize in musculoskeletal pain. It does not hurt to see your primary – especially if you have underlying medical conditions; however, you should see them in conjunction with another doctor like a chiropractor.
I AM AT THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE – NOW WHAT?
You are transported to the hospital or decide it is prudent to go to seek medical treatment. You should advise your medical providers that you were involved in a car accident and provide them with YOUR car insurance information so they can bill through your personal injury protection a/k/a PIP (see below). Your health insurance will be billed SECONDARY. Although we will eventually seek damages from the at-fault party for your medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering, you must first go through the proper channels of getting the medical providers paid.
MY NECK/BACK INJURIES SEEM “MINOR”, IS THERE ANY RUSH TO RECEIVE MEDICAL TREATMENT?
The spine is a complex, delicate structure, comprised of tendons, muscles, and ligaments that are intertwined around the vertebrae, discs, and spinal cord. The spine is not built to withstand the impact of a car accident – even a low impact car accident. It is always best to get checked out following a car crash as many soft-tissue injuries have a “delayed onset” and linger.
Unfortunately, it is very common for car accidents victims to initially complain of “minor” injuries then eventually realize their injuries are significant and are not going away. It is not unusual to start feeling pain approximately 48-72 hours after a car accident. You MUST receive initial treatment from a medical provider with 14 days of the accident in order to qualify for PIP benefits. The prudent course is to get checked out ASAP.
WHO PAYS MY MEDICAL BILLS? WHAT IS PERSONAL INJURY PROTECTION A/K/A/ “PIP”?
Florida is a no-fault state. If you own or lease a vehicle, you are required by law to purchase PIP coverage. PIP covers the first $10,000.00 in medical treatment REGARDLESS OF FAULT. Your automobile insurance policy (PIP) should be the FIRST to pay for your medical bills and lost wages – even before your health insurance. Your car insurance (PIP) will be responsible for 80% of your reasonable medical expenses related to the accident and 60% of your lost earnings subject to the limits of the coverage and any applicable deductible (or up to the specified policy limit). Your medical providers should ask for your auto insurance information and PIP claim number at your 1st appointment.
Your car insurer cannot raise your rates for using your PIP coverage to pay for medical bills for a crash that is not your fault.
If you do not have own or lease a vehicle, we may be able to qualify you for PIP through another source, like a resident relative, owner of the car or the other driver.
IN THE EVENT YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR PIP OR YOUR PIP EXHAUSTS, WE ARE HAPPY TO DISCUSS WAYS FOR YOU TO RECEIVE MEDICAL TREATMENT EVEN IN THE ABSENCE OF HEALTH INSURANCE.
This is typically accomplished by a letter of protection (LOP) which is an agreement entered between you and the medical provider to satisfy the bill upon the conclusion of your personal injury case. Do NOT forgo medical treatment as a result of your concern over payment.
WHAT IS THE CLAIM REPORTING PROCESS?
I WAS INJURED IN AN AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT, SHOULD I CALL MY INSURANCE COMPANY TO REPORT THE CLAIM IN ADDITION TO THE AT-FAULT DRIVER’S INSURANCE COMPANY?
Yes. Regardless of fault, it is important that someone calls your insurance company to report the accident. Upon receiving notice of the accident, they will open up a claim and issue a claim number. YOUR medical providers will use this claim number to bill PIP.
In many cases, WE open the claim on behalf of our clients with the at-fault party’s insurance and your insurance.
If you decide to open the claims, please remember that EVERYTHING you report to (either) insurance company could be used against you to reduce or exclude certain coverage.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR REPAIRING MY CAR?
Either parties’ insurance can oftentimes repair your car (provided you have collision coverage). There are pros/cons of going through your insurance vs. at-fault insurance. One of the main factors is whether you purchased “rental coverage”. Ultimately the choice is yours – we have no preference. Before you open up the claim, call us if you have any questions about the process.
PROVIDED I CALL THE INSURANCE COMPANY TO REPORT THE CLAIM, HOW SHOULD I ANSWER THE INSURANCE ADJUSTER’S QUESTIONS?
If you were injured in any manner as a result of the accident do NOT disclose any information concerning your injuries (including type of injuries or level/degree of pain) over the phone to any insurance adjuster without an attorney present.
Simply advise them that you are injured and plan to visit a doctor. When reporting a claim you only have one obligation: REPORT THE ACCIDENT (i.e. time/place/insurance information) … no more, no less.
NEVER (1) discuss your current or past injuries; (2) advise the insurance adjuster that you are NOT injured (as injuries could have a delayed onset (i.e. low back injuries)); (3) admit liability (even in jest); or (4) provide your social security number to the insurance adjuster.
Once you report the claim, politely hang up the phone – you are not required to answer any additional questions. From there on out, your attorney will handle all correspondence/interaction with both your insurance company and the at-fault insurance company.
