A minor fender bender. Will it ruin our lives?
July 3, 2007 9:49 AM   Subscribe

About a month ago, my pregnant wife and I were in a minor fender bender on Rt. 202 in NJ. The woman before us stopped short, and we hit her going about 20 mph. This wasn't our fault. Their wa sa police car who made an erratic turn at the merge of the road that cause a few cars in front of us to swerve and or strop short at the time. The mini-van had a minor scratch and bump. Our jeep had no damage..... I don't know the full details of the law, but NJ law seems to say that the person who hits from behind is automatically at fault. Period.

We both get out of the car. While we are a bit shaken up, due to her being 6 months pregnant, she feels fine physically. The woman we bumped into said she was fine as well.

She didn't want to exchange insurance info initially, but we did so anyways. We pull over and call our insurance company right away to just get everything on record, just in case....

A few hours later, the woman had contacted the agency as well and filed a claim....Yadda Yadda. In the end, our insurance company paid out $700. Since my wifes insurance has been spotless, our rates are not going up and she remains on the preferred drivers list. case closed, so we thought.

Today, we get a call from our insurance company stating that the woman has gotten a lawyer and is now going after a medical payout....

Thats all we know so far....And we are a bit scared...The insurance guy gave us assurance that we are in good hands and that they will fully investigate every claim before paying out. He said that we do not need a lawyer at this point. And based on the minimal damage to her vehicle, they will heavily look at the amount of $$ she is looking to collect. Of course, our insurance agency will do the payout, but we are then not sure how it will affect us or our rates...Or, can she come after us, personally? We just bought a house? How bad can this get? It was a tiny scratch on her car...

We have been told to remain calm, but we are scared cause we don't know how bad it can possibly get.....Is the NJ law about people from behind being automatically at fault so air tight, that we couldn't consider a counter suit against this woman? Is there anything we can do in regards the pregnancy? Are we screwed and at the mercy of the insurance companies and the lawyers at this point?

Not sure what I'm really asking here..Just looking for some insight.....

much thanks....
posted by TwilightKid to Law & Government (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're overreacting.
posted by notsnot at 9:55 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I can't really speak to the personal injury side of this, but in most places, if you rear end someone, it's pretty much your fault automatically. Granted, there may be a few crazy circumstances where this is not the case, but in general, the rear-ender is always at fault.
posted by jckll at 9:59 AM on July 3, 2007

A minor fender bender. Will it ruin our lives?

posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:00 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You will likely not be too involved. I got in an accident with someone who claimed to have neck pain. My insurance company handled everything.

Counter suit? For what?
posted by electroboy at 10:02 AM on July 3, 2007

This is what your insurance is for. Even if the woman gets a big payout, the insurance company will pay it. Your assets wouldn't be at risk unless it exceeded your limit of liability.

Take out your policy. Look at the limit for third party liability. Someone who walked away from the accident is not going to come near that.
posted by happyturtle at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2007

You are at fault and it is extremely unlikely that she can generate a claim that will exceed your insurance coverage. If there is anything that insurance companies are good at, it is not paying a lot of money for these sort of claims. They are pretty good at it, let them deal with it.

You will not face personal liability unless the amount of her claim exceeds your insurance coverage, which seems very unlikely given the facts you have presented. Personal injury attorneys and insurance companies usually expect damages to be a multiple of the damages to the property. It will be difficult to get a big six figure claim from a $700 accident.
posted by Lame_username at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2007

My sister was rear ended from behind, causing her to rear end the car in from of her. She was still held at fault.

I also think you should try not to freak about this too much.
posted by kimdog at 10:04 AM on July 3, 2007

I can't really speak to the personal injury side of this, but in most places, if you rear end someone, it's pretty much your fault automatically.

Correct, because a driver can control how far away they are from the car in front of them.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:06 AM on July 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Overreacting...That is what I was hoping someone would say to me.....Deep down I know that....But this all came about moments ago, and I ran to this board to vent and seek assurance...

Our policy covers up to 50k of personal medical, so I know there is no way we are in that deep of sh*t. The title was more for dramatic effect. LOL

We just have so much going on. Two moves; a complicated pregnancy; work drama on both ends; family drama on both ends;..... This is the last thing we need on our plate....

thanks for the assurances though!
posted by TwilightKid at 10:07 AM on July 3, 2007


Hitting someone from behind is your fault. If the car in front of you suddenly SLAMS ON THE BRAKES AND STOPS DEAD FROM 80 MPH, and you hit their car, it's because you were following too closely. You should drive with the expectation that the car in front of you will slam on their brakes and stop dead, because sometimes they do. This means a LARGE following distance.

