Tips for Settling a Car Accident Claim

Here's how to get the most from your car accident settlement.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you've been involved in a car accident, you may be wondering how to go about settling a claim for injury or vehicle damage, so you can put the accident behind you and get on with your life. Here's what to know at the outset:

  • It's crucial to gather the right evidence and documentation to best position your car accident claim for success.
  • The insurance adjuster's first settlement offer is just the initial step in a (sometimes difficult) negotiation process, so be prepared to fight for the best result.
  • If settlement talks stall or you feel your claim isn't be taken seriously, it might be time to talk to an attorney to figure out the best strategy, including the option of filing a car accident lawsuit.

What to Do After a Car Accident

In order to protect yourself and any claim you end up making, it's important to take the right steps after a car accident, starting at the scene.

Gather information at the car accident scene, including the names and contact information for anyone else involved in the crash, and any witnesses. Exchange driver's license and car insurance information with other drivers, and if a law enforcement officer comes to the scene, be sure to get their badge number or other identifying information so you can get a copy of any police report generated over the accident.

It's also a good idea to take pictures at the accident scene, including of:

  • the location of the vehicles
  • areas of physical damage on each vehicle
  • the license plates of each vehicle
  • location of vehicle debris, skid marks, and other evidence on the ground
  • location of traffic lights and signage, and
  • anything else that might be relevant to the crash and how it happened.

Learn more in our checklist of steps to take after a car accident.

The Car Accident Claim Process

Even when the other driver may have caused your car accident, you usually will not be dealing directly with them to settle your claim for damages. Typically you will work directly with the at-fault driver's insurance company, making what's called a "third party" claim against their liability car insurance coverage. (Note: You might end up filing a claim with your own insurance company if you live in a no-fault car insurance state, or the other driver is uninsured, or you're using your collision coverage.)

When you're making a car insurance claim with the other driver's insurance company, it's important to keep two key points in mind:

  • the insurance company will require a lot of information from you, and
  • the other driver's insurance company is not on your side.

The insurance company is in business to make money, and it makes money when it pays out less to you on a claim than it otherwise has to. The insurance company tries to accomplish this by arguing (1) the accident was completely or partially your fault, and so you should only be paid a reduced amount on your claim, or (2) you haven't provided sufficient documentation to support your claim. Sometimes it may argue both points with you.

You may find the car insurance claim process frustrating, and even exasperating. However, the more information and documentation you provide to the insurance company, the more likely you are to receive fair compensation for all of your accident-related losses (called "damages" in the language of the law).

Learn more about when you're entitled to compensation after a car accident.

How to Start Your Car Accident Claim

Usually, starting a car accident claim just requires making a phone call to the insurance company (your own or the other driver's), telling them about the accident, and letting them know that you intend to pursue a claim under available car insurance coverage. At that point the representative for the insurance company may ask you for certain details about the accident over the phone to get the claim started, or they might direct you to the company's website or app, which might feature a claim-filing portal of some kind.

Learn more about getting the car accident claim process started, and how soon you need to file a car insurance claim after an accident.

Communicating With the Claim Adjuster

Keep in mind that starting the claim is only the beginning, and that as the claim proceeds, you'll need to be responsive to the insurance company's requests for information and documentation that will help them investigate the accident and assess the losses you're claiming. For example, if you're seeking compensation for injuries as part of your claim, one of the first things you'll need to provide is authorization for the release of your accident-related medical records.

At the same time, it's important to be cautious when it comes to communicating with the other driver's insurance company. Even when their insured (the other driver) is clearly at fault for the accident, they'll still be more than happy to use any information or statement you provide to limit what they need to pay out to you through your third party claim. Learn more about talking (and not talking) to the other driver's car insurance company after a car accident.

Negotiating a Car Accident Settlement

You're likely to receive a settlement offer fairly early on after the car accident, especially when you're dealing with the other driver's car insurance company. Even if you haven't officially filed a claim with them, the other driver's insurer may offer you a quick settlement in the hope that you'll take it, and the matter can be resolved (usually before you even understand the nature and extent of your accident-related losses).

For example, you might have been treated and released from the hospital emergency room. Shorty after, the other driver's insurance company may want you to agree to a quick settlement based only on the medical expenses you've incurred up to that point. However, from a medical standpoint, you may not be fully aware of the extent of your injuries. Sometimes the symptoms of injuries don't appear for weeks after a car accident. If you enter into a quick settlement with the insurance company, and then find out you need more medical treatment for your injuries, you can't later go back to the insurance company and ask for additional compensation.

Learn more about why you can (and usually should) turn down the car insurance company's first settlement offer.

