If you’re in an accident, you’ll need to take a number of steps immediately such as notifying the police, exchanging information with the other driver, and documenting the damage for your insurance claim. Depending on your coverage and the accident, you may need to file a claim with your insurance company or the other driver’s insurance company.

All car insurance claims are unique. State insurance laws can influence how the process unfolds, such as processing times and assessing fault. Understand your policyholder rights and what to do if an insurer denies your claim or offers an unacceptable settlement.

Key Takeaways

  • Following an accident, notify the police, exchange information with the other driver, document the damage for your insurance claim, and then call your insurer.
  • You can file a claim with the other driver’s insurance company if they were at fault. Otherwise, if you carry collision, comprehensive, PIP, or uninsured motorist insurance, file with your own insurer.
  • Insurers deny claims if you lack the required coverage, provided false information in your application, or they suspect you of fraud.
  • Comparative negligence laws can limit the amount of a settlement offer.
  • If you’re unhappy with the results of your claim, your state insurance department may be able to help.

What to Do on the Accident Site: Steps to Take 

So, you’ve just had a fender bender. Here’s what you need to do:

Get to Safety

If your vehicle is blocking traffic, move it to the side of the road if you can do so safely. However, if your car is leaking fluids, such as oil or gasoline, leave the vehicle where it is and go to a safe place. Use flares or emergency triangles to warn other drivers. 

Check for Injuries

If the accident involves injuries, call 911. Render first aid until an ambulance arrives.

Notify the Police

Contact the police department. In some locations, the police may only respond to some accidents. Even so, it’s essential to notify the police because some auto insurance policies require notification within a specific period.

Exchange Information

Get the other driver’s information, including:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Telephone number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Insurer’s contact information
  • Vehicle identification number (VIN)
  • License plate number
  • Make and model of vehicle

You may need to verify the above by looking at the physical driver’s license and vehicle registration. It may be easiest to take a photo of the driver’s license, license plate number, VIN, and registration. 

Get the contact information of all passengers and witnesses. 

Document the Damage

Take photos of the accident scene, including shots of traffic signals. Take photos and/or video of all damaged vehicles. If damages or injuries occurred, state law might require you to report the accident to your state’s department of motor vehicles. 

Call Your Insurer

Contact your insurance agent, even if the other driver seems to be at fault for the accident. When speaking to an agent, ask the following questions:

  • What coverages do I carry?
  • What are my coverage limits?
  • What is my deductible?
  • Does my policy cover a rental car?

The agent may require you to submit photos of your car’s damage or schedule an appointment for an in-person inspection. Typically, the agent will request that you take your automobile to a body shop to estimate repair costs.

In some locations, the law requires drivers to notify the police when an accident results in bodily injuries or serious property damage. Local and state laws vary, but failure to notify the police of an accident may appear to be a hit-and-run and result in a driver’s license suspension.

Filing a Claim Against the Other Driver

Following a traffic accident, you can file a claim with your own insurance company if you carry the coverage needed to repair your vehicle or pay for injuries. However, if the other driver was at fault for the accident, you can file a claim with their insurance provider. Filing a claim with your insurer is called a “first-party claim,” while filing a claim with another driver’s carrier is called a “third-party claim.”

A third-party claim has advantages and disadvantages. If you reach an agreeable settlement, their insurer will pay the claim. Your insurer will not.

But, the third-party insurer represents its policyholder, not you. After investigating the accident, the third-party adjuster may offer you a settlement if they determine that their policyholder was at fault for the collision. For this to occur, their policyholder must cooperate with the investigation.

Bodily Injury Claims

Often, an insurance company will only settle a bodily injury claim after all medical treatments are completed. For instance, if you break a leg in an accident, the insurer likely will not pay the bodily injury claim until you have completed all doctor’s appointments and physical therapy sessions.

When offering a bodily injury settlement, the insurer will require you to sign a “release for damages” agreement. By signing the document, you agree to the settlement and cannot file another claim later. That’s why it’s important to wait to accept a settlement after you fully recover from your injuries.

Filing a Claim Using Your Own Insurance

If you suffer injuries and damage to your car in an accident, you may file a claim with your insurance company. If you are at fault for an accident, you must file a claim with your carrier as long as your coverage applies. In most states, you file a first-party claim if you carry:

  • Collision: For accidents involving a collision
  • Comprehensive: For theft and vandalism
  • Medical payments or personal injury protection (PIP) coverages: For injuries
  • Uninsured motorist: If the other driver wasn’t insured

If you only carry state-mandated liability coverages, your provider will not cover your injuries or property damage. But in “no-fault” states such as New York, you may also file a claim with your own insurance for injuries.

Comparative Negligence

Some states have comparative negligence laws. These laws require insurance companies to assess the level of fault caused by each driver. 

For example, suppose you’re speeding and slam into the side of a car that runs a red light. Your provider and the other motorist’s insurance adjusters might determine that the other driver was 90% responsible for running the red light. But you were also 10% responsible because you were driving too fast to avoid the collision.

Some state laws set a comparative negligence threshold for collecting damages. For example, Utah law won’t allow you to collect damages if you are more than 50% responsible for the collision. In our scenario, the third-party insurer must pay you for your car’s repairs. However, the third-party insurer may only offer a 90% settlement because you were partially responsible.

Next Steps

States may limit how long an insurer can respond to a claim. For instance, New York law requires providers to make a property damage offer within six business days.

