How to Get the Best Whiplash Car Accident Settlement

It’s tough to predict the amount of a whiplash settlement, but here’s what to keep in mind as you seek compensation.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Even a minor car accident can result in whiplash or a similar neck injury. Most people recover in a few weeks. But, for some, whiplash can become a chronic condition—so it's important to obtain a car accident settlement that covers as much of the cost (economic and otherwise) of the injury as possible.

Unfortunately, because whiplash can be difficult to diagnose, insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to offer adequate compensation. There's no one-size-fits-all approach for determining the value of a whiplash settlement or negotiating with the insurance company, but this article offers some tips for:

  • handling the insurance claims investigation
  • negotiating the best settlement, and
  • deciding if it makes sense to file a lawsuit.

We'll also discuss when it makes sense to seek help from an attorney when you've suffered whiplash-related injuries after a car accident.

Get the basics on whiplash injuries and what to do after an accident.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Chances of Getting a Whiplash Settlement?

As we mentioned above, you should file an insurance claim quickly if you've suffered a whiplash injury in a car accident. Insurance companies generally require you to file a claim within a reasonable amount of time—and the sooner you do, the sooner you can expect to receive a settlement.

Here are some important points to remember as you go through the claim and settlement process for your whiplash injury.

Make Sure You Know Where to File Your Claim

You're required to notify your own insurance company if you've been in an accident that may trigger your coverage. But that's different from filing a claim to be compensated for your injury. Whether you file your whiplash claim with your own insurance carrier, or the other driver's, will depend on factors including:

  • Whether the accident was your responsibility—if so, and if you have the right kinds of coverage, you'll be filing a claim with your own insurance carrier to cover costs associated with your injury.
  • Whether the at-fault driver has insurance. If not, or if their coverage is too limited to cover the full cost of your injury, you may need to rely on your own uninsured motorist (UIM) or underinsured motorist coverage. Keep in mind that this kind of coverage isn't required in most states—you usually need to specifically purchase it as an add-on to your insurance plan.
  • Whether you live in a "no-fault" insurance state. In most states, insurance companies determine who was at fault for an accident, and that driver's insurance will usually cover the resulting costs. But about a dozen states follow some version of a no-fault compensation system. That means you'll file your whiplash injury claim with your own insurance, even if another insured driver caused the accident.

Cooperate with the Claims Investigation—But Be Careful

Once you've filed your claim, the insurance company will begin gathering information to determine what happened and how much compensation (if any) you should receive for your whiplash injury.

If you're working with your own insurance company your contract with them will require you to cooperate in certain ways. But, even if the other driver's insurance is handling the claim, you can improve your chances of receiving the best settlement by cooperating with the claims adjuster.

But remember that the insurance company—even if it's yours and not the other driver's—is interested in minimizing the amount of money they'll have to pay to cover the costs of your whiplash injury. That means they'll be looking for evidence that your injury isn't that serious, or that you haven't done enough to get it properly diagnosed or treated. Here's how to help yourself get the best settlement:

  1. Be careful what you say and what information you provide. Don't try to diagnose yourself, or get into unnecessary detail about how you're feeling. Especially early on, when you might not know the extent of your injury, you should stick to the basic facts and rely on information provided by medical professionals. You should also make sure not to turn over information the insurance company doesn't have a right to see. For example, don't sign a medical release that gives the company more access to your health information than it needs to evaluate your whiplash claim.
  2. Be careful what you do. Follow medical advice and avoid pushing yourself to do things that are uncomfortable or discouraged by your doctor. This is the best approach for your health. It's also the best approach for your claim, since the insurance company's investigation could include checking your social media accounts or observing you in public. You don't want to push yourself and then have the insurance company use it to argue that your injury can't really be that serious.
  3. Make sure you've collected evidence and can provide helpful details of your injury and the costs it has imposed on you.
  4. Get help from a lawyer if you're concerned about handling the process yourself.

The insurance investigation of a minor fender bender might involve a few days and some phone calls. But if you've been injured in an accident, the investigation could take weeks or even months as the insurance company speaks to witnesses and examines the medical and financial records. This is especially true with a whiplash claim—because soft-tissue injuries are difficult to diagnose, insurers will often take additional steps to verify the extent of your injury.

Remember That You Can and Should Negotiate for a Better Settlement

Once the insurance company has completed its investigation they will make you an offer to settle your whiplash claim. But you're not just making a yes-or-no choice about their offer. The insurance company views its opening offer as the first step in a negotiation, and so should you.