You can speak with the PROPERTY adjuster only as it relates to setting up a time to value the damage to your vehicle and/or other PROPERTY damage questions.
Refrain from answering any other inquiries – especially inquiries relating to your injuries or liability. If you are unsure whether you should answer the insurance adjuster’s questions, direct the adjuster’s phone call to your attorney.
WHY SHOULD I CALL MY INSURANCE COMPANY IF I WAS NOT THE AT-FAULT PARTY?
Plain and simple – the answer is NOTICE.
It is important to place your insurance company on notice of the accident to preserve possible coverage claims. Additionally, you need a claim number for your doctors to receive payment through your PIP coverage.
WILL MY INSURANCE PREMIUM INCREASE IF I FILE A CLAIM?
Whether you chose file an insurance claim or not, the fact that you were involved in an automobile accident could have negative repercussions on your insurance. There are dozens of reasons your insurance company can increase your rates at any time (also known as an increased surcharge). Some of the reasons include: speeding ticket(s), adding a young driver to your policy, your age, poor credit, a new job, a friend wrecks your car, you are now single, the amount of the property damage claim, etc. That being said, IF THE ACCIDENT IS NOT YOUR FAULT, FLORIDA LAW PROHIBITS YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY FROM RAISING YOUR RATES FOR FILING A PIP CLAIM, PROPERTY CLAIM, OR MEDICAL PAYMENTS CLAIM (Florida Statute, 626.9541).
TREATMENT FOR INJURIES FOLLOWING A CAR ACCIDENT
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON TYPES OF INJURIES?
Although each victim is different, the most common injuries include:
- NECK INJURIES (Cervical or “C-spine”)
- The base of the neck is the weakest part of the neck and, as such, is the most susceptible to injury. It is common for individuals to injure C5-6 and C6-7 following a rear-end crash. It is not uncommon for individuals to injury multiple levels of their neck following a crash.
- LOWER BACK INJURIES (Lumbar or “L-spine”)
- The base of your lower back is very susceptible to injury. It is common for individuals to injure L4-5 and L5-S1 following a crash. It is not uncommon for individuals to injury multiple levels of their lower back following a crash.
Associated injuries if someone injures their neck or back:
- RADIATING PAIN DOWN FROM THE NECK into the shoulders, hands and fingers, which can include tingling, weakness and numbness. This pain is almost always related to an injury in your NECK.
- RADIATING PAIN DOWN FROM THE LOWER BACK in the feet and toes which can include tingling, weakness and numbness. This pain is almost always related to an injury in your LOWER BACK.
- MYELOPATHY (injury to the spinal cord due to severe compression)
Although less common, we have had a number of clients suffer from:
- TORN SHOULDERS (usually from the driver grasping on to the steering wheel during a sudden force backwards / forwards).
- TORN KNEES (usually from the driver / passenger bracing themselves for impact).
- BROKEN BONES (especially broken wrists on head-on car crashes as the driver / passenger braces themselves for the crash or broken knee cap from making contact with the dashboard)
- COGNITIVE ISSUES stemming from a traumatic brain injury or mild traumatic brain injury (this could include memory loss, trouble reasoning, sequencing, processing, planning, attention, or mood swings).
- MID-BACK INJURIES.
WHAT IS COMMON TREATMENT FOLLOWING A CAR CRASH?
Treatment varies from client to client; however, most cases have similar timelines.
On average, clients treat for six to twelve weeks with a chiropractor or physical therapist and undergo an MRI of the affected area (usually neck and/or back). At that point, some clients are placed at maximum medical improvement (MMI) and are discharged.
If a client is not showing improvement by six to twelve weeks, they are normally referred out to a specialist (usually a pain management doctor, neurologist or surgeon) for an evaluation.
Typically, a client will choose to undergo pain management before considering more invasive options such as surgery.
Your attorney will usually send out a demand when your reach maximum medical improvement (MMI) and/or we believe your injuries are such that the insurance company should tender their policy limits.
MY ARMS AND LEGS ARE TINGLING, IS THAT COMMON AFTER A CAR CRASH?
Although most people think of neck and back injuries are temporary “stiffness”, “muscle spasm” and “decreased range of motion”, after a traumatic event (sudden flexion and extension of the spine, i.e. whiplash) you may have damaged a disc in your spine (i.e. herniated disc). The damaged disc can compress/narrow the space within your spine which can put pressure on the nerves that travel through your spine. This compression/narrowing can lead to a variety of uncomfortable symptoms including tingling, “pins and needles” numbness and weakness in your hands and feet. Based on the location of the tingling, the doctor can usually pinpoint the damaged area of your spine. This is usually confirmed by an MRI.
For example, if you are exhibiting tingling/numbness in your “upper back, shoulders, back of arm, pointer middle finger and thumb”, you likely damaged your spine at cervical 6 – cervical 7 (C6 and C7). If you are exhibiting tingling/numbness in your “lower back, front and outside of calf, top and bottom of foot and first four toes”, you likely damaged your spine at lumbar 5 (L5)
HOW ARE CAR ACCIDENT CASES VALUED?
