Fender Bender Accidents
You get into an accident where you barely collide with another vehicle. You wonder whether anyone will notice. You may even consider driving away without stopping, exchanging information, or reporting the accident.
In most cases, California law requires you to take certain steps after an accident, even a minor one. In addition to your legal duties under state law, you could also face the consequences for a minor accident from anyone you injured and your insurer.
Read on to learn whether a minor accident counts as an accident.
Defining “Fender Bender”
Fender bender has no single definition.
You might use the term to describe:
- A property damage only (PDO) accident with no injuries or fatalities
- An accident that causes only minor property damage and minor injuries
- An accident where your car remains driveable, regardless of injuries
- A minor accident involving an unattended vehicle
- A low-speed accident
In California, accidents get classified as PDO, injury, or death. When you file a DMV accident report or an investigating police officer prepares an accident report, the accident gets classified by the worst outcome.
Thus, an accident that damaged property and injured a passenger would get classified as an injury accident even though neither driver was injured.
Does a Minor Accident Count as an Accident to the Prosecutors?
You commit a serious crime if you leave the scene of an accident. If you only damaged property, you could face misdemeanor charges. If you are convicted, you could get a jail sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000.
If you left the scene of an accident that caused an injury or death, prosecutors could file hit-and-run charges against you. Upon conviction, a judge could sentence you to up to one year of imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
If you caused a serious, permanent injury or death, a judge could increase the sentence to include up to four years in prison.
When determining whether to file charges against you, prosecutors do not care about the value of the property damage. They only care about whether you damaged property or caused an injury or fatality before you left. If you did, prosecutors could bring charges against you.
So if you back into another vehicle in a parking lot and damage it, you must remain at the accident scene even if the damage appears minor. If you do not, you probably committed a hit-and-run.
Does a Minor Accident Count as an Accident to the Police?
Your duty to report an accident to the police does not depend on the value of the property damage. Instead, it depends on whether anyone was injured or killed in the accident. If someone suffered injury or death, you must report the accident to the police, even if you only caused minimal property damage.
Thus, you need to report an accident that injured a pedestrian, even if the accident only dented your fender. You must report all injury accidents regardless of the value of the property damage suffered.
Likewise, suppose that you hit a bicycle and only scratch your fender. If the cyclist gets injured or killed, you must call the police to report the accident, despite the minor property damage.
On the other hand, you do not need to call the police for a PDO accident unless you hit an unattended vehicle. If you hit an unattended vehicle and cannot find the owner, you must leave a note on the vehicle and report the accident to the police.
But if you collide with an attended vehicle and only damage property, you need not call the police. In many urban counties, the police will not respond to PDO accidents or even include them in the accidents they report to the state.
Does a Minor Accident Count as an Accident to Your Insurer?
When you get into a minor accident, do not conceal the accident from your insurer. You might agree with the other driver to each bear the cost of the damage to your vehicles. Or you might agree that the at-fault driver will just pay for the damage instead of going through the insurance claim process.
Since California uses a fault-based auto insurance system, insurance premiums go up every time you cause an accident, even a minor one. This rate increase happens because insurers consider you a higher-risk customer if you have a history of auto accidents.
You might believe hiding your accident from the insurer will avoid a rate increase. But you risk some very costly consequences by forgoing an accident report to your insurer.
All auto insurance policies require you to report all accidents. If you get into an accident and fail to report it within the time prescribed in your policy, you have breached your policy, and the insurer can cancel your insurance coverage. Worse yet, the insurer can deny all liability for the unreported accident.
If it turns out that the other driver suffered an injury, you—not your insurer—will need to pay the other driver’s losses. For example, a driver who feels fine after an accident might develop a brain injury in the hours or days after the accident.
Even if the other driver did not get injured, you could still face some severe consequences for not reporting the accident. If the other driver files a claim with your insurer, the insurer might deny the claim. Instead of relying on the insurer to cover the other driver’s property damage expenses, you would bear those costs.
Does a Minor Accident Count as an Accident in Injury Claims?
Car accident lawyers often talk about the eggshell skull plaintiff. Under this rule, a driver bears liability for all injuries caused by a car accident. This liability extends to unforeseen or unusual injuries that result from the accident victim’s unique susceptibility to injury.
Injury lawyers often summarize this rule as “you take the other driver as you find them.” If the other driver is easily injured, they should not have their injuries disregarded. Instead, they can recover compensation for their bona fide injuries just as anyone else could.
