If you're involved in a car accident, should you contact your insurance company immediately? Or, should you determine the approximate amount of damage and which driver was at fault? Since each situation is unique, we will discuss different scenarios and explain what steps you should take. We may be able to simplify your claims process, and maximize the amount of reimbursement you receive.
But first...Here's an important disclaimer: The final decision regarding how to handle a personal claim should be made by the policy-owner. Our advice, although it is backed by 36 years of experience, is only intended to offer an educated, unbiased, and professional opinion. We realize that there are often several correct answers, and no two situations are identical. Here are a few scenarios:
You Skid Off A Snowy Road Into A Ditch.
Let's also assume that the damage to your vehicle was minor (perhaps $300-$600) and your small towing bill of $50 was either covered by AAA, a credit card, or another service. Also, it has been professionally verified that the damage is not significant and there are no injuries to you or any occupant of the vehicle.
If you have collision coverage, your deductible is probably at least $250, and perhaps $500. So filing the claim with your company will not drastically reduce your out-of-pocket costs. You may save a little bit of money, but it's likely you can repair the damage cheaply by comparing estimates from different local body shops. If the vehicle is covered under the original factory warranty, a dealership should be used. If the vehicle has no lien, you can choose a reputable repair shop.
Although a surcharge may not apply if you file the claim, it is possible that you may lose or suffer a reduction of an existing discount. Therefore, in this scenario, perhaps not filing the claim is an option to strongly consider. You may also be able to conserve your "collision credit" for a larger claim. However, it's critical that you verify you caused no property damage, there are no potential long-term injuries, and there is no hidden damage that you can not initially notice. The vehicle should be inspected for damages.
You Are Involved In A Serious Accident And You Are At Fault.
Hopefully, you know the answer to this one, because it should be obvious. Of course, safety comes first. Once that has been established, contacting the broker or insurer directly should immediately follow. Damages to vehicles and property along with bodily injury (if any) to persons will be covered by your policy. Physical damage to your own vehicle will also be covered (subject to the deductible), assuming you have collision coverage.
When there is significant damage and/or injury, regardless of details and who was at fault, your car insurance company must always be called. It's possible, depending on the chance of litigation, they may request that you talk to only their claims agents (and the police, if involved). Any sustained injuries should be documented. And keep all paperwork, photos and notes for at least 5-7 years. Large medical bills may have to be submitted to your private or Group health insurance carrier. If you have a Bronze, or possibly a Silver-Tier Marketplace plan, a high deductible may be applicable.
You Are Involved In A Serious Accident And You Are Not At Fault.
Although the circumstances are slightly different than the previous example, the same procedure should be followed. If there is bodily injury, and/or extensive damage to vehicles or property, it's always a good idea to contact your carrier. Although a police report will provide unbiased and accurate information, it's important to have a representative from your side investigate the claim.
There also is the possibility that weeks or months after the accident, litigation will be filed by the other party. By that time, you may have forgotten important details, or thrown away pictures or information that could potentially have saved you and/or your company thousands of dollars (or more). Naturally, any pictures or videos taken on your cell-phone should be downloaded and saved. Keeping a journal of the events (as they happened) and conversations with the other party may eventually be very helpful.
The "insurance bad faith" scenario will hopefully not apply in any of your claims. It is a claim (tort) when the customer feels their carrier was not acting in their best interest. An insurer must exhibit good faith and fair dealing when handling a settlement or honoring any part of the policy. NOTE: If the police issue a citation to the other party, the claims process should proceed much smoother. If possible, obtain a copy of the report.
You Notice A Large Crack In Your Windshield
This will undoubtedly be a "comprehensive" claim instead of a "collision" claim, since fire, theft, vandalism and glass breakage are typically classified that way. Your deductible will dictate what you should do. Assuming that you have no deductible on comprehensive claims (or glass breakage), the claim should be filed. In most situations, a mobile truck can repair or replace your windshield and/or window at your home or where you work. Safelite Autoglass is the largest windshield repair company in the US, and is one of many available options. Tip: Ensure that they also clean up all glass fragments that may be throughout the vehicle.
