By Lucy Carmel, THELAW.TV
One day recently, I became a victim of the midday rush hour — lunch. In a hurry to grab a bite and get back to the office in time for an afternoon meeting, my plans derailed when I didn't even make it out of the parking lot at work.
In my car, after looking both ways down the passageway of parked cars, I started rolling out of my parking spot, and bam, I was rear-to-rear with another car pulling out directly behind me. Neither of us honked, so I presume he didn't see me, either.
Save a few paint scratches and some embarrassment in front of my coworkers who witnessed the incident, playing bumper cars in the parking lot may have wrecked my lunch, but it wasn't the end of the world. No one was hurt, and there was only minor surface damage to our bumpers.
The insurance companies later concluded that we shared equal fault for the collision, if you can even call it that.
Here's some legal advice for maneuvering through a parking lot accident.
Take photos no matter what
After my collision, it was a knee-jerk reaction for me to pull back into the parking spot to avoid obstructing the parking lot lane, and to survey the damage. But this was the wrong move.
Staying where you are, the very first thing you should do is obtain both close-up and from-a-distance photographs of the vehicles as they were upon impact. The photos should show where the vehicles were in relation to each other and to the parking lot when the collision happened.
"The police won't investigate or complete a report on parking lot accident," says Chris Knight, P.A., and President of the Knight Law Firm in Tulsa, Okla. "Technically, parking lots are private property, so the rules of the road don't apply."
This means that photos will likely be the only evidence you'll have in a dispute over the cause of a parking lot accident. So snapping pictures is a must-do, even if the other side admits fault.
"You'd be surprised how many people will admit the truth immediately following the accident, but will have a completely different story for the insurance company after thinking about the situation," says Knight.
Get the other party's contact information
With police out of the equation, the responsibility to exchange insurance and contact information is completely on the parties involved.
Jotting down information off of a car insurance card may not suffice. The insured will be the owner of the car, but it could so happen that you didn't get into a wreck with the owner of the vehicle.
"I see that all the time," says Knight. "Dad owns the car, so you have dad's name and insurance information, but the driver at the time of the incident was his son."
Write down the name and address on the driver's license to be sure you have the driver's contact information. To pursue someone on your own or through court for damages, you have to be able to identify the right person involved in the accident.
"If you can't locate them, an attorney can't do anything for you," says Knight.
Make sure they can't run off with your identity
Emotions run high even in minor parking lot accidents, and people are easily caught off-guard. Remember that your phone number, address and insurance information are all you need to give to the other party at the scene of the incident.
Anyone who asks for your Social Security number or other private, unrelated information should raise a red flag.
No one needs your date of birth or Social Security number to get in touch with you or to file a claim with your insurance company, so keep sensitive personal information to yourself.
Make the call on whether to file a claim
If you sustained any kind of injury or substantial damage to your vehicle above your deductible amount, you'll want to file an insurance claim.
In fact, if you're the person at fault for the collision, failing to report it could be a violation of the terms of your insurance contract.
But there are scenarios where the damage is so minor monetarily that you opt to sidestep the insurance companies altogether. It's possible to work out an arrangement with the other party and pay for damages out-of-pocket without getting insurers involved. But this may not always make financial sense.
Since there is no deductible on third-party property claims, your insurance company will pay the other party's claim from dime one, assuming you're at fault. In this case, it doesn't make sense to pay for someone else's damages out-of-pocket when your insurance company will cover it.
And there's a good chance a minor parking lot claim won't affect your future car insurance premiums.
"Reporting the claim won't necessarily raise your insurance rates," says Knight. "Companies have minimum thresholds for chargeable losses, which are what cause premiums to increase."
Typically, threshold amounts are at or around $1,000, so a claim amount below that won't trigger adjusted rates.
Before filing a claim, you can check with you company to find what your minimum threshold is for a chargeable loss.
In a situation like mine where there was 50-50 liability, each of us were entitled to recover half of our damages (a whopping $250) from the other's insurance company. We could then file a claim for the remaining damages with our respective companies. Having a $500 deductible, I decided not to pursue a claim for half that amount with my insurer, so I just accepted the other insurance company's payout.
In most states, after you exceed 50 percent liability, you're not eligible to receive damages from the other party.
Handling he said, she said cases
Any instance where there's a dispute over the manner in which the parking lot accident happened, the only recourse is court.
First, weigh the legal fees you could face versus the potential payout you could receive.
"You could be gambling on the chance to collect $400 with the risk of loss of $5,000 in legal fees," says Knight. "That's not a very good bet."
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