There are a number of factors that insurance companies take into consideration when coming up with an appropriate settlement offer. An “identical” car crash can lead to different results, depending on certain factors. It is commonplace for an insurance company to make a low settlement offer as a result of their belief that your injuries are “pre-existing” and “not-related” to this accident. The type of treatment you undergo (i.e. surgery vs. non-surgery) also plays a big part in the valuation of your claim. Here are some of the more significant factors that insurance companies use to value your claim.
- LIABILITY: Is there clear liability (i.e. rear-end crash) or contested liability (i.e. two cars merged into each other)?
- PROPERTY DAMAGE: The more significant the property damage, the better your claim. Juries oftentimes have a difficult time believing that low impact accidents can cause significant injuries. Conversely, juries oftentimes give the victim the benefit of the doubt in cases involving significant property damage.
- START OF TREATMENT: The sooner you treat for your injuries, the better. Delays in treatment are difficult to overcome, especially in low impact car accidents. Victims that go to the hospital are in the best position to argue that he/she received their injuries from the car accident (“causation”).
- TYPE OF TREATMENT: Basic rule of thumb: the more invasive the treatment, the higher the bills, the higher the settlement. On average chiropractic treatment < pain management (i.e. epidural injections, facet blocks) < pain management (radiofrequency ablations) < microdiscectomy < artificial disc replacement < cervical or lumbar fusion < brain injury / loss of limb / paralysis. The type of treatment and recommended treatment is oftentimes the most important driver of a higher settlement offer.
- LENGTH OF TREATMENT/COST OF TREATMENT: On average, the longer the length of treatment / higher medical bills, the higher the settlement.
- PERMANENCY: Is the injury permanent? In Florida, your injury must be considered permanent to recover damages for pain and suffering.
- YOUR DOCTORS: Not all doctors are the same when it comes to personal injury cases. Some of the best doctors can still be: (1) defense-friendly and believe “all” injuries are pre-existing; (2) terrible note takers; (3) do not understand how to properly bill PIP; (4) not Plaintiff advocates. An “unfriendly” doctor can kill your case.
- PRIOR CAR ACCIDENTS/CLAIMS: All things being equal, a “clean” Plaintiff (i.e. no prior car crashes with injuries) is preferable to an “unclean” Plaintiff (i.e. multiple prior car crashes with injuries).
- PRIOR MEDICAL TREATMENT / PRE-EXISTING INJURIES: Car accident victims with pre-existing injuries are “punished” by insurance adjusters as it is easy to point the finger at your prior injuries to explain your current pain. Older client almost always have some pre-existing “wear and tear” injuries. Pre-existing injuries can be challenging but not insurmountable. It is important you receive prompt and regular treatment and are able to explain how this crash aggravated or exacerbated a prior injury. New MRIs that are distinguishable from old MRIs are very helpful. Before and after witnesses are a great way for you to differentiate how you felt pre-crash vs. post-crash.
- INSURANCE VS. LETTER OF PROTECTION (LOP): Victims that treat on LOPs (as opposed to health insurance) oftentimes receive higher settlements. There are pros/cons of treating on a letter of protection, however. Be careful.
- LOST WAGES: Are you making a future lost wage claim? Lost wage claims can greatly increase the value of your case.
- BEFORE/AFTER WITNESSES: Do you have witnesses who can testify as to your activities of daily living before the crash vs. after the crash? For example, a golf instructor who can testify that you played golf 3x per week pre-crash but have not been back to the golf course since the crash.
- INSURANCE LIMTS: In many cases, insurance companies will tender their policy if your damages (far) exceed the coverage. The available limits could reduce the value of an otherwise significant claim.
- YOUR ATTORNEY: The insurance companies keep track of all the attorney in South Florida. They know who are legit and who are fraudulent. Attorneys who are not afraid to file a lawsuit (on the right case), can greatly increase the value of your claim. In some cases, we have settled cases for 2x-100x the insurance company’s pre-suit offer.
DO I “NEED” TO RETAIN A PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY?
DO I HAVE TO SUE? I’M NOT LITIGIOUS.
Personal injury attorneys are compensated only in the event we recover a settlement on your behalf. If we don’t collect, you owe us nothing.
In almost all cases, the INSURANCE COMPANY pays for your damages, not the at-fault party. A large majority of cases resolve PRE-SUIT without filing suit against the at-fault party or (on some occasions) your insurance company. In other words, we do not have to go to court.
Remember, we are teammates. As a result, we have an incentive to settle your case for the highest amount possible. The fear of a possible trial (i.e. exposing the insurance company to unknown and unlimited risk) is the best weapon in our arsenal. Without the fear of filing suit, insurance companies have no incentive to offer the true value of your claim
We will give you our opinion whether it is in your best interest to file suit, but it is ultimately your choice.