If you carry high deductibles ($500 or above), it may make economic sense to pay the damages yourself. If your deductible is in the $250 range, it may be about equal to the cost of repairing or replacing the windshield. In these situations, many factors can influence your decision either way. For example, if you have submitted multiple glass claims within the last 12-36 months already, you may be asked to increase your comprehensive deductible following a third submitted claim.
You Notice Some Luggage, Electronic Equipment, And Golf Clubs Are Missing From Your Car
Perhaps your spouse took all of them to Goodwill! However, assuming that he/she did not remove them, and they were actually stolen, you could be facing a significant loss. Not just hundreds of dollars, but perhaps thousands of dollars. And of course, there may be additional items you are not aware that are missing.
The deductible, declarations, exclusions and endorsements are going to vary, depending on the company you are insured with. But often, electronic coverage provides up to $2,500 of benefits. And if your loss is greater than your policy limits, your homeowner's or renter's policy should cover many of the missing items. However, a separate deductible will apply. And if you have submitted multiple homeowner's claims within the last 3-5 years, you may risk a cancellation or non-renewal.
So yes, in most situations, you should file the claim. However, the assumption is that your items were stolen. If you simply lost personal property or it is mysteriously missing (and not stolen), a claim may not be beneficial. Sometimes you may have to wait 24-36 hours to give yourself ample time to locate missing items.
Your Parked Car was Hit...For the Fourth Time In Three Years
I think you know where this one is going! That's a lot of incidences in a fairly short time period. After the first few claim settlements, your company will begin to take notice of your claim frequency and specific details surrounding each one. And if it was hit in the same spot each time, expect repercussions.
There's a pretty good chance that you are risking either a cancellation or temporary movement to the high-risk category if you proceed with filing this claim. If the car is financed, and there is no equity in the vehicle (or negative equity), you may not have a choice. In fairness, each carrier is different and we (or your broker) can help you determine the best action to take. But definitely start parking in a different spot!
Your Neighbor Borrowed The Car And Hit Another Car
Absolutely call or contact your company. Although initially, it may appear there was minor damage with no bodily injury, sometimes stories change a few days or a few weeks later. And typically, that's when mysterious back and neck injuries suddenly appear.
By not filing a claim in a timely manner, you may forfeit some of the free legal representation that automatically accompanies your bodily injury coverage. And it's possible it could end up becoming a $100,000 mistake. Often, the the carriers representing yourself and your neighbor will work together and quickly settle the claim.
Each claim you file is different with varying circumstances and potential liability concerns. When in doubt, contact your car insurance company or experienced brokers that can quickly assess the situation and recommend the best course of action. Allowing someone to borrow your vehicle can have an impact on your own premium, so it's important to consider the possible ramifications.
November 12-2014 -- Many claims can now be filed directly from your Smartphone. Depending if your carrier has the appropriate app needed for processing, it can be a big time-saver, and of course, you'll be able to transmit photos of the vehicle and/or scene almost instantaneously. Ultimately, this streamlined method of submitting claim information can help reduce expenses of the insurers.
Updates From The Past
February 2015 -- Forbes Magazine, in a recent article, indicated that the average rate increase following a $2,000 claim is about 40%. Although we believe there are too may variables to make such a definitive statement, there's no disagreement that your premium will probably go up.
Of course, surcharges varied wildly, depending where you live. California and Massachusetts led the country with average rate hikes of more than 80%! The lowest? Maryland at 22%.
September 2016 -- Filing a property and casualty claim is much more streamlined than a few years ago. Apps and online links allow a customer to easily upload and send pictures of accident damage directly to the claims office. Checks are quickly issued and vehicles are serviced by body shops much quicker. In many non-liability situations, a personal inspection by the insurer is no longer needed.