The insurance company is perfectly experienced in dealing with claims, frivolous and not. They'll handle it. Whether your rates go up or not is out of your control at this point, so there's no point in worrying about it.
posted by jellicle at 10:07 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You are at fault; the idea is that you shouldn't follow anyone so closely that you can't avoid hitting them if they slam on the breaks. If you believe the woman deliberately stopped short in order to defraud you, tell your insurance company and let them handle it.
posted by frobozz at 10:09 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

People sometimes focus on small things when big things loom so as not to think about the big looming thing which is causing them anxiety. I believe this is one of those situations.

I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:16 AM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

You could get a lawyer and try to sue, but it sounds from the facts that you are at fault. (Most people who've answered your question think you are at fault, and that's with you presenting the facts in the best favorable light toward you, do you really think a jury will behave in a different manner?)

As far as them suing you: That's what your insurance is for. If you only have the minimum ($25,000 I think) you might be in a bit of trouble, but with such a minor accident it's probably not going to come to that. It's much more likely you have $50k or $100k policy or higher, and there's very little chance the woman would even be asking for that much in the first place. The biggest hassle you might encounter is they might conduct a deposition of you, which takes a few hours and can then be used to verify the accuracy of your statements in court. But your insurance company will probably settle long before this anyway.

Oh, also, the other party is suing YOU, but your insurance company will undertake your defense. I am not a lawyer yet, but in Oregon, for instance, juries aren't even allowed to know if you have insurance, so if it goes to trial your insurance company will be invisible then pay out when/if you lose.
posted by Happydaz at 10:26 AM on July 3, 2007

My 2 cents.... No, it won't ruin your life. However, FYI, my experience with Allstate back in 1986 went something like this:

Guy spun out on ice in front of me during a snowstorm/blizzard in Albuquerque and came to rest sideways in the intersection. I was sliding about 5 mph when I hit his passenger door (it was that or the telephone pole), crumpling it and breaking the window - no injuries. It was the ~300th accident that morning so the police had us just come to the station later to fill out our reports. I later got copies of his and sent both to my insurance (his report only showed him slightly cocked in the roadway, not the 90 degrees he actually was).

My insurance settled for the damage (as expected as I was behind), even though they acknowledged that the damage his car sustained wasn't possible based on how he said his car was oriented, i.e. - he lied on his report.

Six weeks later they called & said he was claiming "lower sacral discombobulation" or somesuch, which they also acknowledged on questioning to be difficult to prove/disprove in court, as they did his lying on his police report, again. I instructed them that they did not have my permission to settle the injury claim, to which they responded it was their call. They settled for around $35,000, much to my consternation & dismay.

Four months later my premium came due and they jacked up my rates 59%. In celebration I went out and got new windshields for both cars ($50 deductible each) and cancelled my insurance. YMMV.
posted by Pressed Rat at 10:30 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Something I haven't seen addressed yet in this thread is the pregnancy - has she been to her doctor yet to make sure everything truly is OK with it? (Not that it would have any bearing on the insurance/lawsuit thing - just concerned.)
posted by jbickers at 10:39 AM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: She is fine, pregnancy wise....

Im just frazzled.....Cause this woman didn't want to do a thing at first.... She barely spoke English....Then she called he husband on her cell phone, and decided to get the insurance company involved and then all of this happened.....

It's just BS, i think.
posted by TwilightKid at 10:43 AM on July 3, 2007

Note that New Jersey has a tort reform that prohibits seeking pain and suffering in most auto accidents unless one agrees to pay extra for the auto insurance. Ninety percent of New Jersey drivers opt for the cheaper auto insurance. So odds are even better that this is going away relatively cheaply well within the limits of your insurance. There's some chance your insurance rate goes up a little if you had a special rate reflecting the lack of accidents before.

Rear-ending someone is just about always the fault of the rear-ender unless the person in front was going in reverse.
posted by commander_cool at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2007

The "automatically at fault" thing only goes so far, at least here. I have spoken to an officer about this on more than one occasion. In one case the person in front admitted to "brake-checking" the car behind him, thinking he was safe. That person was cited at the venue.

