Guide to Filing Property Damage Claims After a Car Accident

Get fair compensation for your wrecked car and ruined personal items. Here’s what you need to know about filing auto insurance claims for property damage.

Sooner or later, you’re bound to be involved in a car accident that damages your vehicle.

The average American driver can expect to be in at least three or four car accidents during their lifetime, and most accidents involve some kind of property damage. ¹

If you’ve been in a car accident caused by someone else, you have a right to expect the at-fault driver or their insurance company to pay for your damages.

Learn how to file a successful property damage claim, and what you can do if the insurance company won’t pay.

Property Damage Claims in Car Accidents

When you’ve been in a car accident, you are entitled to seek reimbursement from the at-fault driver for damage to your vehicle, lost personal belonging, and more.

Vehicle-related property damage claims might include:

  • The cost to repair your vehicle
  • Fair market value of the car if it’s a total loss
  • Rental car costs while your car is in the shop
  • Replacement value of upgrades you made to your car, like a stereo system or special wheel rims

You can also make a claim for lost or damaged personal property, such as:

  • Mobile phones
  • Laptops
  • Jewelry, including smart watches
  • Sunglasses and prescription eyeglasses

You can file a claim for any property you can prove was lost in the accident. For example, if you were on your way home with a week’s worth of groceries in the trunk, save your grocery receipt to support your claim if your groceries were ruined in the accident.

Car Seats and Booster Seats: Safety experts recommend that child car seats be replaced after a moderate or severe vehicle accident. Be sure to demand the car seat’s replacement cost from the insurance company.

Successful Claims Start at the Scene

Imagine you’re in your car, minding your own business when the next thing you know, you’re reeling from the impact of a crash.

Most states require drivers to stay on the scene, check for injuries, and exchange information with the other drivers.

Check out the rules for your location with our State-Specific Car Accident Guides.

Call the Police: After checking for injuries, call 911 to report the accident and ask for assistance. Depending on where you live, police officers may only be dispatched to the scene if someone is injured, traffic is disrupted, or conditions are dangerous to others.

Call the police regardless of the circumstances. The police report can be important evidence of the other driver’s fault, especially if they were ticketed.

The investigating officer will speak with you, the other driver, and any witnesses. They will investigate the scene and may take photographs. Traffic citations may be issued to the at-fault driver.

Collect Critical Information: While you’re at the accident scene, write down the information you’ll need during the claims process, including:

  • The other driver’s contact information
  • Vehicle make, model, and license number
  • The name, policy number, and telephone number of the other driver’s insurance company
  • Admissions made by the other driver, such as, “It was my fault,” or “I didn’t see you.”

Be prepared with our free Accident Information Form. Keep a copy in the car with a pen in the same place you keep your proof of insurance.

Take Photographs and Video: Use your cell phone or camera to take photos and videos of the accident scene from as many angles as is safely possible. Try to get pictures of:

  • The damage to both vehicles
  • The immediate area around the accident, including skid marks
  • Broken glass and any other broken parts that fell off the cars
  • The position of the cars
  • Any special wheels or accessories on your car
  • Any damaged or destroyed personal property

As soon as possible after the crash, while your memory is fresh, begin to gather other forms of important evidence to support your auto insurance claim.

Make a list of personal property damaged in the accident. Take pictures of the damaged items and try to locate pictures of the items from before the crash. Gather your purchase receipts for the items or find other documentation of each item’s replacement value.

Create a claim diary. Make a chronological list of all that goes on during the claims process. Your diary keeps important information at your fingertips. Document events as they occur, with dates, times, and details.

Write down important facts and events, such as:

  • The date and time of the accident
  • Weather conditions at the time of the crash
  • The police officers’ names and police report number
  • Names and phone numbers of witnesses
  • The other driver’s insurance information
  • Summaries of discussions you have with the claims adjuster

The more organized your claim file and notes are, the better your chance of maximizing your property damage compensation.

Dealing with Auto Insurance Companies

Most property damage claims end up being paid by auto insurance coverage.

Your no-fault insurance won’t cover car repairs. You may use your collision coverage, subject to a deductible, or make a claim directly against the at-fault driver’s insurance company.

You generally won’t have to get estimates for vehicle damage. The claims adjuster will inspect your car, or have the car evaluated by a vehicle repair facility that already has a business arrangement with the insurance company.

Notify Your Insurance Company

When the other driver accepts blame at the scene, you might not feel the need to notify your own insurance company, especially for minor fender-benders. This is a bad move.

Call your insurance company. Not only will you be protecting your financial interest, but your policy requires you to tell the company about every car accident.

Notification Clause: Nearly every auto insurance policy contains a “notification clause.” The clause means you agreed to tell the insurance company about an accident and to cooperate with the insurance company’s investigation of the accident.

