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Here's how to ensure you're compensated adequately.
With more than 6 million highway crashes in the United States every year (that's about one car accident every five seconds), it almost seems inevitable that sooner or later you'll end up filing an auto insurance claim. The key to filing a successful claim is in the detailsthe more information you have, the better.
Most people know the basic information they'll need to get: the names of everyone involved, including other drivers, passengers, and police or other emergency personnel called to the scene. Get phone numbers, too, plus relevant driver's license and license-plate numbers, and the make, model, and insurance information of the other vehicle or vehicles. If possible, get names and contact information for at least two witnesses. Make a rough sketch of damage to vehicles and property, and describe any apparent injuries.
Knowing other information will help, too. Take note, for instance, of the location, time, weather, road conditions, and lighting; you never know what will be relevant later. For this reason, it's important to always have pen and paper in your glove box to record all pertinent information, notes Jeanne Salvatore, the Insurance Information Institute's vice president of consumer affairs. She also suggests that drivers keep a disposable camera handy, so you can snap pictures of the accident scene if the situation allows.
In order to prevent your rates from jumping, experts sometimes recommend paying for minor damages yourself if no one was hurt in the accident, especially if the repair bill is only slightly higher than your deductible. But don't even consider this if someone was hurt. The injured party could decide to sue a month or two later, and your company might refuse to defend you if it wasn't notified of the accident.
As soon as possible after the accident, call your insurance agent, or, if you've purchased the policy directly, call the company representative. Be forthright since the company will want a copy of the police accident report and you'll be asked to fill out a claim form to request the benefits you're entitled to.
An adjuster will investigate your claim and make a recommendation regarding compensation. "Take good notes each time you talk to the adjuster," says Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. Who called? When? Was the person polite? These notes will become very important if you have difficulty getting the insurance company to settle the claim.
If you do have trouble, "complaints should be made in writing to the company higher-ups," Hunter adds. "Use your notes to give a chronology of events. The more professional your letter, the more likely you are to get a positive response. If the company still refuses to payor the amount offered is too lowask for an explanation in writing. If you still believe you're being treated unfairly, contact your state insurance department (visit www.naic.org/state_contacts/sid_websites.htm for state Web links). As a last resort, consult a lawyer."
Vicki Brentnall. Car accident? Medical Economics Sep. 17, 2004;81:50.