This is (obviously) and extreme case, but the "rule" isn't so strict they can't be logical about it.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 11:05 AM on July 3, 2007

I'm not sure exactly what you think you could countersue for. What did she do wrong? Isn't she the aggrieved party here?
posted by oaf at 11:06 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

as long as she's not awarded damages above your liability limits, you'll be fine
posted by Salvatorparadise at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2007

An example exception: if the car in front of you makes an unsafe lane change while stopping, they can be at fault. I have had people lie about this when they thought they could get away with it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2007

Just for informational purposes, there is a fairly common scam (as far as scams go) where a driver will pull in front of another driver and slam on the brakes in order to get a payout - although that is clearly not what occurred here.

I got into a accident in which my vehicle was totalled about 15 years ago on I-5 in Seattle. It was raining, and I came around a curve, revealing a stopped line of cars. I slammed on the brakes and managed to stop about 2 feet from the Jeep Wagoneer in front of me. I silently thanked my diety of choice for my decision to replace my old tires. Moments later someone came around the corner behind me and hit me going about 35 mph. The driver's explanation to the cop was that it was an accident and it wasn't the driver's fault. The cop did not buy it.

Always leave lots of room, not only when following, but also when stopped.
posted by Nabubrush at 11:28 AM on July 3, 2007

TwilightKid writes "Our policy covers up to 50k of personal medical, so I know there is no way we are in that deep of sh*t. "

The personal medical coverage is for you or people driving in your car. Liability insurance covers damage to other cars and injury to people in those cars; that's the limit you want to look at.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good advice above, but also, remember: the rule of thumb is to stay one car length back for every 10 mph of speed at which you are travelling. It may feel too slow, but that's because our driving culture is maniacal.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:58 AM on July 3, 2007

#1: technically it is your fault, even though it doesn't seem fair, because (as a driver behind another car) you're the only driver of the two in a position to avoid the accident -- of course, to avoid every accident of that type it might seem like you'd need to stay REALLY far away from other cars, but it's really more a matter of keeping a reasonable distance and staying alert.

#2: your insurance company is notifying you because they must, but they'll sue the insurance company, not you, because they have the deep pockets. Don't worry about it.

#3: car accidents happen all the time, and lives are ruined when someone dies, or becomes disabled -- THOSE persons' lives. Or if you don't have insurance, and you're at fault, and lose everything you own (and get your wages garnished.) Otherwise, don't sweat it.

Of course, this will probably make you a better driver, and that's a good thing, and I'm glad your wife and baby are okay.
posted by davejay at 12:10 PM on July 3, 2007

Just to reassure you, something similar happened to my husband. Rear-ended someone at low speed, minimal damage. The guy first agreed to let us pay without getting insurance involved, but later changed his mind. Our insurance pays for his bumper to be repainted (seriously, that's all it was) but he later comes back with a lawyer claiming all these injuries for himself and for a "passenger" who wasn't even in the car. We get scary letters, we let our insurance handle it, his lawyer eventually drops him and the claim goes away because it was all BS.

Bottom line, the insurance company has an active interest in not paying more than they have to, and pay adjusters for just this very purpose. Don't sweat it, if it's phony they'll probably figure it out or just pay a fraction of what she wants. You'll be fine.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 12:22 PM on July 3, 2007

In Texas, you are automatically at fault if you hit someone from behind no matter what. I was once in an accident where a guy stopped short in front of me and I bumped him from behind. No kidding, what he said when he got out of the car was, "My fake knee locked up and I couldn't take my foot off of the brake". I still got the ticket and the insurance bill.

Also, don't try to negotiate with these people at all. Leave it all up to the insurance company and the lawyers. When I was a teenager I was in a low speed fender bender due to sliding on some ice. We both weren't going any faster than 10 mph each. The lady in the other car and her husband came by my apartment several days later and tried to claim that it was because of the accident that she lost her baby. I told her to call my insurance agent but of course, we never heard from them again. I think they were trying to take advantage of my youth and naiveté. The point is, sometimes people try to see how much spaghetti will stick on the wall. That's what you pay the insurance company for every month.
posted by rcavett at 12:34 PM on July 3, 2007

ALWAYS ALWAYS Call the police in any accident. In my case I was hit from behind, and the hitter said he was sorry, he knew he had bad brakes etc. We exchanged papers, and went on. Later my insurance company contacted him (or his insurance company) aand he claimed he was never there. Because there was no police report there was no proof. No "official" witness. So even if the damage is minor, call the police and ask for an officer to come to the scene.
posted by Gungho at 12:55 PM on July 3, 2007

Dude. Chill out, for the sake of your wife and kid. Seriously, stress can't be any good for a pregnant woman. If you have to freak out, do it away from her and don't return until you've calmed down.
posted by desjardins at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2007

I think in most situations, unless the person in front backs into you, it is going to be the rear-ender's fault.

