If your vehicle was damaged in a car accident, you want to know how to go about getting it repaired -- and who will be responsible for paying for those repairs. The short answer is that it depends on what state the accident happened in, who was at fault for the accident, how much property damage insurance coverage the other driver has, and what kind of and how much insurance you have. Let’s look at each of these issues.
Liability in car accidents is always based on negligence (i.e., fault) unless you are in a no-fault state, in which case there are some limited exceptions to the negligence rule. (Learn How No-Fault Car Insurance Works.)
In a traditional fault state, you must always prove that the other driver was negligent in order to get any type of damages from that driver or from his/her insurer.
However, in a no-fault state, if you are involved in an accident, your own car insurance company will likely pay for some or even all of your damages, depending on your state’s laws. But in some no-fault states, no-fault coverage does not apply to vehicle damage, so make sure you understand the rules where you live.
Regardless of whether your accident occurred in a no-fault state or a traditional fault-based state, the responsible insurance company will only pay for your vehicle damage up to its policy limits.
For example, if you are in a traditional fault state, the other driver was at fault and caused $10,000 of vehicle damage to your car, but he/she only has $5,000 of property damage coverage, his/her insurer will only pay $5,000 toward your repair costs.
An insurer is only required to pay damages up to the value of your car. If your repair costs exceed the value of your car, the insurer will often declare your car a total loss, pay you the fair market (Blue Book) value of your car (also known as "actual cash value"), and take your car.
Remember that with any type of property damage claim, the amount of the claim is based on the value of the property at the time of the accident. The value of the claim has nothing to do with how much you originally paid for the property.
Collision coverage ensures that you will be reimbursed for your vehicle damage if the other driver did not have enough insurance, or if you were at fault for the accident. If the other driver was at fault and had enough insurance coverage, you would not make a claim against your own insurance policy’s collision coverage.
Comprehensive coverage is for vehicle damage that occurs when a car is parked at the time of the accident. Comprehensive coverage covers both car accidents and miscellaneous damage like trees falling on your car. As with collision coverage, if the driver that hit you had enough insurance coverage, you would not make a claim against your own insurance policy’s comprehensive coverage. You don’t generally need to worry about proving fault if your car was parked. It is generally assumed that, if someone hits a parked car, that driver was at fault.
If you caused your own vehicle’s damages -- by driving off the road or running into a tree or fence, for example -- you would either have to pay for the damage yourself or make a claim against your own policy’s collision coverage, if you have collision coverage. However, if the damage is not extensive, you would probably not want to make a claim against your own policy because that might raise your car insurance premium, and it might cost you more money in the long run.
Regardless of whose insurance company is responsible for paying your repair costs, the first thing that you have to do is make a claim by reporting the accident.
The next thing that will usually happen is that the insurer will have your car inspected. If the car is drivable, you will generally be asked to bring it to the insurer’s drive-through inspection station. If the car is not drivable, the insurer will usually have an inspector come to wherever the car is.
The insurer will then come up with an estimate of the damages. This estimate may or may not be enough to pay for the repairs. Although the insurer might recommend that you bring the car to a mechanic of its choice, you always have the right to use your own mechanic.
Once you get the insurer’s estimate, you should bring your car over to your mechanic and ask if they will accept the insurer’s estimate. If they will, then everything is all set. If they think that the estimate is too low, they will often agree to call the adjuster and discuss things directly with the adjuster. Generally, they will be able to work things out themselves.
If you don’t like the insurer’s final numbers, then the only choice that you have left is to either accept it or file suit. If you find yourself in a dispute with an insurance company where a significant amount of money is at stake, it may be worth it to contact an experienced attorney to make sure that your interests are adequately protected.