Making Sense of Private Property Vehicle Accidents

By | March 29, 2017

Ah, yes, the good old parking lot accident. Normally no injuries, but can result in quite a bit of damage. Most people are unaware of how to properly report accidents and it becomes even more confusing when you are on private property.  

Parking lot accidents are not the same as accidents that happen on the public roadway. Sure, there are two cars that hit each other and damage done, but laws regarding accidents (and handling of insurance claims) are different when you are on private property.

As a former police officer, I spent a lot of time educating people on the difference. I wish I was a writer back then as I could have printed this off and handed it to everyone who called me to a parking lot to file an accident report.

Private Property versus Roadway

Private and public are the two terms you need to know if you want to understand what happens when you are involved in an accident. And yes, this makes a huge difference.

Public roadways are for everyone to use as long as they are following the traffic laws. Private parking lots, driveways, and other private areas are just that – private. You can’t freely operate a vehicle in these areas unless you have permission to do so.

I know what you’re thinking. Places like Target and Walmart allow people in their parking lots all the time. Aren’t they “public” since they allow the public to park there? Not exactly.

Most stores (there are some exceptions) or the landlords they lease from, own the parking lots. They are still private even though they allow people to park there. That is why sometimes you will see signs that say “reserved for customers only.” And yes, they have the right to restrict such access as they own the property.

Police Reports with Private Property Accidents

A motor vehicle accident is one that happens on a public roadway. A private property accident is one that happens in areas such as parking lots. When an accident happens on a public roadway, the police are required to document such based on state law.

Here is where the confusion comes in.

Since accidents happening on private property are not in the public roadway, not all states require that police document such. This means that you may not be able to even file a police report in certain jurisdictions.

When I was called to private property accidents, the only time I was mandated to file a report was when there was an injury. Since many parking lot accidents do not involve injury, a report was often not a requirement.

Now, please keep in mind that while many do not involve injury, parking lot accidents can still be dangerous. In fact, more than 200 people are killed each year in parking lot accidents.

However, while not a requirement, some police departments will still do accident reports as a courtesy to help avoid any confusion between the people involved in the accident. My jurisdiction had a simple form we used which just documented the date and time and fact that the accident happened (nothing detailed, but enough to prove that it took place).

Insurance companies often require that you have a police report when filing a claim. If you are in a jurisdiction where police reports are not offered, you need to make sure to properly document everything.

How To Document The Accident

First off, don’t simply ignore calling the police simply because you read this article. I advise anyone involved in an accident to call and file a report. If the jurisdiction you are in does not take accident reports on private property, they will tell you so on the phone. And again, many will do some type of report as a courtesy.

Exchanging information is always the next step if both parties are cooperative. This should include the person’s full name and telephone number. Try to confirm through a driver’s license if possible but don’t get offended if the other person doesn’t want to show it to you. Also, make sure to document the license plate number and get a copy of the insurance information.

On another note, some states require that you exchange information at private property accidents. While it is not a requirement that police document the accident, they would be required to assist if any party is breaking the law by not exchanging information. Again, this would vary by state so you would need to find the law specific to where you live.  

If you are the only person left in the world without a smartphone, no need to read further. For the rest of you, use your built-in camera. Take some pictures or even a quick video of the damage. I also recommend taking some shots from a distance showing the location of the vehicles to any buildings, parking spaces, or other vehicles.

Summing it Up

In the end, you need documentation. Depending on the jurisdiction, you may get a police report or you may not. Exchange information including driver details, vehicle and insurance information. Take some pictures and hope the insurance company is friendly when you file a claim.

Have you been involved in a private property motor vehicle accident? Was the other driver cooperative with exchanging information? Did the police provide you with a report or were you told they could not?

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