What you do after a car accident in California can determine whether you get your medical bills and car repairs paid, as well as pain and suffering damages. It can also keep you from violating California law and having your driver’s license suspended.
Even if you were at fault for a California car accident, the steps you take afterward can greatly affect your rights.
Our California personal injury lawyers recommend the following 15 steps if you are in an auto accident in California:
- 1. Remain at the scene of the car accident
- 2. Seek medical attention if needed
- 3. Move to a safe area
- 4. Record information about the other vehicle
- 5. Exchange contact info with other drivers and witnesses
- 6. DO NOT ADMIT FAULT!
- 7. Do not say you are not hurt
- 8. Leave your contact info if the other vehicle or property is unoccupied
- 9. Take photos of the accident scene
- 10. Make a record of your version of the accident right away
- 11. Document your injuries
- 12. Report the accident to the California DMV
- 13. Notify your insurance company
- 14. When you can safely not report an accident
- 15. Consider retaining a California personal injury lawyer
If someone was injured or killed, remain at the accident scene until the police come unless you need immediate medical assistance.
Leaving the scene of an accident involving injury could get you charged with a California hit and run. Penalties can include a fine of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail (more if the injury is serious or someone dies).1
If the only harm appears to be property damage, you may legally leave the accident scene after identifying yourself to the parties involved. Failure to identify yourself is a California misdemeanor hit and run. Penalties can include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail.2
If the other involved driver(s) fled the scene, contact the police. If the police can track them down, then you can file a claim against his/her insurer. But if the at-fault driver is never found, you may still be able to recover damages from your own insurer if you have uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage and/or comprehensive and collision coverage.
If you were injured and need immediate medical assistance, do not wait for the police.
Call 911 or ask someone else to call for you. If someone else is taking you to the Emergency Room, make sure you leave your contact information with the other driver(s) first if you are able.
If it is safe to do so, move your car to the shoulder or somewhere else safe. Cars that are blocking traffic can result in further injuries to you or other people.
But leave the cars where they are if moving them would be dangerous.
You should also leave the cars where they are and wait for law enforcement if someone was killed or seriously injured, unless the cars pose a significant hazard.
Once you have moved the cars (if appropriate) and/or sought medical attention for those injured, write down or photograph:
- The license plate number of every other vehicle involved in the accident,
- The year, make, model and color of the other vehicle(s), and
- If possible, the other vehicle(s)’ Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
You will need this information in order to report the accident as legally required to the California DMV.
The VIN is usually listed on a driver’s insurance card and registration. But it is a good idea to confirm it physically, especially if the driver is uninsured.
Do not, however, attempt to get the VIN number from the other driver’s vehicle if the driver won’t cooperate. Touching the other person’s vehicle without consent is a bad idea.
You can find the VIN on a car:
- On the driver’s side dashboard (where it meets the windshield), and
- Inside the driver’s side door (where the door latches when it is closed).
On a motorcycle, the VIN usually appears on the left side of the steering head.
Ask to see the other driver’s license, insurance information and registration.
If you can, take a photo of these documents. Otherwise, write down the numbers.
You should also, if possible, get contact information from everyone else who was involved in, or who witnessed the accident.
If a law enforcement officer came to the scene, get the officer’s name and write it down as well.
Be sure to provide your info to the other driver, regardless of who was at fault.
It is extremely important not to admit to any wrongdoing even if you think the accident was your fault.
You may be wrong. Or the other driver may be partially to blame under California’s “shared fault / pure comparative negligence” law. Or the problem could be bad road design, highway construction negligence, and negligence from the car manufacturer or service provider.
Even apologizing can be misconstrued and keep you from getting the compensatory damages you need from your or the other driver’s insurance company.
Do ask, however, whether the other driver is injured or needs medical assistance.
If the other driver pressures you to accept blame for the accident politely ask him or her to call your insurance company.
Even if you think you were not injured in the car crash, do not tell that to the other driver.
Soft-tissue injuries are not always immediately apparent. Saying you are not hurt gives the other driver’s insurance company an excuse to deny your claim or offer you less than it is worth.
That does not mean that you should lie. A lie can come back to undermine your credibility.
You can simply say you don’t know and will be seeking medical attention if necessary.
If you hit an unoccupied vehicle or other property, California law requires you to do one of two things:
- Locate the owner and present him or her with your driver’s license and registration, or
- Leave a written note with your name and address in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or property and promptly notify either:
- The police department of the city wherein the collision occurred or,
- If the collision occurred in unincorporated territory, the local headquarters of the Department of the California Highway Patrol.3
By law, a note must include the circumstances. However, it should say as little as possible — for instance that your vehicle collided with the owner’s property.
Make sure you note the address where the collision happened so that you can report it.
If you are able to do so safely, photos of the scene of the accident and the vehicles involved can help your lawyer or adjuster determine what happened. Try to photograph all of the vehicle damage and any bodily injury.
It can also prevent someone from claiming that you are responsible for any damage the vehicle or property later sustains.
