You’ve been in a fender-bender: Should you call the cops or go it alone?
If the car behind you at a traffic light “kisses” your bumper or you tap a car in the grocery store parking lot, it might be tempting to settle the accident without getting the police or insurance companies involved.
Even a handful of minor incidents over a span of a few years can raise a driver’s auto insurance rates. So to prevent an increase in auto insurance premiums, drivers might try to settle what they regard as minor claims on their own.
But while this option appears to save everyone some hassle — and certainly the person at fault some serious dough — experts warn that settling up without a police report or an insurance claim could be a risky move for the motorists involved.
Put everything in writing
A police report is useful because it’s generated by a neutral third party and can serve as official documentation of the accident. The report typically identifies the date, time and place of the accident, as well as damage to the cars, injuries to motorists and any witnesses. It also may contain statements from the drivers and witnesses.
“The police report may not be admissible in court, but it may lock down important information,” says Chris Pyles, an attorney at Sulloway & Hollis, a New Hampshire law firm. “One risk to foregoing the police report is losing that information, which could otherwise be used to rebut a later claim.”
If anyone is injured in the accident, calling the police and filing an insurance claim are highly recommended, says Richard Console Jr., a partner at Console & Hollawell, a New Jersey law firm. According to Console, it’s possible to suffer injuries but not immediately realize that you’ve been injured. Suddenly, a minor predicament that seemed like it could be resolved with a handshake turns into a much more expensive and complicated problem, complete with medical bills and physical therapy.
If you don’t file a report, you could face costly medical bills if the person at fault “forgot” what happened or doesn’t answer the phone when you call to arrange payment. Or if you’re at fault in the accident and you don’t file a report, the other driver could be an opportunist who decides to fake an injury and trick you into paying phony medical bills.
Fender-benders between family and friends are less of a concern because both parties likely know and trust each other, according to Pyles. However, even if you collide with a pal or a relative, you still might want to file a police report in case you need to submit an insurance claim for injuries later on.
If you still decide not to call the cops, taking detailed notes for personal reference could help you down the road. Console recommends putting everything (who, what, where, when, who was at fault and what the other driver says he’ll pay for) in writing, then having the note signed by all of the involved motorists so that some documentation exists.
“People’s recollections grow foggier as time goes on,” Console says, “and some people actually change their stories.”
Get a release
If you’re at fault, make sure you get a notarized release indicating that you’ve paid for everything you agreed to cover, Los Angeles attorney Jeffrey Shane recommends. The release should show that you’ve paid every penny for all injuries and damages, that you’ve made all of the payments and that a lawsuit won’t be filed, according to Shane.
In the event that the other driver is at fault, you should offer him the same type of release. If he doesn’t pay up — or skips town — you usually can sue an at-fault motorist up to the statute of limitations in your state, Console says. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, you generally can sue up to two years after an accident.
“However, without a police report or timely reported claim to insurance, resolving a claim can be far more difficult and very expensive,” Console says.
The more time that’s passed, the more difficult it will be to get the other driver to cough up money.
“I have seen many cases where there is little property damage and no report of injury at the scene, so the parties simply exchange information and drive away,” Pyles says. “Then two years later, one driver files suit against the other and there is no document reporting the minor damage or injury.”
Even if you do work things out with the driver who hit you, leaving your insurance company out of it could land you in hot water. Failing to notify your insurer about an auto accident could be a violation of the terms and conditions of your auto insurance policy — one that, according to Pyles, could lead to a denial of coverage.