WHEN YOU HAVE A FENDER BENDER
by: Steve Perbix
Shay & Perbix

WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO

 

From the time a sixteen-year-old in Illinois obtains a driver's license until the day that individual ceases the operation of a motor vehicle as part of every day living, the prospect of being involved in a fender bender remains constant. So long as hazardous weather conditions arise, road configurations are challenging, vehicle equipment malfunctions or is not properly maintained, and drivers make mistakes, fender benders are inevitable. Therefore, all motorists in Illinois should be acquainted with how to cope with these collisions properly.

Illinois Vehicle Code Section 5/11-402(a) states:

The driver of any vehicle involved in a motor vehicle accident resulting in only damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of such motor vehicle accident or as close thereto a possible, but shall forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of such motor vehicle accident until the requirements of Section 11-403 [625 ILCS 5/11-403] have been fulfilled. Every such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary. 625 ILCS 5/11-402(a), emphasis added.

Accordingly, the first obligation for any motorist involved in a property damage collision, no matter how slight the damage to the vehicle(s) involved, is to stop at the scene and remain until the following information is exchanged as required by 625 ILCS 5/11-403; the drivers' names, addresses, registration numbers of the vehicles, identity of the owners of the vehicles if different than the drivers, and, if requested, display of driver's licenses. 625 ILCS 5/11-403. Further, the driver of any vehicle involved in a motor vehicle accident involving injury to any person must render aid to the injured person in arranging for medical care, including transportation to a doctor or hospital.

The failure to comply with either Section 11-402 or 11-403 is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,500.00, a maximum jail term of 364 days, unless placed on probation when the maximum jail term is 180 days, a period of probation not to exceed twenty-four (24) months, or a combination of these penalties. The fact that the vehicle damage is slight or the injury complained of is minor does not excuse non-compliance with these code sections. Simply put, the obligations under the law must be taken seriously in fender benders to avoid the possibility of criminal punishment. Following the requirements to the letter, though inconvenient to the motorist in a hurry, will save that motorist from potential legal trouble in the future. Granted, few violators involving minor damage or injury will be sentenced to jail or to pay a high fine if their prior driving record is good and insurance is available to pay for the damages; nevertheless, the risk of stiff punishment renders non-compliance irresponsible at best and foolish at worst.

Those involved in a fender bender resulting in injury to any person or damage to any vehicle in excess of $500.00 also must notify the local police or sheriff's department as soon as possible, as well as the Secretary of State on approved accident report forms within ten (10) days, pursuant to 625 ILCS 5/11-406, 407 and 408. Although estimating property damage at the scene of a fender bender may be beyond the knowledge, experience, and training of a motorist, many motorists know from common experience that $500.00 damage can occur even from low impact collisions based on today's costs of parts and labor. If in doubt, the best advice is to comply strictly with the procedures to insure that no criminal liability will follow.

In the event a motorist involved in a fender bender has no automobile insurance as required by the Illinois Vehicle Code, the previously discussed procedures still should be followed. By doing so, the person whose vehicle is struck by an uninsured driver will be better able to make certain that violator is issued a citation by police and prosecuted by the local State's Attorney's office. The uninsured person responsible for the fender bender certainly may not want to do anything to jeopardize himself or herself by notifying police of the incident, and may even leave the scene of the accident. So the person struck will more than likely have to initiate the process. The chance of a hit-and-run underscores the importance of paying close attention to the make, model and license plate number of the other vehicle involved immediately after the collision to allow police to investigate effectively later.

The fact that a fender bender occurs on private property as opposed to a public roadway is irrelevant to the legal obligations discussed previously. For example, if vehicle A collides with the rear of vehicle B in a mall parking lot while the two motorists are traveling to or from the mall, the requirements of the law still apply. Knowledge of the collision is an essential element to prove a violation of these requirements, such that if a motorist did not or could not have reasonably known the collision happened, then he or she may be found not guilty of alleged violations of these laws. Further, a medical or practical inability to report the accident can be a legal defense to alleged violations of the law, but then a person still has a duty to report the accident to police within three(3) hours of the accident if not hospitalized or within forty-eight (48) hours after being discharged from the hospital to fulfill the requirements if personal injury occurs. Failure to do so in the event of injury can result in prosecution for a Class 4 felony, punishable by a maximum probation term of 30 months and 180 days county jail, or a maximum prison term of one to three (1-3) years in the Illinois Department of Corrections, and/or a maximum fine of $25,000.00. Further, a conviction for violating 625 ILCS 5/11-401(b),(d), just discussed, will result in mandatory revocation of Illinois driving privileges by the Secretary of State. Once again, the likelihood of serious punishment is remote when the injuries are not severe, the offender's driving record is good, and insurance will be available, but once again the risk of serious consequences does not justify disregard of the requirements either.

For those involved in fender benders who sustain legitimate injury, seek immediate medical attention to document the injury or injuries. Delay in seeking medical treatment makes the injury complaint in question seem contrived and not credible to outside sources thereafter, such as insurance adjusters. By the same token, immediately reporting a doubtful injury is not the equivalent of proof of an injury. Making a proverbial mountain out of a molehill is also damaging to the credibility of the injury complaint as is delay in reporting a potentially valid injury. Wearing a neck brace, using a cane, or limping after a minor fender bender with minimal property damage and little impact is no substitute for proof of physical injury by a qualified treatment provider rendered close in time to the actual collision. Nevertheless, for those involved in a collision where the other party seems to be complaining unreasonably of injury, do not take a chance by disregarding the reporting obligations. Rather, follow the law to protect from criminal prosecution and let the insurance company providing coverage sort out the legitimacy of any claimed injury by the other person involved.

Motorists who have experienced first hand a collision involving what seems to be no visible damage can certainly recall the frustration of dealing with the other party who claims there was property damage. If the complaining person insists, the best course of action is clear: call the police. A trained officer can be the best ally against the person making the phantom damage claim by inspecting the vehicle and, perhaps, even making a written report indicating no visible damage observed by this theoretically disinterested third party. If no written report is made, at least the investigation officer will be available to recount the details of the observation and investigation later if necessary to address dubious property damage claims. The officer can also serve as an additional, independent source to verify that damage may, in fact, be noticeable and more severe than acknowledged by a hostile party involved in the collision who disputed that the damage exceeds $500.00, especially in the absence of any other material witnesses to the collision. An independent police officer can also serve to verify injury complaints and observations of personal injury possibly overlooked or disputed by others.

In conclusion, the legal requirements after a fender bender seem clear, and the consequences for ignoring them can be serious. Despite a good faith belief that the collision was minor with minimal or no property damage or persona injury, the safest and simplest approach is to treat all fender benders as matters requiring strict compliance with the Illinois Vehicle Code to avoid legal problems and as a means of thwarting those who would attempt to make unsubstantiated claims of property damage or personal injury after the fact. More important, following the law to the letter after a fender bender can be the best way to substantiate legitimate claims of property damage and personal injury in combination with other supporting proof.

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