Car Accident Claim Guide: What to Do and How to Maximize Your Compensation

Learn how to make a strong car accident claim and deal with the insurance company. You deserve fair compensation after an accident.

Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of personal injury claims in the United States. More than 4.8 million people need medical treatment every year because of car accidents.¹

Car accident injuries can range from minor scrapes and bruises to permanent disability and death.

When you’re injured in an accident caused by someone else, you have the right to expect fair compensation.

What to Do After a Car Accident

Vehicle collisions are sudden and violent. You may be confused in the aftermath and not know what to do. It pays to think about the right steps to take after an accident. Your actions can have serious effects on your health and financial future.

The below steps are critical to building a strong car accident claim.

7 Critical Steps After an Accident

  1. Move to a safe area. If your car is driveable, move it off the road. If your car can’t move, leave it and move yourself to safety. In some situations, it may be safest to wait in the vehicle until police arrive.
  2. Check for injuries and call 911. Tell the dispatcher if you or anyone else might be hurt, or if your car is in a dangerous location.
  3. Get medical treatment. When paramedics arrive, let them treat you. Go to the hospital if they recommend it, and follow up with outpatient treatment. Refusing medical care at the scene and not getting follow-up treatment can sink your injury claim.
  4. Stay calm and exchange information. If no one is seriously injured, get the other driver’s contact information and insurance information. This includes their license plate and policy number.
  5. Gather evidence at the scene. If you’re able, collect as much car accident evidence as possible. Take photos, preserve damaged personal items, and talk to witnesses. But don’t risk making your injuries worse. If you’re injured, you can rely on the police accident report.
  6. Notify the insurance companies. Soon after returning home from the scene of the accident, notify your insurance company and the at-fault driver’s insurance of the collision. At this point, you’re just letting them know. Try to give as little information as possible.
  7. Consider consulting an attorney. If your injuries and property damage are minor, you may be able to handle the claim yourself. If you suffered moderate to severe injuries, you need an experienced attorney in your corner.

Click for What to Do After an Accident in Your State

How to Calculate Car Accident Compensation

You can estimate your car accident compensation by totaling your economic damages, then adding a multiple of that amount to account for your pain and suffering. The multiple depends on the severity of your injuries, but is commonly between 1-5 times your medical expenses.

3 Steps to Calculating a Minor Injury Settlement

  1. Add up your economic damages: Add up all your medical expenses, lost wages, transportation costs, and any other accident-related expenses you can document.
  2. Account for your pain and suffering: Take the total of your economic damages from step 1 and multiply that amount by 1-2x to get an amount you can claim for non-economic damages. More serious injuries will get a higher multiple.
  3. Combine both amounts for a total demand: Add the amounts for your economic losses and pain and suffering together to arrive at a reasonable estimate of your claim’s value.

Factors that Influence Your Car Accident Compensation

  1. Shared fault and negligence laws: In most states, your compensation will be reduced according to your percentage of fault for causing the accident. Depending on the state, if you are equally or more at fault than the other driver, you will be barred from getting any compensation from the other driver’s insurance.
  2. Amount of economic damages: Compensation is largely based on verifiable costs, like medical bills and lost wages. If you have no physical injuries verified by medical records, it will be much more difficult to get compensation.
  3. Severity of injuries: Minor injuries have lower payouts, with a nominal amount for pain and suffering. Severe, potentially disabling injuries are high-dollar claims and more difficult to calculate. Only an experienced law firm can fairly value serious injury claims.
  4. Auto insurance policy limits: Many drivers only carry the state’s minimum requirement for auto insurance. If your injuries are severe, there won’t be enough insurance money to cover your damages. If the at-fault driver was uninsured or underinsured, you’ll need to file a first-party claim with your own insurance company for compensation.

Ideally, you want to settle your car accident claim for an amount that covers all your damages, including pain and suffering. Your initial settlement demand should be higher than what you expect to receive, as the amount will be reduced through negotiations with the insurance adjuster

Your total economic damages consist of all your medical expenses, out-of-pocket costs, and your lost wages. You’ll use the full amount of your medical costs, even if your health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid covered most of it. Then you’ll multiply all your economic costs by 1-3x to get your pain and suffering demand.

In no-fault insurance states, Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage will not pay for pain and suffering, unless your injuries are serious. If your injuries meet the serious injury threshold, you can pursue pain and suffering compensation.

In states with traditional fault laws, it’s reasonable to include an amount for pain and suffering in your demand.

For most claims, it’s fair to ask for one to three times the amount of your economic losses to account for pain and suffering. For severe injuries, you could ask for four or five times your economic losses, or more. You’ll need an attorney to get the maximum settlement amount for severe injuries.

Who’s At-Fault for the Accident?

Determining who’s at fault in a car accident requires evidence. You must prove the at-fault driver did something wrong, or failed to do what any reasonable driver would do under the same circumstances.

Evidence proving fault can include traffic citations, witness statements, accident photos, cell phone records, the other driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and more. The police report can help establish the other driver’s fault and show that you did nothing to cause the collision. This is another reason why it’s critical to call 911 after an accident.

Yes, fault matters in car accident claims. In most states, the at-fault driver’s insurance company is responsible for paying your damages, including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. But you won’t get a dime unless you can prove their insured caused the crash.

If you live in a no-fault state, your injuries will be covered by your Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage no matter who caused the crash. Even if you only suffered minor injuries, the at-fault driver’s insurer should still cover your vehicle property damage.

The Auto Insurance Claims Process

Each state has different rules, but most auto insurance companies handle claims in similar ways.