If you're making a third party claim, keep in mind that the car insurance company's settlement offer will be based only on the information and documentation you've given them. If you haven't provided adequate proof of an out-of-pocket expense, for example, the insurance company will take the position that you're not entitled to repayment for that part of your claim.

Similarly, if the insurance company takes issue with some aspect of your medical treatment (such as chiropractic care or physical therapy), be prepared to show why that treatment was necessary, and to provide as much documentation as possible.

If you've received a settlement offer that you think is unreasonably low, you may need to respond with a detailed personal injury demand letter that lays out your side of the claim, including an itemized list of your damages, and specific responses (in writing) to the adjuster's position.

Remember, the insurance company will enter a settlement agreement only if it's the company's best interests to do so. However, on the whole, the insurance company knows that settling a claim is in its best interests. Litigation is expensive, and the insurance company ultimately knows that's it a better bottom line move to pay you the fair value of your claim now rather than pay attorney fees to fight a car accident lawsuit court, especially when the outcome of a trial would be unpredictable. That's why, while the process can be anywhere from relatively straightforward, to downright grueling, most car accident cases end up settling.

How Long Will It Take to Receive My Car Accident Claim Settlement?

The timeline of any car accident claim depends very much on the specifics of the individual case.

In general though, the more significant your car accident injuries (and in turn, the higher potential dollar value of your damages), the bigger the settlement negotiation fight you can expect, and the longer the settlement process might take. In instances like this, there's more at stake for you (in terms of making sure you get a fair result after a car accident that has had a big impact on your life), and there's also more at stake for the insurance company (in terms of limiting what could be significant financial losses).

Learn more about how long a car accident claim might take.

How Much Is My Car Accident Settlement Worth?

As with trying to predict how long the settlement process might take, the question of how much you'll receive in compensation for your car accident-related losses is difficult to answer.

If you're making a claim for property damage only after a car accident, some of the different kinds of reimbursement you can expect to collect include:

  • vehicle damage
  • personal property damage—reimbursement for damage to (or replacement of) items such as a computer that may have been in the car, or a bike on a carrier
  • car rental—most car insurance policies allow for reimbursement of reasonable costs to rent a car while a vehicle is being repaired after a car accident, and
  • other reasonably-incurred out-of-pocket expenses—for example, if you took a taxi or rideshare home from the accident scene.

Sometimes your car accident may be much more serious than just an ordinary "fender bender." If you've suffered injuries in the accident, your damages can include a wider spectrum of losses, including:

  • the cost of your medical bills associated with your car accident injuries
  • the expected cost of medical treatment you'll require in the future, and
  • your mental and physical pain and suffering associated with the accident, your injuries, and the course of your future medical treatment.

What Happens When Your Car Accident Claim Exceeds Insurance Limits?

If you've got underinsured motorist coverage as part of your own car insurance policy, now would be the time to turn to that protection to (potentially) make up the difference between the limits of the at-fault driver's liability coverage and the fair dollar value of your damages.

If all else fails, you can always file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver and hope you can squeeze a settlement out of them—or in the alternative, hope you win the case if it goes all the way to trial. But keep in mind that without the financial umbrella of insurance coverage, you'll need to hope that the driver has sufficient assets to pay you anything at all, let alone the full value of your claim. Learn more about why it can be a challenge to collect a court judgment after a successful lawsuit.

Can I File a Lawsuit After a Car Accident?

If car accident settlement talks stall, or if you think the insurance company isn't taking you or your claim seriously enough, you always have the option of escalating things by filing a lawsuit in court—as long as there's still time to do so under the lawsuit-filing deadline set by the statute of limitations in your state. (Get details on the statute of limitations for car accident lawsuits.)

In some situations, the mere fact that you've filed the lawsuit will be enough to spur the insurance company into coming back to the negotiation table with a fair settlement offer. Learn more about when it might make sense to file a car accident lawsuit.

If you're not getting anywhere with the settlement process, and you're convinced that taking the matter to court is your only option, this is the point where it's best to discuss your situation with a car accident lawyer (if you haven't done so already).

    Can a Lawyer Help Me With a Car Accident Claim?

    If you're comfortable hanging in there with the car accident settlement process until you get the right result, it might be fine to try to handle your car accident claim on your own. But especially if your injuries are significant, it might be wise to at least discuss your situation (and your options) with an experienced legal professional. Things can turn pretty quickly when the other driver's insurance company doesn't seem to be willing to negotiate fairly, and there's simply no substitute for expertise.

    Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a car accident claim. If you're ready to reach out for help now, you can use the features right on this page to connect with a car accident attorney in your area.

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