Is Pain and Suffering Awarded After a "Minor" Car Accident?

Even after a seemingly minor crash, your claim will likely include a "pain and suffering" component. Here's how it works.

Updated by , J.D.
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  • Even when your car accident injury case stems from a crash that might be characterized as "minor," the effects of the accident are often anything but. Here's what to know at the outset:

    • Mental and physical "pain and suffering"—resulting from car accident injuries and necessary medical treatment—is a part of most injury claimants' experience, regardless of the severity of the crash.
    • Still, proving the nature and extent of "pain and suffering" can be difficult when the car accident itself was seemingly minor.
    • It's critical to provide a detailed, personal story of the impact that the accident, your injuries, and your medical treatment have had on you.

    What Is Pain and Suffering In a Car Accident Case?

    In the context of a car accident case, pain and suffering is a component of the claimant's compensable losses ("damages" in the language of the law) that typically encompasses any kind of physical discomfort and mental/emotional suffering associated with:

    • the car accident itself
    • the injuries resulting from the accident
    • the medical treatment necessary to treat those injuries, and
    • the day to day impact of the accident and the injuries on the claimant's life.

    For example, if a driver was severely burned in a car accident, the driver would probably recover money for the agony of enduring the burn itself, the associated treatment, the discomfort it caused, and any limitations imposed on the claimant's lifestyle. The driver would also likely recover money for the stress and limitations associated with being permanently scarred or disfigured.

    Can I Be Awarded Compensation for Pain and Suffering If the Car Accident Was Minor?

    The short answer here is yes. It might not always be as easy to establish or prove the extent of your pain and suffering if the accident was seemingly minor (we'll cover the proof aspect later on). But beyond categorization of the accident itself, even if your car accident injuries are considered "minor," there will almost always be a "pain and suffering" component of any car accident settlement offer you receive.

    So for example, if you suffered a mild knee sprain in the accident, only incurred $750 in medical bills, missed no time at work, and made a full (pain and limitation-free) recovery in two weeks, the car insurance adjuster might offer you an injury settlement of $2,000, which could include:

    • $750 to cover your medical bills (these might be referred to as "special damages"), and
    • $1,250 to cover your pain and suffering (may also be referred to as "general damages").

    How to Calculate Car Accident "Pain and Suffering"

    Because there is no hard and fast rule for calculating "pain and suffering," it can be easy to over-inflate.

    In calculating pain and suffering, insurance adjusters look at the severity and permanence of your bodily injuries. In other words, you will be entitled to more money for pain and suffering if you broke three ribs than if you bruised your leg. Which makes sense. The more severe and permanent your injury is, the more pain and suffering you will experience.

    Insurance companies typically multiply the amount of medical bills by a number between one and five to calculate "pain and suffering." The more severe and permanent the injury, the higher the multiplier. You, or your attorney, will need to use your best judgment in estimating your pain and suffering. Learn more about how pain and suffering is determined in a car accident case.

    Putting Your Pain and Suffering Case Together

    Whether you're filing a car insurance claim or a car accident lawsuit, it's not usually a good strategy to just pull a "pain and suffering" figure out of thin air and leave it at that. While your medical bills, lost income, and other financial losses are fairly easy to quantify with car accident-related records, your pain and suffering claim is largely a story that you, as the claimant, need to tell yourself. That means conveying the most detailed, convincing, and complete answers to the following key questions:

    • What did you experience during the accident, and in the following days, physically and mentally?
    • How have your injuries impacted your life?
    • What's different now, post-accident, in terms of how you feel, and what you're unable to do?

    All of these effects and more should be described in detail, so that the insurance adjuster or the court gets a fully-realized, personal picture of your pain and suffering in the wake of the accident. It's crucial to capture physical pain and discomfort, but it's equally important to convey other impacts: if you're having trouble sleeping, experiencing anxiety, feeling depressed, or anything else that could be traced to the accident and your injuries.

    You might even want to keep a car accident journal, in which you document the effects of your injuries on your life, and describe any other adverse effects of the accident. You can include this kind of journal along with any demand letter you send to the insurance company or to the other driver's lawyer, or use it to help make your court case if you file a car accident lawsuit.

    Is it Worth It to Pursue a Claim After a Minor Car Accident?

    Before pursuing any car accident claim, it's worth considering the seriousness of your injuries and other losses caused by the accident, in light of the time and effort it will take to make a claim. Dealing with a car insurance company can be a hassle, especially if it's the other driver's carrier and things start to get adversarial. If your injuries are limited to a few bruises, or a slightly sprained ankle, an injury claim might not be worth the hassle.

    But as we've touched on elsewhere, a seemingly "minor" car accident can result in significant injuries, and can have a serious impact on your life. If you've got significant medical bills and your life has been adversely affected by the accident, there is no question that making a claim is the right move.