Steps of the Auto Insurance Claims Process

  1. Notification: You or your attorney will send a notice of intent to file an injury claim to the other driver’s car insurance company. The company will respond with a claim number and assign an adjuster to handle the claim.
  2. Recorded Statement: The adjuster may call and ask to take your recorded statement, but beware. The adjuster is trained to get you to say things that can hurt your case. You are under no obligation to give a statement before consulting an attorney.
  3. Car Repairs: The at-fault driver’s insurance company is responsible for your car repairs (or payoff for a total loss) and rental car charges while your vehicle is in the shop. If you have collision coverage, you may choose to let your own insurer handle your car accident property damage claim.
  4. Early Settlement Offer: You may get a settlement offer immediately. The insurance adjuster would love to get you to settle for a small amount and go away. It’s better for you to put off settlement discussions until you’re finished treating your injuries.
  5. Begin Negotiations: After you’ve finished treatment, it’s time to open claim negotiations. You begin the process by sending a settlement demand letter and supporting documents to the at-fault driver’s insurance company.
  6. Final Settlement: After a few rounds of negotiations, you will hopefully reach a compromised settlement agreement. Once you sign the agreement, you should receive your check within a few weeks.
  7. Failed Negotiations: If negotiations fail, you have other options, including arbitration or filing a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

Negotiating a Car Accident Claim

If you’ve fully recovered from relatively minor injuries, you might decide to settle your car accident claim without a lawyer. Preparation is key to successful negotiations.

Gather and organize your evidence so it’s easy to find while talking to the adjuster. Prepare your notes and talking points in advance, and know the strengths and weaknesses of your case. It helps to try thinking like an adjuster to anticipate what their arguments might be.

Experienced negotiators expect both sides to compromise, but always keep in mind your “bottom line” amount and never go below it. If settlement discussions break down, you have other options. Remember, you can consult an attorney at any point in the claim negotiation process.

Tips for Dealing With the Insurance Company

  1. Remember that the insurance company is not on your side.
  2. The adjuster is not your friend. Don’t confide in them or discuss your money problems, marital woes, or other personal issues they can use against you.
  3. Gather and organize as much evidence and accident-related information as possible.
  4. Don’t give a recorded statement before consulting an attorney.
  5. Don’t sign anything – including a medical release form – that you don’t fully understand. The insurance company only needs medical records directly related to your car accident injuries.
  6. Wait until you’ve fully recovered to discuss settlement. An attorney should handle claims for serious injuries.
  7. If you decide to handle your claim without an attorney, be prepared and stick to the facts during settlement negotiations.
  8. You have the right to consult an attorney at any point in the claims process, up until you sign a settlement agreement.

Yes. Always file a claim against the other driver’s insurance company if there were injuries, vehicle damage, or if liability is unclear. Notify your own insurance company as well. Most insurers make notification easy through their website, mobile app, or phone number.

Even if you were in a fender bender it’s a good idea to notify your insurance. The other driver or their passengers might say they feel fine at the scene, only to assert severe injuries later on. Your insurance company has to defend you as long as you notify them of an accident.

From initial notification to final settlement, the claims process can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more. It depends on how long it takes for your injuries to heal, and how smoothly negotiations progress with the insurance company.

Each state has a statute of limitations for personal injury claims, usually one to three years after the accident date. If you haven’t settled your claim or filed a lawsuit before the statutory deadline, you’ll forfeit your right to compensation.

You can pursue the at-fault driver’s auto insurance coverage for any bodily injuries caused by the crash, even if it’s an aggravated pre-existing condition.

Claims for emotional distress and other mental health injuries may be covered, but are more difficult to win, especially in the absence of a corresponding physical injury.

All is not lost if your car insurance claim is denied. The insurance company must give a reason for the denial. You may only need to provide additional evidence to get the adjuster to reconsider your claim.

If the other driver’s insurance company won’t cooperate, you have options, including filing a lawsuit directly against the at-fault driver.

When your own insurance company denies a claim, consider talking to a personal injury attorney. An attorney can often compel your insurer to pay the coverage at issue. The attorney can also determine if you have grounds for a bad-faith lawsuit against your insurer.

Common Types of Accidents and Causes

While no two auto accidents are exactly alike, each type of accident has its own unique factors. A bus accident is different from an ATV crash, a rear-end accident is different from a pedestrian collision. Learn more about the specific type of accident that caused your injuries to get a head start on building a strong claim.

Common Causes of Accidents

To better understand the different case types, review some car accident case examples.

Benefits of Hiring a Car Accident Lawyer

Hiring a licensed personal injury attorney can help your case in many ways. They have years of experience pursuing accident settlements and dealing with insurance companies.

You may be able to negotiate a fair settlement for minor injuries without a lawyer, but for serious injury claims, an attorney is critical.

What a personal injury attorney does:

  • Handles correspondence with the at-fault driver’s insurance company
  • Obtains evidence you’d have a hard time gathering on your own
  • Identifies additional sources of compensation
  • Likely negotiates a higher settlement than you could on your own
  • Files a lawsuit if the insurance company won’t offer a fair settlement
  • Handles your claim so you can focus on recovering from your injuries

Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis, meaning you don’t pay anything unless your claim settles or wins at trial. Typical attorney fees are 33.3 percent of an out-of-court settlement, and 40 percent if your case goes to trial.

Expenses like court filing fees, administrative costs, and expert witness fees are also taken out of the total settlement amount.

To help avoid getting into an accident, review our Guide to Driving Safety.

Car Accident Claim Questions & Answers