Your legal guide to Wyoming Car Accidents – Your Situation
Your legal guide to Wyoming Car Accidents
If you, or a loved one, have been injured in a car accident in Wyoming, this guide is for you– Learn your legal rights and responsibilities in Wyoming.
You didn’t choose to be in this situation, but now that you were injured in a car accident, you must deal with aftermath. How can you best protect yourself? How can you ensure that the medical bills are paid? What about getting compensated for your lost wages, damaged vehicle, and the rest of it?
As an attorney that handles car accident cases in Wyoming, I answer these questions every day. I talk to people in your situation. My goal with this guide is to help you understand what comes next and how to manage it. I want you to be positioned to get everything you can out of your situation and move on with your life. That is why I wrote this guide.
Quick disclaimer: Please understand how to use this information. First, everything in this guide is “most of the time” information and advice. It may not be the right information or advice for you. Your situation is unique to you. You will only get my legal advice if you hire me and we take the time to really understand your situation. Other attorneys do things differently and reasonable minds disagree. Use your common sense, and if you are in doubt about a point, talk to an attorney and get legal advice.
Also, laws and best practices change. I am writing this in January 2019. At some point in the future, this guide will be outdated. If that happens, I will do my best to update this guide.
You were in car accident.* You are not alone. Each year, over 2 million people are injured in a reported car accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Wyoming, just over a 100 people die each year in car accidents.
The accident itself may have felt like it was happening in slow motion. You saw the other car lose control. It came into your lane. Both of you were moving, but time slowed down. Your vehicle went off the road. Totaled. You were in shock. Maybe you were taken to the hospital. Before the accident, you had plans for the next day, next week, next month. Now, those plans are on hold until you can work your way through the aftermath.
* Some plaintiffs’ attorneys refuse to use the word “accident” in these situations. They believe that characterizing an event as an accident minimizes the other driver’s responsibility. Instead, these lawyers believe, we should call it a car “wreck” to more accurately reflect the opponent’s level of culpability. I understand the argument, but disagree for two reasons. First, people commonly use the word accident without confusion. Second, the other driver probably didn’t mean to hit you or your vehicle. They may have been careless, or negligent, or a bad driver, but they probably didn’t cause the accident on purpose. If they did, that’s called vehicular assault.
Overview of the Moving Parts in Car Accident Case
There are a lot of moving parts for you and your attorney to track following a car accident. Among other things, to resolve an accident claim you will need to figure out the following: What is the other driver’s insurance picture? What is your insurance picture? Is there damage to your vehicle? What injuries do you have? How long will those injuries take to heal? Will the injuries fully heal? Do your injuries result in lost income? How will your injuries impact your home life, loved ones, and daily activities?
- Insurance. The other driver was required to have insurance. Hopefully, you got a copy of their insurance card at the accident scene, or their insurance information is part of a police report. Once you find this information, you will be dealing with that driver’s insurance company. If you have underinsured motorist coverage or medical payments, then you may also be dealing with your own insurance company. (I’ll explain this in more detail in the insurance section).
- Medical care. You may have gone to the hospital right away. However, injuries may have manifested over the days – and even weeks – following the accident. You will need to get the right medical care for your injuries, and it is important to do so as quickly as possible.
- Medical bills. With medical care, comes medical bills. If your treatment is first paid for by your health insurance policy, rather than the other driver’s policy, it is likely that you will end up dealing with medical liens relating to who will ultimately pay for your care.
- Vehicle repairs. Sometimes your vehicle will be repaired. Sometimes it is totaled. The insurance company should pay for a rental car while your car is being repaired or while you find a replacement. Unfortunately, this does not always happen.
- Lost wages, work. Car accidents, and any subsequent medical care, often lead to missing work for some period of time. This may mean a loss of income, because if you are not working, you are not getting paid.
- Time. Once you start playing phone tag with an insurance company, the game never ends. You are on hold; your claim is transferred, reassigned, needs approval from a supervisor, etc. The process is both time consuming and emotionally taxing.
Consulting with an Experienced Attorney
An attorney with experience handling car accident claims can assist you in working through the many pieces of this puzzle. He or she can work with your insurer and can advocate for you in talking with the other party’s insurance company and their lawyers.
