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Your Des Moines Car Accident: The Basics

You've grown accustomed to seeing wrecks along the side of Route 65, but nothing could prepare you for the sight of your smoking ruin of a vehicle. Your family says you were lucky that you weren't severely injured in the accident, but you don't feel particularly lucky -- you've got to figure out how to get to work, how to afford a new car, and most of all how to get rid of that whiplash!

It may be a tough time to focus on anything but how you feel, but it is also important to know your legal rights and responsibilities after a car accident in Iowa. This is why FindLaw has created this guide to prepare you for what to expect from your Des Moines car accident.

First Steps

Car accidents are scary, but a few simple precautions will ensure your legal rights aren't compromised. First of all, don't leave the scene of the accident. If you leave without exchanging contact information, you can be criminally convicted as a hit-and-run driver, which carries a sentence of up to one-year in jail, plus a hefty fine.

If anyone was injured in the accident, call an ambulance immediately. If not, stop your car as close to the accident scene as possible without further disrupting traffic. If you can avoid moving the cars at all, that is best. You should call the Des Moines police department as quickly as is feasible. Next, you are required to provide your name, address, and vehicle registration number to anyone else involved in the accident. You would be wise to write down their information too, as well as the names of any potential witnesses.

Proving in court the exact circumstances of the accident can be difficult, so it is crucial to gather all possible evidence at the scene. Take careful notes of each vehicle's condition and position; photographs are even better. Do yourself a favor and buy a disposable camera to store in your glove box today.

You should not volunteer any information that is not required by law, and avoid apologizing or stating that the accident was your fault. These statements could potentially be used as evidence against you should the other parties initiate a lawsuit.

This is a lot of information, so why not print out a helpful checklist (PDF) and store it in your glove box for that rainy day?

Accident Report

Any accident in Iowa that caused death, injury, or property damage of $1,500 or more must be reported on an Iowa Accident Report form. However, this report is not required when the accident was investigated by the police. Failure to return an accident report form within 72 hours may result in suspension of your driving privileges.

Insurance

Iowa law requires each driver to carry coverage on their car for at least $20,000 in bodily injury liability per person, $40,000 total bodily injury liability per accident and $15,000 minimum for property damage liability per accident.

Iowa has a "fault" system in determining financial responsibility for an accident. The person who was legally at fault for causing the accident (and their insurance) must compensate anyone who was injured or whose property was damaged. Any damages beyond the insurance coverage must be recovered from the at-fault driver himself.

Initiating a Lawsuit

A lawsuit can be started with a complaint, which is just a brief description of the incident and a request for compensation. Do it yourselfer's may be able to find examples online and most courthouses will have form complaints for common lawsuits like those that follow auto accidents. However, lawsuits can be complicated and time-consuming. Talking to a personal injury attorney specializing in car accident cases may be a good idea, and many have free consultations.

Every lawsuit has a time limitation on when it may be filed called the statute of limitations. After the statutory period has expired, you will be prohibited from initiating a lawsuit regardless of the strength of your claim. In Iowa, you have two years from the date of the accident to file a personal injury lawsuit, and five years from the same date to file a property damage lawsuit.

You can file your lawsuit at the Polk County Courthouse, located on 500 Mulberry St. If you suffered less than $5,000 in damages, you should consider filing your claim in small claims court instead, for a more relaxed process and rules. Check out this thorough handbook for Iowa small claims court (PDF) before you begin.

Types of Lawsuits

The most common type of lawsuit following an auto accident is one for negligence. The law of negligence governs accidentally caused injuries. To succeed, you must show that the other party was not exercising a reasonable level of care under the circumstances.

What happens when two or more people were at fault for an accident? The rules of comparative negligence govern situations where multiple parties are partly at-fault for an accident. Under Iowa's comparative negligence law, each party is assigned "fault" as a percent, and the plaintiff's recovery is reduced in proportion to percent of the accident he or she is responsible for. For example, if your vehicle requires $1000 to repair as a result of the accident which was found to be 10% your fault, you will be able to recover 90%, or $900. However, the "51% rule" prevents plaintiffs from recovering any damages when they are found to be more than 50% at fault.

For serious accidents involving a fatality, the deceased individual's family members may be able to sue for wrongful death. This type of lawsuit aims to recover lost wages, lost companionship and funeral expenses.

A products liability lawsuit may be an option in a case where you or your attorney believe the cause of an accident was a defective vehicle or part. To succeed, you must point out a design or manufacturing defect that caused the accident. Proving a defect usually requires the analysis of an automotive expert, and these types of cases can get quite technical.

Instead of sorting this out yourself, you may want consider scheduling a free consultation with an experienced attorney. Plaintiff side attorneys typically work on a contingency basis, where their fee is a certain percent of your winnings. Yes, that means that they don't get paid until you recover, whether in court or via settlement out of court.

Arm yourself with more general knowledge by reading up on the law governing car accidents.

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