If you are involved in an automobile accident in Virginia, it is wise to consult with an attorney. Some of the things you do or do not do, immediately after an accident, could end up reducing your ability to make an effective claim later on.
First of all, it is important to note that your safety and that of the public is of paramount importance. The law in Virginia reflects these priorities in so far as criminal law takes precedence. Therefore, do not flee the incident or you could be liable for certain criminal charges including obstructing justice. If you are not incapacitated, you should move your vehicle to the side of the road so that it is not in the way of oncoming traffic.
Common decency calls for you to attend to the injured. If you were the driver of the car that knocked someone, it would look very bad to a court if it appeared that you were more concerned about avoiding liability than helping someone who is injured. Leaving the scene without authorization can lead to a suspended or revoked driver’s license (Va. Code Ann. Sec. 46.2-894). Convictions for driving offenses stay on record for 11 years if the accident results in death or damages exceeding $1000 in value. There are exceptions to the general rule that you should not leave the scene. Examples include if there is an actual fire or imminent potential of a fire. Medical professionals can also leave the scene to attend to someone who is injured.
Reporting to the Law Enforcement Agencies
If there is an injury involved, it is imperative that the accident be reported to the police at the earliest opportunity. This will give the law enforcement agencies an opportunity to register the incident with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV. However they only report those incidents that involve fatalities or have led to property/injury damage that is likely to exceed $1,500. The information that is reported by the police will then appear on the driving records of all the drivers involved in the incident.
Even if you are not immediately injured, if there is significant property damage to your vehicle, it can help to report the incident to the police.
Make sure that you have exchanged accurate information with all involved drivers. If you are not physically able to do so, then the courts will not necessarily treat it as a negative indicator. That said, for your own protection, the most important information to capture, is the driver’s address, phone number, driver’s license number, license plate number, and insurance policy. It is always advisable to try to independently verify this information, for example, by driver’s license, rather than just trusting the person who caused the accident to provide you with the correct information. Write down the tag number, and if you are able to, take some photos on your mobile device to document the scene or the other driver’s license.
Sometimes there is little time to record this information, particularly if the other party is trying to get away from the scene. If that is the case, then you should prioritize the vehicle license plate and the driver’s license number because an investigation into these items could help find the rest of the information.
The Legal Guidelines and Regulations
The officers that attend to the incident have a right to require proof of valid insurance or alternatively Uninsured Motor Vehicle fees. The car registration and driver’s license can be suspended if you are unable to provide this evidence. The officer will require you to complete form SR-22, which is in effect proof of future financial responsibility before the driving privileges can be restored. In any case, you should notify your insurer or they could disclaim the future financial responsibilities of the incident. Passengers who are older than 16 years must ensure that they report the incident within 24 hours even if the driver has not reported the incident (Va. Code Ann. Sec 46.2-895). In cases where you hit an unattended vehicle, you also have a duty to report the incident to the owner.
Claims for Damages
When the claim is straightforward and uncontested, it is possible to get an agreement amongst the stakeholders or parties. That definition includes the drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and owners of affected property. If an at fault driver for example, is willing to sign a written statement agreeing to fault at the scene, you should obtain a copy of such a signed statement where possible. In more complicated situations where parties cannot agree on fault, court involvement may be necessary.
If court involvement becomes necessary in your case, keep the following in mind:
Reporting Time Limits: Virginia operates a statute of limitations. You must therefore file a claim within two years of the incident if you are making a personal injury claim. If you are making a property damage claim, then you can file it within five years of the incident (Va. Code Ann. Sec. 8.01-243). Another exemption is a claim against the state which must follow much more stringent rules for notice of intent to sue as well as well as the actual lawsuit (six months for a city and one year for the Virginia government or transportation district).
Contributory Negligence: Virginia operates what many consider to be a harsh contributory negligence rule. That means that any fault on your part as a claimant invalidates the entire claim regardless of its merits of size. That is why it is important not to admit any level of liability without the explicit advice of your attorney. If the incident involved multiple defendants, then the total sum of their liability must come up to 100% with no contributory negligence on your part.
Compensation Limits: Virginia does not have a cap on economic damages for most personal injury claims. That means that the court has full discretion to award the amount that it considers appropriate in the circumstances. However two exemptions operate. The first is that medical malpractice claims must not exceed $2 million in value. The second exemption is the cap on punitive damages at $350,000.
Generally speaking, you should try to remain calm and focused after being involved in an accident. Where possible, try to follow the rules for reporting and making a claim and capturing the necessary information. While you may be tempted to leave the scene or quickly dispense with the formalities, you may later regret the decision if there turns out to be a liability dispute. A calm, rational approach in most non-emergency type accidents will often save everyone time and money and may make things simpler down the road.
Above all, if you have questions or are uncertain of what to do, consult your attorney before making any substantial decisions regarding your claim and responsibilities for the incident.