The serious consequences of being in a car accident can impact your life in many important ways and over a long period of time. Therefore, it is worth taking some time to understand your case. Here is the road map of what you can expect as you navigate a car accident claim.
Investigate the Claim
Since you were in the car, it is probably pretty clear to you what happened. However, what matters in a car accident claim or lawsuit is what you can prove to an insurance company or a jury. You need to gather evidence. What are the potential sources of evidence?
Law Enforcement Reports: In Wyoming, every time an ambulance is dispatched to a car accident, local law enforcement should be notified. If the crash happened on a public roadway, either Wyoming Highway Patrol or the county sheriff’s department will respond. In a national park, the park rangers respond. In a town, the responding agency will likely be the municipal police. In most cases, whatever law enforcement agency responds to the accident will draft a report. You need to get that report and see what it says.
The highway patrol uses a standard form with numerical codes for different parts of an accident investigation. There is a number if the trooper observes front-end damage. There is another number if you go to a hospital. Importantly, the form also usually includes the trooper’s opinion as to who caused the accident. Sometimes the trooper will write the other person a citation or make an arrest if that person caused the accident. If the trooper’s opinion is that the other driver caused the accident, this strengthens your claim. You are likely to receive some settlement offer from the insurance company, even without filing a lawsuit. (Note: This does not mean that you will receive a full and fair settlement offer; merely that if the other party is clearly at fault and you were injured, then the insurance company will probably make some offer.)
Sometimes, all the trooper does is describe how the accident happened. In that case, the trooper says something like “vehicle one came into vehicle two’s lane of travel and struck vehicle two by the A pillar.” If that is your situation, then you will need additional evidence to show which driver was at fault. This will involve bringing in information from other sources. Which vehicle had the right of way according to Wyoming traffic statutes? What was the other driver doing right before the accident? Is there evidence that the other person was impaired or distracted? This information can come from a variety of sources.
Interviews: If you are represented by an experienced car accident attorney, he or she will likely hire an investigator to look into the details of your accident. You may be asked to do an interview with your attorney’s investigator to review how the accident happened. The other party’s insurance company will want to talk to you too. Be wary if you get a call from their insurance company or an unidentified investigator who wants you to discuss the accident. I strongly advise my clients against talking to the other person’s insurance company without discussing it with me first. You do not have to talk to the other person’s insurance company, so do not let them bully you into making a statement before you’re ready.
It is often a good idea to get interviews from everyone who was in your vehicle. If the collision happened in a public place, you will want statements from witnesses and passersby.
Digital Evidence: More and more vehicles have onboard computers that produce data about crashes. If you were involved in an accident with a semi-truck or commercial vehicle, then there should be a “black box” recording showing the vehicle’s speed. Not every case justifies retrieving this data and not every vehicle records data, but it is something to be aware of. Cell phone records are another common source of digital evidence. Was the other driver texting or distracted by their phone? Your attorney can use subpoenas to get that evidence from the phone company.
Physical Evidence: The damage to your car or body can tell you a great deal about how the accident happened. Typically, photographs of your vehicle will be included as part of a law enforcement investigation. Many of my clients also have their own pictures of the damaged vehicle or their injuries. Additionally, tow truck drivers sometimes record cell phone videos of the vehicle as it is being hooked up to the tow truck or loaded onto a trailer.
In some instances, it is necessary to have a mechanic or accident reconstruction expert evaluate the car. If your accident was the result of a defective tire, proving your claim will require an expert to inspect your tire. If you have a catastrophic injury, it is a good idea to preserve the vehicle so you can analyze the crash-worthiness of the vehicle and its safety systems. A good attorney can help you determine what evidence is necessary in your case and find the right experts to get that evidence.
Evidence About the Other Driver: People who represent themselves often skip this step, to their own detriment. It is always worthwhile to know a little bit about the other driver. Typically, you do not see that person ever again. Instead, if you are lucky, you exchanged information and are now dealing with their insurance company.
Before settling your case, you should take the time to understand the other person’s insurance coverage. What are their policy limits? Do they have an umbrella policy? If the driver was driving his friend’s vehicle, a rental vehicle, or a work vehicle, are there two insurance policies?