But as long as that baby is OK, everything else is easy. I honestly do not mean to be snarky or condescending when I say this, but if this is your first child, in a couple of months, you are going to see just how small on your life-o-meter this insurance situation really is.

Blessings on your growing family!
posted by 4ster at 1:04 PM on July 3, 2007

My friend was once sued for (literally) one million dollars for an accident that was legally (and in reality) his fault. He sat down with a lawyer from his insurance company and went over the details of the accident. Eventually, his insurance company and the claimant settled for a few hundred thousand, iirc. Not a cent of that came from my friend, beyond the initial deductible for the accident. That's what insurance is for.

It is true, however, that your insurance company's and your interests may not be exactly the same, so you could look into getting a lawyer to represent you in your dealings with your insurance company if you're worried about a possible conflict of interest.
posted by callmejay at 1:09 PM on July 3, 2007

The woman before us stopped short, and we hit her going about 20 mph. This wasn't our fault.

Yes, it was your fault, regardless of state laws. Like others have said, you need to allow enough space between you and the car you're following so that if they slam on their brakes unexpectedly, you'll be able to have time to both react and stop without hitting them. This is basic driver's ed. I've heard a few different guidelines (the two-second rule, a car length for every 10 mph, etc). If you have a slower reaction time or want to be even safer (which is always a good idea, especially with a pregnant passenger), leave more space.

Also, if your insurance paid out money to the other driver, they agree that you were at fault. Not trying to give you a hard time, but you were following too close.

But, again, like others have said, this is why you have insurance. Minor accidents like this happen all the time, this is what insurance companies are paid to do. Let them do their job, and you'll be fine.

(Sorry, this is a sore subject for me, I was rear ended about 1.5 years ago, and the guy said it wasn't his fault because I stopped at a light that had "just turned" red, so I should have just ran it. My passenger still has legit, ongoing back issues because the guy was going 40-ish MPH.)
posted by AlisonM at 1:31 PM on July 3, 2007

Realistically yeah, you are at fault. Especially at slower speeds you should easily be able stop before hitting someone unless you are not paying attention or are following too close.
posted by JJ86 at 1:36 PM on July 3, 2007

I want to add that even though it was a low speed collision, that does not mean that she is trying to defraud you or the insurance company. It is completely possible to have medical issues from a low speed collision. They just aren't the really dramatic kinds of issues involving blood and broken bones, generally. But you can have soft tissue damage in places like the neck that can really mess with you for a while.

Most likely she was sending medical bills to your insurance company, they paid up, then they said "we won't pay any more." Her doctor (possibly chiropractor) is telling her "you need to come in for X more treatments." So her only option, especially if she has no health insurance, is to hire a lawyer. This does not necessarily mean there will be a lawsuit filed.

I have been there (a passenger in a similar low speed collision, who then had neck and shoulder pain for some time; my husband has also been in the other role, as the driver who rear-ended another car); I just went in, had treatment, then the driver's insurance company said "we don't want to pay for more than, say, two doctor visits." My medical insurance company said "well, this is an auto-related thing -- not our problem!" My doctor said "you still need ongoing treatment," and I certainly needed something because I was having difficulty turning my head and typing. So that was the point at which I acquired a lawyer. But there was no lawsuit for many months after that.

Note that if we had a better health care system in the US, I would not have needed to do this, because my treatment would have been paid for. My only reason to get a lawyer was that I could not pay the medical bills once the insurance company cut me off.

(In hindsight, I think both the doc and the insurance company were wrong -- cutting me off treatment would have been a bad decision, but the treatment I was getting was not the right treatment. The best thing for me would have been to get me into a particular type of physical therapy early on. I might have recovered much sooner. But it's easy to say that in hindsight.)

