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 will give you some best practices 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 to seek help from an attorney.
First, it helps to understand what we're talking about when we use the term "whiplash," which has for decades now been steadily falling out of favor in both the medical and legal realms, especially when it comes to car accident injuries.
When muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the neck are suddenly and powerfully contracted—due to the unexpected force of even a seemingly minor auto collision—this connective tissue can stretch unusually far. The resulting neck sprains and neck strains can result in a "soft tissue injury" that is sometimes called "hyperflexion" or "hyperextension," more commonly known as "whiplash" (at least historically).
Whiplash often results from rear-end car accidents. But whiplash and related neck injuries have a variety of causes—everything from repetitive stress at work to hits in contact sports.
The main symptoms of whiplash-type injuries include:
More severe whiplash-type injuries might be accompanied by memory loss, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, or fatigue.
Doctors can diagnose a whiplash injury by asking questions about the accident, conducting a physical exam to identify whiplash symptoms, and potentially using imaging scans like X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to rule out other possible conditions.
There is no universal treatment for whiplash—it depends on the nature and severity of the injury. Doctors will often suggest medication to manage pain. This can range from the use of over-the-counter pain relivers like ibuprofen to, in more serious cases, prescription medication or injections. Recovery from whiplash can also involve a regimen of stretching and strengthening exercises, sometimes performed under the supervision of a physical therapist.
After any car accident, you should call 911 if you, a passenger, or anyone else at the scene has been hurt. Even a minor auto collision is a shocking event, so you may not realize right away the extent of any injuries. So it's important to get medical attention if you're experiencing even the slightest pain, discomfort, limited movement, stiffness, or other indications of a possible neck injury.
If you're able to do so, you should gather evidence and information at the scene that might be helpful to your insurance claim or a possible lawsuit. This includes:
You should make recovering from your whiplash injury your top priority. Keep in mind that you might suffer a whiplash injury but not notice the symptoms until a few days have passed since the accident. If your whiplash symptoms are delayed, you should seek medical care as soon as you notice them. Whether you received medical attention right after the accident, or later, it is important to follow the treatment plan outlined by medical professionals.
You should also try to put yourself in the best position to receive a fair insurance settlement or—if necessary—to receive compensation through a lawsuit. To do that you should:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
As these examples show, your economic damages will vary widely depending on the severity of your whiplash injury and the necessary treatment.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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, or use the features on this page to connect with a personal injury lawyer near you.
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