If there does not appear to be insurance coverage, does the driver have other assets that could be used to compensate you for your injuries and the damage to your vehicle? If you are in a situation where you have minimal injuries and are merely trying to get your vehicle’s damage taken care of, then you may not need to investigate this. If you have serious injuries or permanent impairment, then you need to understand what there is to recover.
At Freeburg Law, I have access to special databases to perform asset checks. If the person who hit you has a fancy boat or expensive property, I want to know about it because this is important information to know about the opponent. I often hear from the other side’s insurance company that they have low amounts of coverage and no assets. While I assume I can trust the insurance company to tell me the truth, these search tools allow me to verify those statements.
With the help of an experienced car accident attorney, you can be confident that your claim has been adequately investigated and that the other person is at fault. Hopefully, they have sufficient insurance coverage or other assets to take care of your injuries and economic losses.
As we investigate and develop your claim or potential lawsuit, we will make sure to cover each of the following important steps in order to make sure we don’t miss anything and get you the best possible result.
Understand Your Physical Injuries
You need to be able to prove the extent of your injuries in order to properly support your claim. Sometimes, your injuries will be simple to understand. If you have a broken limb, it heals, you do some physical therapy, and you’re back to 100%; your treating orthopedic doctor can easily explain this. However, sometimes your injuries will take time and medical expertise to fully understand and explain. For example, if you suffered a brain injury as the result of the accident, it is likely that you will need to see a neurologist to understand both the injury itself and any symptoms and limitations you are likely to experience as a result. Moreover, because doctors and scientists are learning more about brain function all the time, our understanding of your injury may change over time.
I frequently work with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to understand my clients injuries. It is common for me to talk to the doctor that treated you in the hospital. In some cases, I will also hire specialists to review records or experts in addition to your treating physician who can examine your injuries and provide a comprehensive explanation of those injuries in a way your treating physician cannot.
The most serious mistake people make in pursuing a car accident claim is failing to spend enough time and money to understand their injuries. If you think you have a minor injury, it is likely that you will want to settle the claim quickly and move on. That makes sense. However, if what you believe is a minor injury is really a major one, and you settle your claim for a minor injury amount, you are stuck. You will not be able to receive further compensation. You only get one shot at receiving an insurance settlement for your injuries.
Often, to settle a motor vehicle claim involving a physical injury, the insurance company will want to involve their medical examiner. The insurance company calls this person an “independent medical examiner” but, because these examiners are only hired and paid by insurance companies, they are not really “independent.” Their job is to minimize your injuries. You will need to be careful when dealing with these examiners so as to protect your claim. We may want to consider making an audio or video recording of the examination. This way, if the examiner mischaracterizes your injuries or statements, you will be able to prove it. In the examination, you will need to clearly detail all of your injuries and their impacts on your daily life.
For serious injuries, the best practice is to get experts involved. A life-care planner can help you understand the cost of future medical care or personal help, such as a home nursing aide. A mobility expert can help you understand the extent and effects of physical impairments. An economist can put a number on lost wages and future earnings. I have experience working with experts in each of these fields and understand when the expense of hiring an expert is worth it to your overall claim.
You may also have suffered economic harm as a result of your car accident. Types of economic harm include property damage, lost work and wages, and loss of future income. Essentially, any loss that you can quantify or hire an economist to quantify is an economic harm.
Some examples of an economic hard are: a property damage claim for damage to your vehicle; the value of airline tickets for a flight you missed as a result of the accident or your injuries; wages you did not receive because you were unable to work after the accident; and future earnings or work opportunities you would have reasonably anticipated if not for the accident.
People generally have a good idea of their economic harms once they start making a list of all the ways the accident has affected them. However, until you put a pen to paper, you may miss something. I suggest your start documenting what you have lost by making notes and keep any receipts for costs incurred that are related to the accident in any way.
Establish Liability and Beat Their Defenses:
In many car accidents, it is clear who is at fault but insurance companies and defense attorneys can be very creative at finding ways to shift blame. It is important to lock-in fault early on. Let’s talk about several ways to establish fault.