The notification clause reads something like this:

“Insured (you) agrees to notify the insurer (your insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter comply with all information, assistance, and cooperation which the insurer reasonably requests, and agrees that in the event of a claim the insurer and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurer’s position…”

Duty to Defend: The insurance company must hire an attorney to defend you if someone from the other car files a lawsuit against you. You could lose that protection if you don’t notify the insurance company immediately after an accident.

Fraud Protection: Don’t rely on what the other driver says at the scene. Fake injury claims are filed every day after minor collisions. Your insurance company would be in a bad position if you hadn’t already told them about the accident.

Convenience: If you have collision coverage, you might prefer having your insurance company handle your claim for vehicle repairs and car rental. In turn, your insurance company will seek reimbursement from the other driver’s carrier. If you paid a deductible, they can often get that back for you, too.

No Insurance: If the at-fault driver had no valid insurance, your uninsured motorist coverage might cover property damage claims. Many states require uninsured coverage for injuries, with optional coverage available for uninsured property damage.

Notify the At-fault Driver’s Insurance Company

You can call the other driver’s insurance company to file a property damage claim. Your claim will be assigned to a claims adjuster. Make sure you get your claim number for future reference. If you’ve also filed an injury claim, there may be two different claim numbers.

The claims process begins when you file a property damage claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. Unlike personal injury claims, which can take weeks or months, property damage claims are simpler to prove and can be settled much faster.

The cost of automobile repairs is a fixed amount. In most cases, you won’t have to wait more than a few days while your car is being repaired.

A vehicle damage claim can normally be handled with a few telephone calls and emails. Your discussions with the auto repair shop and claims adjuster don’t have to be in person. Other than emailing or faxing some repair estimates, your claim can be handled over the phone.

As soon as you file a claim with the other driver’s insurance company, the claims adjuster’s job begins. The adjuster will coordinate with you and the auto repair shop.

Demand a Rental Car

You have a right to a rental while your car is undrivable. Most insurance companies have relationships with car rental agencies and can tell you where to pick up your rental. Alternately, you have the right to demand a similar amount of compensation for “loss of use” until you get your car back.

What About OEM Parts?

When your car is damaged, you have a right to have it brought back to the condition it was in before the accident.

Insurance companies want to pay as little as possible for auto claims. When your car is repaired with OEM or Original Equipment Manufactured parts, it means they are the same as the parts that originally came with your vehicle.

OEM parts are usually under warranty and should be as good as the original part.

If you don’t insist on OEM parts, the claims adjuster may only authorize “After-Market” parts. After-market parts are less expensive, easier to get, and may not be the same quality as OEM parts. These days, after-market parts can be as good as OEM, but not always.

Compensation Based on Actual Cash Value (ACV)

Every car has value. That value is set by the Kelly Blue Book, or a company called CCC Information Services. Around 80 percent of claims adjusters use CCC’s valuation program to calculate Actual Cash Value. The book value helps the adjuster decide whether to authorize repairs or consider the vehicle a total loss.

The book value of your vehicle depends on the age, condition, mileage, and even your home location. For example, in rural locations, pick-up trucks tend to hold a higher value than in more urban areas.

When the estimated repairs would cost more than the value of your car, the insurance company doesn’t have to pay for the repairs. Instead, they will “total” your car and write you a check for the book value.

You can decide to keep a car that’s been declared a total loss. However, the insurance company will probably deduct the salvage value from your payout, since it would have offset their loss. They may also notify your state’s DMV that the car was totaled.

The value of your car does not depend on the amount you might still owe on a car loan. If your vehicle is “totaled” for an amount less than your loan balance, the bank will still expect you to make your car payments unless you work out another arrangement.

Taking Property Damage Claims to Court

Most property damage claims are settled in a reasonable amount of time for a fair amount of money. If the other driver’s insurance company denies your claim or the at-fault driver doesn’t have insurance, talk with your insurance carrier.

If you don’t have collision coverage or uninsured property damage coverage, you’re on your own.

Most property damage claims will be within your state’s monetary limits for small claims court. Small claims courts are the perfect venue for resolving financial disputes over property damage.

You must file a small claims lawsuit directly against the other driver, not their insurance company. However, if the other driver is insured, their company may have a “duty to defend” their insured by sending a lawyer.

You don’t need an attorney for small claims court. These courts are meant to help people settle disputes on their own, without legal help.

Still, you have nothing to lose by consulting an attorney before deciding to represent yourself in court.

Most attorneys don’t charge for your initial consultation. It costs nothing to find out what an experienced attorney can do for you.

Video: How to File a Property Damage Claim

Car Accident Property Damage Claim Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>