After a car accident, if you're not injured all the badly, one of your first concerns is getting your car repaired so that you can get on with your life. The good news is that, unlike more complicated (and usually higher-value) personal injury claims, you can almost always resolve a vehicle damage claim over the phone, especially if you (or the at-fault driver) have the right car insurance coverage in place. Often, you'll be able to reach a fair settlement of your claim without you or the adjuster having to exchange formal demand letters and replies, but that doesn't mean there are things to watch out for.
Within one to three weeks after you and the insurance adjuster agree on a fair settlement amount for your vehicle damage claim, you will receive from the insurance company a check, and often an accompanying document (called a release).
You must sign the release and return it to the insurance company, after which you are free to deposit the check. Sometimes the release will come first, and you will receive the check only after you have signed and returned the release.
If you also have a personal injury claim arising out of the same accident, be sure to read the documents you are to sign in accepting a vehicle damage settlement. When you receive the check and release document, make sure the words “Property Damage Only” or “Property Damage Claim” are written on both of them. Do not deposit any check or sign any document that reads “General Release” or does not clearly indicate “Property Damage.”
If you are not certain that either the settlement check or release is properly marked, ask the insurance adjuster to add “Property Damage Only” on the documents and to write you a separate letter confirming that this settlement amount is only for the property damage part of your claim, and doesn't pertain to any car accident injury claim.
Remember that once you accept a property damage settlement to get your car repaired after an accident, you are forever prevented from claiming that there is any additional damage to your car. The fact that you might not have discovered the damage until later does not matter. For this reason, it is particularly important that during the course of making estimates the repair people check for possible hidden damage -- for example, a cracked engine block -- before you accept a settlement. If they find serious trouble after you have already settled your claim, it will be too late to have the insurance company pay for it.
Your right to collect compensation from another person’s insurance company in a third-party claim, or from your own insurer in an uninsured motorist claim, depends on the extent to which the other driver was at fault for causing the damage. Just as with personal injury claims, the amount of your third-party or uninsured motorist compensation for property damage could be reduced by an amount that reflects how much you were also at fault for the accident. Learn more about Comparative and Contributory Negligence in Car Accident Claims.
However, if you make a claim for vehicle property damage under your own auto insurance collision coverage, your degree of fault for the accident does not matter. A claim made under your collision coverage is paid regardless of fault.
For more tips on getting your vehicle repaired the right way after a car accident -- and all the information you’ll need to navigate your case -- get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). And if talks between you and the adjuster start to go sideways, you may want to talk to an experienced attorney to make sure that your legal rights are protected.