Make Sure There is a Conviction on the Traffic Offense: We already discussed law enforcement reports and how to investigate the claim. Let’s say that your attorney obtained the law enforcement report showing that the other driver was speeding and received a citation for misdemeanor reckless driving. At this point, best practice is for your attorney to contact the prosecutor responsible for enforcing the traffic laws and let them know that you were hurt. If the prosecutor knows there was an injured victim, then it is more likely they will persist in prosecuting the other driver. There is a Wyoming Statute that gives victims of crime certain rights.
Your case will be much stronger if the other driver is convicted of a traffic offense. If your case proceeds to trial, that criminal conviction may be admissible in court. Even if no trial ever occurs, a criminal conviction is always useful in persuading the other driver’s insurance company to admit liability.
Your best bet is to have your lawyer contact the prosecutor as soon as possible. Many people contest even minor traffic tickets and the other driver may hire an attorney to work out a deal with the prosecutor (such as reducing the speeding ticket to a non-moving violation like expired tabs.) You want to prevent that from happening because the conviction for the traffic offense is compelling evidence in your case.
Get an Expert to Determine Fault: In some crashes, you may not know what happened. Maybe you never saw the other driver or you were knocked out and are not sure what happened. Maybe it was a hit-and-run.
In those instances, you may want to hire an accident reconstructionist. This person is an engineer who specializes in the physics of accidents. They will go to the scene and gather evidence. This could include measuring skid marks and the size of the debris field. They will also review law enforcement reports and read the applicable scientific literature on the type of crash and forces involved. They will usually prepare their own report of what happened and they may testify at trial.
Their Defenses: Wyoming is a “Modified Comparative Fault” state, this means a jury will be asked to assign a percentage of fault to each person involved in the crash, including you. If the jury finds that you are more than 50% responsible for the crash, you will not be able to recover any compensation for your injuries.
The easiest way to understand comparative fault is through a couple of examples. First, let’s say you were hit while driving in an intersection. You had the right-of-way, however, your headlights were out. If it was daytime and your vehicle was plainly visible, a jury may say that the other driver is 100% at fault even though your headlights were out. Now consider that the crash happened at night and your car was hard to see without working headlights. In that scenario, the jury may say that you were 20% at fault because you failed to make sure your car had functioning headlights. In the second scenario, the money you get for your damages would be reduced by 20% – your share of the responsibility for causing the accident.
Comparative fault can get complicated and fact-dependent quickly, especially when there are more than two drivers involved in an accident. In any case, if you are over 50% at fault, you will not get anything. This means that the other driver’s insurance company has a strong incentive to try to blame you for the crash in order to reduce the amount they will have to pay you for your injuries. In Wyoming, there is an association for insurance defense attorneys whose goal is to help those companies keep more money. Each year, this association gives an award named for the comparative fault statute to their “attorney of the year.” Presumably, that attorney is skilled at using this statute to blame plaintiffs for their own injuries.
There are several types of other defenses available to defense attorneys. Some defenses are statutory. Perhaps they will claim that you were speeding, for example. Sometimes defenses are based on the insurance policy itself, such as a defense that the other driver was not insured to drive the other vehicle, even though that vehicle had insurance.
Like most things in the law, the key to overcoming defenses and establishing liability is a mixture of hard work, experience, and legal skill. Choosing a personal injury attorney who has handled car accident cases in the past will help ensure that you are getting the best representation possible.
Types of Insurance
There are several different types of insurance.
Bodily Injury/Liability: This coverage pays for injuries. If you have been injured, then the other person’s bodily injury/liability policy will pay for your injuries. This is what most people mean when they talk about insurance.
In Wyoming, there are low limits for this coverage. You are required to carry limits of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident. If you were injured by another person and they only had the minimums, then their insurance would pay out $25,000 maximum. If you and a passenger were injured by another person, then they would pay out a maximum of $25,000 to each of you for $50,000 total.
Uninsured Motorist or Underinsured Motorist Bodily Injury: This coverage protects you from other drivers that do not carry enough coverage. If you have $50,000 in injuries, and the at-fault driver only has the minimum coverage to pay out $25,000, then you can recover the remaining $25,000 from your own underinsured motorist policy.
