You’ve just had a car accident. Depending on how bad it is, you may have a bit more to worry about than the timeline for getting an injury or vehicle damage claim started. But if you wait too long to file, does that mean your car insurance company will deny your claim? The answer might surprise you, although it shouldn’t change the fact that you should file your car insurance claim as soon as you reasonably can. Read on to learn more.
The precise deadline -- or, more accurately, the wording pertaining to when a claim must be filed -- will vary depending on your particular car insurance policy. Most policies do not provide a strict deadline or window of time (30 days, 60 days, etc.). Instead, you are usually required to make your claim "promptly" or "within a reasonable time."
Some states (especially those that follow a no-fault car insurance system) have passed laws that specifically address this issue. For example, New York, which is a no fault state, requires that you file your claim within 30 days of the accident, unless you have a good reason for not doing so.
To answer this question, we’ll ignore states like New York that have an explicit deadline for filing a claim, or car insurance companies that have actual claim filing deadlines written into their policies.
To answer this question for everyone else (which will be most drivers), we need to understand that the basis for any time requirement is to protect the car insurance company’s ability to investigate your claim, including the specifics of the underlying accident. Your insurance company may have an obligation to pay you for a covered loss, but you as the policyholder have an obligation to take reasonable steps to help them confirm the claimed damages and get to the bottom of key issues like fault for the car accident. As long as your delay in reporting the claim in no way prevents your car insurance company from investigating your claim, then you can probably report the claim as long as you have existing coverage.
For example, let’s say your car door got badly dented while you were shopping at a grocery store. Upon discovering this damage, you took plenty of pictures and even got a copy of the grocery store’s surveillance tapes showing another driver parking next to you and slamming his door against yours, clearly causing the dent. Let’s also assume the surveillance footage is time-stamped to prove when the damage occurred and even shows the other driver’s license plate number (you recognize the license plate as belonging to your neighbor). For whatever reason, you decide not to immediately file a claim with your car insurance company. However, several months later, the dent starts to bother you, so you call your insurance company and report the damage.
Did you file your vehicle damage claim in a timely manner? Your car insurance company will probably think not. They might argue that you waited too long and therefore, the company's ability to assess the damage and identify the responsible driver is now compromised. As a result, they can try to deny your claim.
Continuing with our example, if you show your car insurance company the video footage, your pictures which show the dent in your door, and explain how they can get in touch with your neighbor, your insurance company may have a difficult time denying your claim.
This is because your car insurance company probably wasn’t actually harmed or "prejudiced" by your delay in reporting the loss. In other words, your car insurance company isn’t allowed to deny a claim based on the technicality of submitting a claim well after the accident. Only when the late filing of a claim actually results in detriment to the car insurance company can they use the late filing as a reason to deny the claim. Otherwise, the insurer may be liable for bad faith denial of an injury claim.
Is it always guaranteed to work out this way? No, since you have probably violated one of your duties under your car insurance policy. By waiting to file the claim, you have just given your car insurance company a quick and easy justification for denying your claim. Does this mean they’re correct and your claim isn’t covered? Not necessarily, but they now have a plausible reason for denying your claim. This means in order for you have your dent fixed, you may have no choice but to sue your car insurance company. But the cost to sue will likely be higher than paying for that dented door yourself.
Bottom line: Even though you usually have plenty of time to file a claim, don’t wait any longer than you have to. You want to avoid giving your car insurance company a reason to deny your claim or question its legitimacy. Getting the claims process started as soon as possible also ensures that you'll have plenty of time to take the matter to court if you need to file a lawsuit, and you won't be in danger of missing the lawsuit filing deadline set by your state's car accident statute of limitations.