If your claim is accepted, the insurance company will pay the settlement based on the policy’s coverage limit. For example, if a policy covers $20,000 in property damage losses, it will only pay up to $20,000 for a claim.

Property Damage Claims

When filing a first-party claim to repair your vehicle, you can choose the repair shop. If you disagree with the settlement amount, you can request an independent appraisal. However, the insurance adjuster and appraiser will determine the vehicle’s cash value.

If the damage to your car exceeds its pre-accident cash value or has other serious issues, such as flooding, the insurance company could deem it a total loss. In such cases, the insurer only pays the depreciated value of the automobile. For example, if you total a vehicle with a market value of $10,000, the settlement amount will not exceed $10,000. 

In general, the threshold for a “total loss” is set state by state, either by percentage or using a formula. 

Bodily Injury Claims

If someone else was at fault for your accident, their bodily injury claims insurance coverage will cover costs such as

  • Doctor and hospital bills
  • Laboratory fees
  • Lost wages
  • Rehabilitation expenses

If you were at fault, medical payments and PIP coverages can help pay for these costs. A policy may also provide compensation for pain and suffering. If you disagree with a pain and suffering settlement, you may need to seek the advice of an attorney.


Remember that you can only file a claim up to the coverage limits. Insurance policies may have limits such as 15/30 for bodily injury. This means the policy only pays $15,000 per person injured and $30,000 for all persons injured. 

Alternative Scenarios

Sometimes insurance claims don’t go smoothly. The insurance company may deny your claim or offer a settlement that doesn’t cover your losses.

When to Sue

In general, it’s best to consult with a lawyer if a death, injury, or expensive physical damage is involved. Find a lawyer specializing in personal injury claims. The lawyer can tell you the time limits by which you must accept a claim offer or file a lawsuit, whether your case is worth pursuing, and your next steps. 

Your ability to sue depends on your state, the time since the accident, and the specifics of your case. For instance, North Carolina law does not allow a motorist to collect damages on a claim if even partially at fault for an accident.

In some no-fault states, laws bar individuals from suing an at-fault driver unless an accident results in death, permanent disfigurement, serious injury, or property damage that exceeds a specified monetary limit.

If Your Claim Is Denied

Insurers deny claims altogether or partially for several common reasons, including:

  • Lack of coverage: Some claims require specific coverages to be in effect. Without these coverages, you’ll pay out of pocket for your or your passengers’ injuries or car damage. If an unlisted driver who is part of your household is involved in an accident while driving your automobile, the insurance company may deny a claim. Your claim amount may also be rejected if it exceeds your insurance limits. 
  • Providing false information: You must provide truthful information when applying for auto insurance, or the insurer may deny a claim. For example, if you state you park your vehicle in a garage but park on the street, the insurance company may deny a comprehensive claim if your car is stolen.
  • Suspected fraud: The insurer may suspect the accident never occurred or you’re inflating costs for treatment and repairs. Or an insurer may think the accident was intentionally caused or another form of fraud occurred. 

If your claim is denied, review your policy documents or contact your agent and ask why the claim isn’t covered. If you’re dissatisfied with the explanation, your next steps depend on your state and insurance contract. 

Some contracts allow you to use an appraisal process to settle damage amount disputes. In all cases, you can also file a complaint with your state insurance department for help with your insurer. In general, the state insurance department can only help if the claim denial violates the law or your policy’s terms.

How Long Do You Have to File a Car Insurance Claim?

Your window for filing an auto insurance claim depends on your contract with your insurance company and your state’s statute of limitations. Your auto insurance policy’s “duties after an accident or loss” section will describe your next steps.

In most cases, the policy will simply say “promptly.” However, the policy may describe other steps—for example, reporting a vehicle’s theft, vandalism, or damage from a hit-and-run within 24 hours to law enforcement. You might also need to file a medical claim within a certain time window after treatment. 

What Happens in a “No-Fault” Accident?

In a “no-fault” state after an accident, each driver files an injury claim with their own insurance company, regardless of who was at fault. Implemented to reduce auto accident lawsuits, PIP coverage pays the medical expenses of you and your passengers after an injury accident. The state will require a certain minimum in insurance coverage, with optional, higher amounts available.

Can You File a Car Insurance Claim Without a Police Report?

Yes. In some locations, police only respond to serious auto accidents, usually involving injuries. However, local and state laws often require you to notify the police or department of motor vehicles of a collision within a specific period. To avoid a potential fine or problems with an insurance claim, always contact the police after a traffic accident.

What is Insurance Subrogation?

Suppose you file a third-party claim, and the other driver’s insurance company does not offer a settlement that covers all your losses. In that case, you can file a claim against your insurance policy if you have collision or comprehensive coverage. The subrogation process enables your insurer to attempt to recoup the difference between your covered amount and the liable party’s insurance company.

Should I File a Claim for a Minor Car Accident With No Damage?

When you file an auto insurance claim, you risk a premium increase. So, it’s wise to avoid filing a claim for minor repairs that you can pay out of pocket. Generally, it may not be best not to file a claim when the accident:

  • Does not involve another person’s vehicle or another type of property.
  • Is a minor accident without injuries.
  • Involves property damage under your city or state’s required threshold for reporting.
  • Involves repair costs lower than your policy’s deductible.

The Bottom Line

The claim filing process varies by provider. Some insurers allow you to file a claim over the phone, while others enable you to file online or using a mobile app. Before an accident occurs, understand your insurance company’s claim filing requirements. Also, research state and local laws regarding police notification following an accident and any regulations insurers must follow when processing your claim.

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