I tell everyone to get Uninsured or Underinsured coverage. I have seen too many cases where the at-fault driver has the minimum coverage and the accident victim has significant injuries. Underinsured Motorist coverage is typically only a small charge more. If you do not have Underinsured Motorist coverage, stop reading now. Go sign up and come back.
Property Damage Liability: These policies cover property damage. If the other person damages your property (for example, they total your new car or run over your fence post), you can recover for that property damage under this policy.
Medical payments (med pay): A med pay policy covers medical payments, regardless of who was at fault. If you have this coverage and go for a ride in an ambulance, then med pay will pay for it. These limits are typically low—maybe $5,000 to $10,000.
Comprehensive: This policy pays for property damage to the vehicle that is caused by things other than a car accident, such as theft, fire, or falling trees. There is typically a deductible for this coverage. It is a good idea to have this if your vehicle is financed or would be expensive to repair.
Collision: This is a bit like an uninsured motorist policy to cover your vehicle. If an at-fault driver damages your vehicle in a collision, your collision coverage will pay for your repairs or replacement costs. If you financed your vehicle, then the lender likely required you to carry this.
Umbrella: An umbrella policy protects above and beyond your auto insurance policies. You are typically required to have at least $300,000 in coverage to be eligible for an umbrella policy. An umbrella policy may provide $1-2M or more in coverage. Homeowners and higher net worth individuals should carry umbrella coverage.
Assume the person who hit you has a $300,000 auto bodily injury policy, a $1M umbrella, and that we can prove that the monetary value of your injuries is $500,000. In that case, you could settle for the policy limits of the auto bodily injury policy and get the remaining $200,000 from the umbrella policy.
Note: In most cases, these insurance policies do not stack. Under the example with a $300,000 bodily injury policy and $1Mumbrella, you generally cannot recover $300,000 from the bodily injury policy AND $1M from the umbrella policy for a total of $1.3M. You are limited to $1M total from both policies. Sometimes a clever attorney can find a way to stack the policies. You will not know unless you look.
Umbrella policies protect people with assets. From our previous example, assume the other driver has a $300,000 auto policy but they do not have an umbrella. Instead, they have a 401K retirement account with $200,000 in it. The insurance company can write the policy limits check for $300,000, and the injured person can go after the 401K to be made whole. Often you will not know whether they have additional assets without filing a lawsuit, hiring an investigator, or both.
Types of Insurance
If Driver 1 is at fault, how much insurance is there for Driver 2 to recover?
Driver 2 can recover $25,000 from Driver 1, plus $75,000 from his own UIM policy, and possibly Med Pay.
If Driver 2 is at fault, how much insurance is there for Driver 1 to recover?
Driver 1 can recover $100,000 from Driver 2’s policy and possibly $5,000 from Med Pay.
Liens and Medical Bills
In most car accident cases, someone has a lien against the money recovered. Typically, whoever fronts the cost of medical treatment has a lien, although a tow-truck company can also have a lien. For example, you incur $10,000 in medical bills from an accident. You have health insurance through BlueCross BlueShield of Wyoming (BCBSWY) and $5,000 in medical payments coverage through your own auto insurance carrier. When you go to the hospital for $10,000 in treatment, your health insurance policy covers $5,000 and your med pay policy covers the other $5,000. Both BCBSWY and your med pay policy will have a lien for the $5,000 that they spent on your care, assuming they did their paperwork correctly.
Let’s say your attorney gets you a settlement from the at-fault driver’s insurance company. At that point, you will likely have to repay BCBSWY and your med pay policy from the settlement proceeds. Your attorney should negotiate your lien with those parties.
If Medicare or Medicaid paid for your medical treatment, then they will have a lien even if they do not notify your attorney or the auto insurance carrier. In some horror stories, they come back years after a case settled and demand to be repaid. In my experience, dealing with Medicare or Medicaid liens adds at least six weeks to getting a case resolved.
If you have unpaid medical bills, your attorney should notify the provider and ask them to wait until the case settles for payment. There are certain laws and rules about when a hospital or medical provider can demand payment but a hospital will typically wait until a case settles before sending you to collections. If you are worried about unpaid bills after a car accident, an attorney can communicate with healthcare providers and billing companies on your behalf to notify them that a claim is ongoing and to make sure your bills will not be sent to collections.