As you go back-and-forth with the insurance company, remember that:

  • You should put everything in writing. You should respond to the insurance company's offer in a car accident injury demand letter. This creates a record you can refer back to as negotiations continue (or in the event of a lawsuit). In addition to sending a letter it may also be useful to talk on the phone. If you do, you should make notes of those conversations and save them in your records.
  • You should have a settlement amount in mind. As we'll discuss in the next section, it's important to accurately calculate the economic costs of your injury and to use that as the starting point for deciding on a reasonable settlement. Remember that your first proposal should be for the largest amount you can reasonably justify based on your losses. Just like the insurance company expects to eventually pay more than their initial settlement proposal, they'll expect you to accept less than the amount of your initial demand.
  • You should back up your settlement demand with evidence. Putting things in writing is helpful because it allows you to present your case clearly and in detail. Referencing the evidence you've gathered in support of your whiplash claim will make it easier to show that the insurance company's settlement offer is too low,
  • You should make sure things move at the right pace. Don't let the insurance adjuster rush you into accepting a settlement before you've had a chance to make your best case. On the other hand, if the adjuster has promised to provide you with information or a counter-offer, you're entitled to follow up if they don't get back to you in a reasonable amount of time.

Finally, if you and the insurance company are too far apart on a reasonable resolution of your claim, it may be time to seek assistance from an experienced car accident attorney.

How Much Is My Whiplash Settlement Worth?

It's important to note that in a whiplash case your damages—that is, the monetary value of your losses from the accident—will usually be relatively small. Whiplash, or a neck strain or sprain, is generally not a severe injury like, for example, damage to the intervertebral disks. So, your claim may not be a big one, but how should you estimate its value?

What Is the Average Whiplash Settlement Amount?

When you've been injured in a car accident It's natural to want certainty about how you'll be compensated. But whiplash injuries vary so much—both in their severity and in the cost of treatment—that it's tough to estimate an "average" settlement. You're better off focusing on your own situation, especially since you can help maximize any settlement by keeping close track of the costs you've suffered as a result of your injury. Those costs can be divided into two main categories: economic damages and pain and suffering.

What Are Your Economic Damages?

The first thing to do is to add up the cost of treating your injury, and any money you lost from not being able to work. For example, if you're in a fender bender and suffer a minor case of whiplash, your economic damages could include:

  • the cost of a visit to the emergency room to get your injury diagnosed and treated
  • the cost of over-the-counter pain medication, ice packs and a heating pad, and
  • lost wages from missing a day or two of work as you rest and recuperate.

These costs and disruptions are significant, but they aren't likely to total more than a few thousand dollars. On the other hand, if you suffer a major whiplash injury in a more serious car accident, your damages could include:

  • thousands (even tens of thousands) of dollars in lost earnings and
  • tens of thousands of dollars to pay for surgery or physical therapy.

As these examples show, your economic damages will vary widely depending on the severity of your whiplash injury and the necessary treatment.

How Should You Value Pain and Suffering in Your Whiplash Case?

The second major category is non-economic damages, which includes compensation for pain and suffering.

This is often the big variable in a whiplash case. You may have heard or read about use of a "multiplier" as part of a mysterious car accident settlement formula, where the insurance companies calculate pain and suffering as being worth some multiple of your economic damages. The multiplier could be anywhere from 1.5 to 4.

But the multiplier concept is accurate only up to a point. If you're in an accident and can't reach a settlement with the insurance company, you might decide to file a lawsuit. If your case went to trial, the jury would not use a multiplier. In reality, there are so many other factors that increase or decrease a damages award at trial that it probably doesn't make sense to rely too much on the multiplier concept. These factors include:

  • whether the plaintiff is a good or bad witness
  • whether the plaintiff is believable
  • whether the jury understands the plaintiff's injuries, and
  • the nature and extent of the plaintiff's medical treatment.

For example, if the vast majority of the plaintiff's medical bills are for physical therapy or chiropractic treatment—as opposed to physician's or hospital bills—juries (and insurance companies) are likely to discount the plaintiff's injuries. Right or wrong, juries and insurers tend to believe that if someone was really injured, they would be seeing doctors, not physical therapists or chiropractors.

How Useful Are Whiplash Settlement Calculators?

The value of your settlement is so tied to the specific facts of your case that it's important not to rely too much on whiplash settlement calculators (or other personal injury settlement calculators). These online tools give you a possible settlement number based on the dollar amounts of your economic damages and an estimate of your pain-and-suffering multiplier. While there's no harm in using tools like this to get a general idea of what your settlement might be, they can't account for the complexity of individual cases and are not a substitute for legal advice.

Should I File a Lawsuit to Get Compensated for My Whiplash Injury?

If you're concerned that your insurance settlement offer doesn't reflect the severity and costs of your whiplash injury, you can consider filing a lawsuit to recover more money. A lawsuit can be complicated and expensive, and whether it's a good move for you depends on the specifics of your situation. It may be helpful to consult with an attorney to discuss your options and your prospects of success if you decide to sue. Learn more about when you might want to file a car accident lawsuit.

Getting a Lawyer's Help With Your Whiplash Settlement

Navigating the aftermath of a whiplash injury and obtaining the best settlement can be challenging, especially if you're dealing with significant pain or mobility issues. An attorney may be able to answer questions about the process, negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf, and help you decide if it makes sense to file a lawsuit. Learn more about how an attorney can help with a car accident case.

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