Anyway, do not worry. She will be dealing with your insurance company. If you get sued, it will be you that is sued -- so you will get served. But when that happens, call the insurance company and they will basically whisk the whole thing away. You will have nothing to do with it except possibly a deposition or two, and if it gets to court you will have to appear, but the odds are very high that it would settle before then. Very high.

Your rates may go up because you were at fault, but this is very unlikely to mess with your life too much. Relax.
posted by litlnemo at 4:19 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

My $.02, from about 5 miles from Rt 202.

You were following much too close. How do I know?
Everyone in NJ follows much too close!

If you allow the recommended distance to the car in front, someone will zip into the gap in front of you. The disgrace this causes is totally intolerable. The occasional collision is a reasonable payment for intact pride. Likewise the less frequent mashed friends, relatives and strangers.

As for the 'injuries', welcome to the Real Joisey Lotto! Everybody plays and a new winner every round!

You can get endless stories from friends and strangers just by pretending to have collected yourself. ("You got $25000? My uncle George got $550000!" "Oh yeah, my momma got two million, and that was thirty years ago!")

It's quite a state. Lots of road signs, though. Have you noticed?
posted by hexatron at 6:09 PM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In my experience as an employee of an insurance agency, generally we're talking about something like a few hundred dollars, maybe $2,000 at most for an injury claim in a situation like this. If the facts are what you say they are, then her attorney, ambulance chaser or not, knows full well that neither judge nor jury would award her any money for a scratched bumper (or alleged injuries). Instead, what will likely happen is that the attorney will argue with the insurance company, the insurance company will send them a check and make them sign a paper saying they'll never raise a lawsuit on this issue again, and everyone will be on their merry way.

If you want to keep your insurance down, get your FICO score up, and ask your insurance company what discounts you're eligible for. If you're using a number of insurance companies (for multiple cars, or multiple lines like renters/homeowners, etc.), you can consolidate and score some savings. The best discounts go to people with stellar credit scores in the mid to high 700s.

As everyone else said: this is what insurance companies are for. People go through this every day, and it's basically a big scam. The only way a car accident is going to ruin your life is if you actually cause large, genuine harm to one or more people in an accident where you were grossly at fault.
posted by PandemicSoul at 9:17 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You are overreacting. Assuming she had a sore neck/back after the accident, she went to a chiropractor or her general physician or worse, one of those B.S. "no-fault" clinics that are so common in North Jersey. The doctor(s) then submitted a claim for payment directly to the insurance company. Although she may make a claim for lost wages, they must be documented. That is all that No Fault insurance allows in NJ. An injured motorist covered by the no-fault statute is entitled to medical coverage even if he causes the accident. Typically medical bills are paid by the injured party’s own insurance company, but if the injured party is a passenger or pedestrian without insurance, treatment should be available under a policy covering the vehicle or negligent driver involved. Medical coverage is known as “personal injury protection” or “PIP,” which provides treatment to any injured motorist, even one responsible for an accident. Claims for pain and suffering, however, may only be brought by a claimant not primarily at fault in the accident such as a passenger, a driver hit from behind, or a driver partly at fault but less so than another driver. The 1998 amendments to the no-fault law created a “basic policy.” Offered as a means of keeping costs down, this policy provides only minimum coverage. Medical treatment (PIP benefits) is limited to $15,000 per person per accident unless there is a “catastrophic injury” such as permanent or significant brain damage, spinal cord damage, disfigurement, or other acute injury requiring immediate hospital care. One’s right to medical benefits is determined by one’s own insurance policy. The ability to sue for pain and suffering is also affected by the presence or absence of a verbal threshold provision in one’s own policy, though the funds available to compensate for pain, suffering, and economic damages will depend on the amount of coverage in a negligent driver’s policy. The basic policy imposes a “verbal threshold” or “lawsuit limitation.” Under this policy, suits for pain and suffering are prohibited unless an injury results in:

1. Death
2. Dismemberment
3. Significant disfigurement or significant scarring;
4. Loss of a fetus
5. Displaced fractures or
6. A permanent injury within a reasonable degree of medical probability, other than scarring or disfigurement. An injury shall be considered permanent when the body part or organ, or both, has not healed to function normally and will not heal to function normally with further medical treatment.

Given that the "scratch" to her car probably didn't result in any of the above, you have nothing to worry about. This is what insurance is for.
posted by starsixnine00 at 10:31 AM on July 5, 2007

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