You might assume that you will avoid a personal injury claim when you get into a minor accident. But even a minor accident can injure another driver, passenger, pedestrian, or bicyclist.
When the accident victim’s car accident attorney files an insurance claim or lawsuit against you, the minor nature of the accident will not provide a defense. If the accident victim can prove that you caused the injury, you and your insurer must pay for the resulting damages.
You could face a substantial damage claim. The other driver’s car accident lawyer can seek compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and diminished earning capacity.
The claim could also seek compensation for non-economic losses such as physical pain, mental anguish, inconvenience, reduced enjoyment of life, and inability to participate in activities.
What to Do After a Minor Accident
California imposes several legal duties on drivers after an accident, no matter how minor.
If the accident causes injuries or fatalities, you must:
- Stop at the accident scene
- Assist anyone injured in the accident
- Exchange identifying information with the other drivers
- Report the accident to the police and the DMV
Taking these steps will satisfy your legal duties under California law so prosecutors cannot charge you with hit-and-run.
If your accident only damages property, you must:
- Stop at the accident scene
- Exchange identifying information with the other drivers
You must report PDO accidents to the DMV if the value of the damage exceeds $1,000. While $1,000 might seem like a lot, auto body work can add up quickly, and a replacement fender plus some paint could cross the threshold.
As a result, you should err on the side of caution and report all accidents. If you fail to report an accident to the DMV, the agency could suspend your license.
Call the police. Even if the police choose not to respond to your accident, you will avoid any accusation that you failed to report the accident.
If you damage unattended property, you must try to find the property owner, leave a note, and report the accident to the police if you cannot identify the property owner.
You should always contact your insurer after a minor accident. If anyone else involved in the accident files a claim, you want to get ahead of them with your insurer. If you do not report the accident first, your insurer might deny coverage and expose you to a lawsuit from the accident victim.
When to Call a Car Accident Lawyer After a Minor Accident
For most minor accidents, you will not need a car accident attorney. But in some situations, you should speak to a lawyer before taking any action.
You Suffered an Injury
You should consider speaking to a car accident lawyer if you suffered an injury in a minor car accident. As discussed previously, a minor accident counts just like any other accident when you file an injury claim. That the accident caused minimal property damage will not protect the at-fault driver from liability.
An attorney can help you file an insurance claim seeking injury compensation. The lawyer can negotiate with the insurer to get a fair settlement. If the lawyer cannot settle the claim, the lawyer can prepare a lawsuit against the at-fault driver.
The insurer will defend its policyholder. But if you can prove the other driver was negligent in causing your injuries, a jury should award damages.
Someone Blames You for the Accident
A common legal strategy in an accident case is to deflect blame onto other parties. If the insurer or another driver points at you as the driver at fault, you should consider talking to a car accident attorney.
Sometimes this blame game will happen in a claim against your insurance. But often, insurers blame you when denying your claim. In other words, if you file an injury claim against the other driver, the insurer can deny your claim because you caused the accident.
Insurers can also reduce your claim by blaming you for the accident. California uses comparative fault to allocate damages after an accident. Under this rule, an insurer can reduce your claim in proportion to your share of the blame.
A lawyer can dispute the blame shifted to you. This will ensure you get a full and fair settlement or damage award for your injuries.
You Received a Low Settlement Offer
Insurers have a legal duty to pay claims that fall within the insurance policy. They also have a financial incentive to pay as little as possible. As a result, an insurer may make a very low settlement offer, even for a minor accident. In some cases, insurers do not offer enough to cover your documented medical expenses.
The insurer hopes that you take the initial settlement offer. Then, the insurer can satisfy its legal duties and save money. But even minor injuries can incur big medical bills. An ambulance ride, emergency room visit, and X-rays can cost thousands of dollars even if doctors find only a strained neck.
A lawyer can evaluate your claim to determine what a fair offer should look like. The lawyer can then negotiate with the insurer to get you a fair settlement for your minor accident.
Choosing an Accident Lawyer
Most injury lawyers offer a free consultation to new clients. You can use this consultation to get feedback on your case and interview the lawyer.
If the lawyer feels you have a claim worth pursuing, you can discuss the lawyer’s experience handling similar cases. You can also talk to the lawyer about the legal fees charged for handling your case.
Contact a lawyer for a free consultation to discuss whether you have an injury case for your minor car accident.