The following is the very detailed description of a car accident experienced by one of my clients, from “crash to courthouse”. This is a complete account of what you may expect to encounter if you have a minor fender bender on our streets:
My car accident in Marbella
A few weeks ago I was driving to a dental appointment in Marbella when I was sideswiped by another driver. It is a rather unpleasant foreboding experience for a foreigner to have an auto accident in a foreign country so I wish to share my experience with you when you have your accident. Notice I didn’t say “if ” or “if and when”. I said “when”. If you do any driving at all in PC you will have an accident. No matter how careful you drive. It is only a matter of time. The driving experience here is a form of motorized dodgeball. The cars come at you and you must dodge them.
My accident occurred on Calle 54 E. in Marbella just across from the Arango Orillac Dental Clinic. It’s an ordinary two lane (one in each direction) inner city street choked with cars parked on each side as usual but it is terminated at its far south end by an off ramp from el Corredor Sur so it is used as a major thoroughfare by drivers coming off the freeway which doesn’t help.
I was proceeding north and was preparing to turn left into the parking lot of the clinic when the other driver in a huge 1998 Toyota Land Cruiser (a tank) passed me in a big hurry and clipped the left front corner of my pickup truck in his haste to get back into his lane. I didn’t even have a chance to make my customary last glance behind me before starting my turn. So I was still completely inside my lane. The other driver could have passed without hitting me had he not turned back so soon.
The other driver did stop up ahead which was a pleasant unexpected surprise. I expected him to keep on going since his damage was minimal to none. I presume a Diablo Rojo, taxi, or a chabacano (what’s a chabacano? go to this link: http://www.offshorewave.com/offshorenews/chabacanos-and-racatacas-a-little-on-panamanian-slang-by-matthew-atlee.html) would have just kept on trucking. We got out and confronted each other. He was a US born young man with dual Panamanian-US citizenship but for all practical purposes Panamanian. His cedula started with “PE” whereas mine begins with just “E”. He was pleasant and cooperative which certainly could have been otherwise.
He said I had turned into him and didn’t have my left turn signal on. I denied the allegations. I told him I did have it on (although that was not the proximate cause of the accident) and although I was slowly turning, I had yet to leave my lane. I also told him that if he had just left enough room between our two cars, he could have passed safely. I told him the accident was his fault. In short, he had entered my lane and hit me.
He pulled out his cell phone and called his insurance company. I didn’t have my cell phone with me nor had I brought a camera. Two big mistakes. You must have a cellphone and a camera on your person if you drive in Panama. Of course, many cellphones come with cameras. You certainly don’t want to put yourself in the humiliating position of having to ask to borrow the other driver’s cell phone to make a call. Fortunately, I was able to dart into the clinic whose patient I was and was allowed to use their phone to call the emergency number on the windshield sticker that my Insurance Broker, Ducruet gave me. I got through and they requested my policy number and the particulars of my vehicle and of course, where I was. I always carry a copy of my policy declarations in my car. They asked me where I was and they told me they would send an adjuster in thirty minutes. They called me back several times after that at that phone to make sure that the adjuster had arrived. I thought their attention and follow up was very good.
I left the clinic and returned to my truck in the road and the other driver was clicking away with his Blackberry while I could take no photos. We both had our copies of the formulario unico with us. This is a two page traffic accident form that you must carry with you. It can be downloaded from the internet at various spots. It has spaces for data on the two drivers, facts of the accident, and a place for a diagram. At the bottom there are spaces for each driver to sign and checkboxes where each driver can accept or deny fault. The transit dept woman who later arrived told me that this form is not legally required (by them) if each driver refuses to accept the blame. Then the matter goes to Transit Court. However, you still must fill it out or how else will you have the basic accident data and the data on the other party? So we both dutifully completed our forms. I inspected his vehicle. It had a small abrasion to the thick right rear rubber bumper that looked as if it could be wiped away with a wet dishcloth. My left front fender and headlight was smashed. He asked that I sign his form and I did but I made sure to blacken the box stating I did NOT accept fault. He never signed mine but I am not sure I even asked him to.
The insurance adjuster for the other party arrived first in about 30 minutes on a motorcycle/scooter but he had called first. I was surprised how quickly my Generali insurance adjuster arrived — also quickly on a scooter in about 30 minutes. (Actually, my Generali policy states that they will arrive at the scene of the accident in 30 minutes or less or the Insured will be exonerated 100% from payment of the deductible subject to unspecified geographical limitations. I don’t know if presenting such a claim would be beneficial to good policyholder relations and premium stability. But I didn’t time him anyway.) His name was Maximo Moreno and he was dressed very casually with a light green sweatshirt bearing a university logo. He didn’t present any form of identification and I asked him how do I know he is with Generali? On my side? He said everyone knows him. ¡Genial! But I didn’t. He could have been anyone. But I didn’t press the issue. He took cell phone photos of both vehicles and of the accident location and I had to provide some information on his data form and sign it. I think it was a Generali form and at the end he gave me a list of Generali approved body shops. I asked him his opinion as to fault and he seemed confident that it was the other driver’s fault. For what that’s worth.