If it is not safe to take photos of the accident scene, or if you had to leave to seek medical help, return as soon as you are able if there is a safe place to take photos.
Even afterward, photos can help your California injury lawyer or your insurance adjuster get an idea of what happened.
As soon as is practical, write down everything you can think of about the accident, no matter how unimportant it may seem.
Details will fade along with the shock of the accident, so the sooner you record your impressions the better.
Things to write down or record include (but are not limited to):
- The time and date of the accident,
- The cross streets and direction of travel of each vehicle,
- Your best estimate of each driver’s speed,
- The color of any traffic lights that were visible, and
- Any adverse road conditions (such as potholes or bad weather).
Take, or have someone else take, photographs of any visible injuries with your phone or camera.
If you seek medical attention, ask a nurse or other health professional to take photos of your injuries as well.
As soon as you can, also write down or record your own impressions of what hurts or is damaged.
The more evidence of your injuries that is documented, the better your chance of your personal injury attorney getting you the recovery you deserve.
Car accident injuries range from minor and cosmetic to catastrophic and disabling. Common examples include:
- broken bones (“fractures”)
- spinal cord injuries and/or broken backs or necks
- traumatic brain injuries
- cuts, lacerations, and bruises (soft tissue injuries)
- scarring and disfigurement
No less important is the emotional distress collisions can cause, leading to major mental and psychological damage – even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
California law requires you to notify the California Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days of an accident if:
- Anyone was killed,
- Anyone was injured (even if the injury was minor), or
- The accident resulted in more than $1,000 of damage.4
If you are not certain, make the accident report anyway, especially if you will be putting the claim through your California auto insurance.
Accidents must be reported to the DMV on California DMV Form SR1.
Please see our article on reportable collision – When must an accident be reported to the DMV?
Failure to report an accident to the DMV can result in the suspension of your driver’s license for up to one year.5
Many people do not file a car accident claim in California for fear their rates will go up. California is one of only two states that legally prohibit auto insurers from raising rates if an accident is not the policy holder’s fault.6
Furthermore, most auto insurance policies require motorists to report an accident promptly to have a viable insurance claim.
And even if the accident was your fault, it is usually best to report it. The other party may report it (even if the driver says he/she won’t), putting you at risk of a suspended driver’s license as well as canceled car insurance.
Early reporting also gives your insurer a better chance to defend your injury claim in a car accident case.
Note that every motorist in California must carry at least $15,000 of bodily injury coverage per person, $30,000 of bodily injury coverage per accident, and $5,000 of property damage liability. California’s car insurance laws are fault-based, so crash victims would file claims with the at-fault party’s insurer.
The one time it makes sense not to report an accident is if no other driver was involved and your car sustained only minor damage which you can live with or are willing to pay out-of-pocket to repair.
For instance, let’s say you damaged your car by backing into or scraping a wall and
- You do not have collision insurance,
- You have collision insurance but the cost of repairs is close to your deductible level or an amount you can easily afford.
In such a case car accident victims may choose to leave their car “as is” or pay for the repairs out of pocket.
If you have been injured in a car crash, you usually have only a two-year statute of limitations after the crash to bring a lawsuit in California. You are encouraged to retain an experienced California car accident attorney as soon as possible to help protect your rights and evaluate all the evidence – including the police report – to determine whether you have a right to compensation.
An experienced lawyer may also be able to help you find a doctor who will accept a medical lien in California if you cannot afford to pay for treatment. Your lawyer can also draft an insurance demand letter that is likely to get a settlement offer that may cover your:
- Existing medical bills and future medical expenses;
- Disability accommodations;
- Lost wages, past and future;
- Pain and suffering, including loss of enjoyment of life (“non-economic damages”); and/or
- Property damage, including repairing or replacing the vehicle
(Punitive damages come into play only if the case goes to trial and does not settle.)
Finally, a good California injury lawyer knows all the insurance companies’ tricks and understands the insurance code. Your lawyer can save you the headache of dealing with your own and the other person(s)’ adjuster(s) so that you get the best settlement possible.
If your loved one was killed in a car accident, see our related article on bringing a wrongful death lawsuit. In 2019 alone, there were 3,606 traffic-related fatalities in California. The victim’s family may be able to recover damages for loss of support and funeral expenses.7
Injured in a car accident in California? Call us for help…
If you or someone you know was in a car, truck, motorcycle or other traffic accident, or if you were hurt in a “pedestrian knock-down,” we invite you to contact our California car accident lawyers for a free consultation. If you wish to form an attorney-client relationship, we will get working on your case right away. We operate by contingency fee, so we do not get paid unless you get paid.
We serve personal injury law clients in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California, and we can meet with you virtually or at one of our several law offices. There is a statute of limitations (time limit to sue) under California car accident law, so do not wait.
See our related articles on DUI victims, motorcycle accident lawsuits, trucking accident lawsuits, SUV rollovers, bicycle accidents, e-bike accidents, pedestrian accidents (including skateboards), California underinsured / uninsured motorist coverage and our California workers’ comp attorneys.
You can also call us if you were injured in a car accident in Las Vegas, Nevada.