    Getting the Insurance Claim Process Started After a Car Accident

    The first thing to do after a car accident, however minor, is report the crash to your car insurance company. Depending on the kind of insurance coverage you have, and the circumstances of the crash, you might end up filing a claim with:

    • your own insurer
    • the other driver's insurer (this is called a "third party" claim), or
    • both insurance companies (i.e. one claim for vehicle damage, the other for injury).

    Your insurance company can help you get the claim process started, either over the phone or by directing you to an online claim-filing system or app. And if you need to make a third party claim with the other driver's insurer, your insurance company will usually help you get that process started too.

    Once a claim is filed, the insurance company will begin its investigation of the accident and the claimed losses. With injury claims, that means figuring out how the accident happened, who or what caused the crash, the nature and extent of the claimant's injuries, and more. Learn how the insurance company investigates a car accident.

    How Long Will the Insurance Claim Process Take?

    An injury claim resulting from a car accident can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more to reach a resolution. The timeline depends in part on your willingness to wait for the right car accident settlement offer.

    It's not unusual for an insurance company to offer a settlement very early on in the claim process, i.e. after just a week or so. That doesn't mean the offer will be a fair one, and it's never a good idea to settle if you're still receiving medical treatment in connection with your car accident injuries.

    If you accept the settlement and sign the release, you can't go back and ask for more money, even if your injuries turn out to be worse than you first thought. The insurance company knows this, of course, but they're usually looking out for their bottom line, not your best interests.

    Besides your willingness to wait for the right settlement offer, the timeline of an injury claim after a car accident can be extended when the other driver, the insurance company, or an attorney is

    • disputing who was at fault for the accident
    • questioning the extent of your injuries, and/or whether your injuries might have been preexisting, or
    • claiming that some or all of the medical treatment you received wasn't necessary or wasn't legitimate (chiropractic care and other kinds of non-traditional treatment might be called into question here).

    Pain and Suffering and the Lawsuit Process

    If it seems as though the insurance claim process isn't going to result in a fair result for your car accident injury claim—the other side isn't coming to the negotiating table with a reasonable settlement offer, for example—you might want to escalate things by filing a car accident lawsuit in court.

    It needs to be worth it, however. Is the insurance company's settlement offer that far away from covering your car accident losses that you're willing to go through the time, effort (and stress) of the court process? If you haven't done so already, this would be the time to discuss your situation (and your best path forward) with an experienced car accident lawyer.

    Even though a car accident lawsuit isn't likely to make it all the way to trial, the court-based process can go on for many months, even years, especially if both sides dig in for a fight. Practically speaking though, it's rare for a lawsuit to be filed over a truly minor car accident, and it's rarer still for the court process to play out for very long in these kinds of cases. Maybe the most important point here is that settlement of a car accident case can happen at any time. In fact, the mere action of filing a lawsuit in court might very well spur the other side to come back to the table with a better settlement offer.

    As with the value of a car insurance claim, the kind of settlement offer you're likely to receive after you've initiated the lawsuit process will depend on:

    • the clarity of the fault picture: who caused the accident?
    • the nature and extent of your injuries
    • the pain and suffering component we've discussed at length here, and
    • your prospects for a complete recovery versus the chance that you'll experience some long-lasting effects from the car accident.

    If you do need to file a lawsuit, all of the records you compiled to substantiate your pain and suffering—and the story you told to the insurance adjuster in conveying the nature and extent of that component of your damages—will come in handy in as part of your court-based case.

    No Pain and Suffering In a No-Fault Insurance Claim

    Most states in the U.S. follow a standard fault-based liability system after a car accident, where the person who caused the accident is deemed negligent and is held financially responsible for all reasonable damages resulting from the crash.

    However, there are around twelve states that follow a "no fault" insurance system. In these states, you cannot make a personal injury claim—and you can't collect compensation for pain and suffering—unless your medical bills cross a certain dollar amount threshold which varies from state to state. Other states require that the claim meet a "serious injury" threshold, which also is defined differently from state to state.

    For the rest of the states, standard rules apply. In other words, as long as you can prove someone's negligence caused you harm, you can recover compensation from that person (usually through his or her car insurance policy), including pain and suffering damages.

    A Car Accident Lawyer Can Be a Big Asset

    Wrestling with an insurance company, or its lawyer, over a car accident claim can be frustrating and time-consuming. Lawyers who handle car accident claims know what works and what doesn't, and have the expertise to put your best case together.

    You'll likely pay a set percentage of your recovery to the attorney who assists you (almost all car accident attorneys work on a contingency basis), but many people find it is worth the money to avoid the hassle and maximize their recovery. Learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident claim. You can also use the chat and information submission tools right on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer in your area. Answer a few questions and you might be eligible for a free case evaluation.

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