I understand that the law here is that you must move your vehicle, under most conditions, so as to not block traffic. I didn’t want to move mine since it clearly substantiated that I was fully within my lane, I didn’t have a camera, and I wanted to wait until someone arrived to take photos on my behalf. The other driver took photos but you can’t depend on that. Again, your camera. Don’t leave home without it. Fortunately, there was room for traffic to go around me and no one demanded that I move it so I left it there until the Transit Police arrived. But this probably won’t work in most cases.
A Transit Police woman arrived in about an hour on a white scooter. She spoke to both drivers and she took photos of her own. I made a special point to emphasize to her that it was NOT my fault and “LOOK! I’m totally within my lane. I don’t mind him passing me but why can’t he stay completely in the left lane until he is past me?” I pointed out the yellow dividing line that I had NOT crossed. Then she summoned both of us to her scooter where she demanded our driver licenses. Be sure you have that with you too. She pulled out a govt form which was very similar to the formulario unico and began to fill it out with both drivers’ data. It is a double sided form and she used two sheets of carbon paper to make copies but she put the carbon paper in upside down and pretty much ruined the reverse side of the forms. On the form, she told each of us to write our respective description of the accident. I didn’t think I was given enough space to provide what I thought was sufficient detail but I was able to provide a condensed accident description in Spanish. I don’t know if an English narration would be acceptable. Then she said we had three options: 1) we could make a deal between ourselves here and now, 2) one of us could admit fault, or 3) we could go to transit court. I said I didn’t believe I was at fault. The other driver said the same. So we were both given something that resembles the tear off stub of a raffle ticket with an official red number, name, cedula,license plate, and a date for a hearing at transit court at Juan Diaz. Nothing on this stub explains where this traffic court is. Juan Diaz is a huge district of the city. I even went to the website of the Autoridad Del Transito Y Transporte Terrestre (A.T.T.T.) and there was no information as to where I had to go except to Juan Diaz. Maybe due to the high frequency of traffic accidents, it is assumed everyone here knows where it is.
The Insurance agency, Ducruet assisted in confirming that it is in the Los Pueblos Shopping Mall behind the El Campeon store. It’s hard to find a good city map that isn’t truncated on the east at Parque Omar leaving out a huge chunk of the city. The best overall (albeit not much street detail) is the free map provided by Hertz Rent a Car. It shows the major arteries and infrastructure and major malls from the canal to the airport.
How to get there: Los Pueblos Mall is so huge that it spans the distance between Via Espana and Ave Domingo Diaz (aka Tumba Muerto in the city) so you can get there by either road. The easiest is by Via Espana which passes what looks to me like the front and main entrance to the mall which you can’t miss although there is no big sign announcing the name of the mall. You turn left (if coming from the city) at the traffic light and go about one block and the huge orange and blue El Campeon store is on your left. It is next to a huge Conways store too. Go behind El Campeon and you will see the offices for A.T.T.T. Plenty of parking for a change.
You can also access the rear of the Los Pueblos mall via Ave Domingo Diaz (another major artery) and turn right (coming from the city) and work your way south toward the Via Espana side of the mall until you see El Campeon. But it’s a bit more confusing since on the left of Ave Domingo Diaz there is another huge mall, Metro Mall and you don’t want to go there.
Later that day (Saturday) I called Ducruet and reported the accident and asked for Kevin but he was not there. I spoke with Carmen who was very helpful and gave her the particulars. She asked to come to their office the following Monday morning.
I went and met with Carmen and Hilary in Ducruet, who were very helpful. I gave them a written declaration of the accident and a copy of the formulario unico. No one there inspected the damage to my truck for some reason but I was asked to get several estimates of my damage and bring them in later for claim discussion. Obviously, at this point it was too premature to determine whose insurance would pay for the damage and whether I desired to submit a collision claim. On the list of approved body shops, I selected three that looked to be in my general neighborhood but I didn’t know exactly where. Ducruet didn’t know either. They didn’t have a city map. I was on my own. Ducruet also advised me that I would have the benefit of legal assistance meaning I would have legal representation at the hearing. I thought that was great! They said 2-3 days before the hearing someone from Generali’s legal assistance dept (GEA 205-0224) would call me to coordinate attendance at the hearing.
I then left Ducruet to embark on my quest for bodyshops and I managed to find one and then the first one told me where the second one was and the second one told me where the third one was. In a few hours, I had my three estimates. Except for one, none had prices just hours of labor and the parts. They said Generali would do the math. The damage was around $1000. At least my truck was still drivable.
The day before the hearing no one had called and I didn’t know where to go. I was getting rather anxious. I assumed that if I failed to appear I would automatically lose. I called Kevin Bradley and conveyed my anxiety and he suggested I call GEA directly which I did. Kevin told me about 75% of his (foreign) clients don’t bother attending these hearings. They are too busy. I don’t understand this. You’re retired aren’t you? Busy doing what? There is no hearing scheduled unless both parties are contesting liability and if you are contesting liability, why not at least show up and give it your best shot? You really shouldn’t just dump it in the lap of an unknown legal assistant. What happens if your legal rep doesn’t show up and you lose by default? You would never know if he/she decides to conceal that he/she screwed up and failed to appear. Just a thought. I don’t know if that happens. Not to mention you are not privy to any of the proceedings on your behalf. I would think the fact that a party shows enough interest in his case to show up in person should weigh favorably on a judge. But who knows?
Hilary of his office also followed up with them and called me informing me that they would call me later in the day. They didn’t. After calling them again, I was finally able to extract a duras penas the name of my representative and that he was in court but would call me today at 4pm. He didn’t call and I called again at 4:30pm. It was near the end of the work day and I still did not know the name of nor had had any contact with the person with whom I was to meet tomorrow!! I finally got through to my rep and we discussed the accident and agreed to meet at transit court the next day. I gave him a description of the shirt I would wear.
The next day I arrived two hours early (you must allow for traffic jams) and took my seat at the third judge location where I had been assigned. I saw a lot of professionally looking Panameños/as scurrying around with stacks of files in their hands and going to windows who looked like lawyers/legal reps representing clients. So it appears this legal service may automatically come with all Panamanian auto insurance policies. An hour later I was approached by a very personable young gentlemen who introduced himself as my legal rep although he was a different person than he whose name I had been given the day before. I gave him my printed photos, accident diagram, and Spanish statement. I was pleased to see that he had good black and white photos of my truck as positioned immediately post accident. He was confident that I was not to blame. I asked how long before the judge renders their decision? He said it is done immediately.
This location is not like a stately American courtroom with its pomp and circumstance. It’s just a normal common Panamanian building (like a large Rally blood clinic) with clerks behind counter windows, chairs in front to wait in, and tiny rooms in the back where liability is decided in a few minutes. In that sense, it certainly beats the sluggish pace of American tort jurisprudence. On the other hand, is it possible here to present a liability claim to an opposing insurer and let them decide whether it has merit without having an official government absolution of liability to back up your claim? Are policyholders always given the benefit of the doubt by their insurers if they deny fault even if the facts suggest otherwise unless the other driver has a govt. resolution in their favor? At least the Panamanian system, if done efficiently and fairly would be a viable alternative to the slow, expensive, and corrupt tort system which plagues the US.
At 11am, I was ushered into a small anteroom and asked for my driver license which was clipped to a sheaf of papers. Shortly afterwards, I was ushered with my rep into another very small room with a teacher’s desk at front and about six chairs arranged in front. Like a tiny classroom. A female functionary was seated at the desk, at the side of which was affixed a small flat covering with miniature road markings on top of which was placed a collection of toy plastic cars and road signs for accident reconstruction.
I was most surprised to see that neither the other driver nor anyone representing him had showed up. Especially since he was so adamant at the time that it wasn’t his fault. My rep said his non appearance does not automatically cause him to lose. That’s the impression I had gotten from Don Winner. I didn’t quite understand his explanation as to the consequences; maybe there would be a delay or postponement of the hearing if liability was in doubt. Maybe the court feels if the preponderance of the evidence favors one particular party then the appearance or lack thereof of the other is a mute point. I don’t know.
My legal rep did all of the talking and I was surprised that no testimony was asked of me. I did briefly attempt to participate feeling like a potted plant just sitting there but the judge quickly told me to let the attorney do the talking. It was very quick. After about five minutes, I was dismissed from the room. The legal rep stayed behind briefly and then emerged with an initialed slip of paper on which the details of my case were written and a check box next to the word “absuelto” had been checked. My rep informed me that I had won. I was told a long final resolution/verdict will be issued in several days. I did notice a bulletin board there full of such notices each of which filled one side of a page of legal size paper whose dates were about 8 days ago.
Now I have to collect from the other insurance company. Based upon the following depressing experience, it may not be easy.
I am pleased with the service and attention I received from Kevin and his associates at Ducruet. He was very helpful, empathic, and pulled out the stops to get things going when they seemed to bog down. The telephone service I got from GEA was disconcerting. Maybe this is because they are so unaccustomed to gringos getting personally involved in their cases that they just assume they will show up without them. I got the impression that even if I had just sat back and done absolutely nothing that a Generali representative still would have appeared in court to plead my case but who really knows? I don’t. You have to show up to watch your back. I do know that here in Panama you still must be on top of everything yourself at all times constantly pushing and prodding or things will come to a halt.