Auto Repairs and Insurance Claims After an Accident

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If your vehicle is damaged in an accident, chances are that either your insurance company or another driver's insurer will be responsible for paying at least some of the repair cost.

When everyone involved in a car accident walks away without a scratch, it's natural to feel relief, but there's usually still work to do. Even when losses are limited to vehicle damage, after a car accident it's best to proceed cautiously to make sure you're not unfairly blamed for causing the crash, and that you make the best choices when it comes to getting your car fixed and back on the road.

The Police Report and Witness Statements

In some cities and counties, law enforcement might not come to the scene of a car accident unless there are injuries. But if local police or other law enforcement agents do come to the site, they will talk to everyone involved, make observations about the location of the crash (including the position of the vehicles and any debris), and complete a police report. The insurance company will likely rely heavily on this report when making key decisions regarding your vehicle damage claim. Learn more about how police reports are used by insurance companies.

After the accident, you should gather information yourself, especially if no law enforcement officer comes to the scene and generates a report. Besides exchanging contact details and insurance information with other drivers and passengers, take as many photos at the scene as you can, making sure to preserve visual evidence of anything that might be relevant.

It's also crucial to get the names and contact information of anyone who might have observed the accident. That means other drivers who weren't involved in the accident but saw what happened, or pedestrians who were walking in the area, or even local business owners or anyone else who might have helpful information.

Call Your Insurance Company From the Scene

Especially if your vehicle is not drivable, it's probably a good idea to call your car insurance carrier, report the accident, and talk with an agent about how to proceed in terms of getting the vehicle towed from the scene and taken to a repair shop. If you have a certain shop in mind, tell the insurance agent, otherwise there's a good chance the insurance company will recommend a local garage and arrange to have your car towed there.

Whose Insurance Will Cover Your Vehicle Damage?

The answer to this key question depends in large part on who was at fault for the accident -- you or another driver -- but there's also an element of choice involved, if you have the right car insurance coverage in place.

The short answer is that the cost to repair or replace your vehicle will be covered by either:

  • your own collision coverage, or
  • the other driver's property damage liability coverage.

...up to the policy limits, of course.

But after any car accident in which your vehicle is damaged, one option might be making a claim with your own collision coverage -- assuming you have it, of course -- and then letting the insurance companies sort out issues of fault and financial responsibility. One caveat with this option is that you'll need to pay any deductible tied to your collision coverage before your own insurer will pay to have your car repaired. But in negotiating with the other driver's insurer, your own carrier might be able to get your collision coverage deductible back as part of your settlement if the other driver is deemed to be at fault.

A note on no-fault car insurance: If you live in a no-fault state, keep in mind that your no-fault (sometimes called "personal injury protection") coverage won't typically apply to a vehicle damage claim (Michigan is one notable exception). Under the no-fault schemes in most states, a liability claim against the at-fault driver is usually an option.

Determining the Value of Your Vehicle Damage Claim

After you fill out the claim paperwork, the insurance company will either accept or reject your vehicle damage claim. If the accident was your fault, the insurance company will accept your claim only if you carry collision coverage. At this point, the insurer will send a claims adjuster to inspect your vehicle, whether you were able to drive it home or whether it was towed to a repair shop. Normally, you will be entitled to enough money to restore your vehicle to the condition it was in before the accident, based on one or more repair estimates.

If the damage is serious enough that the cost of fixing your car exceeds its “actual cash value,” the insurer will deem the vehicle a “total loss,” and instead of paying for repairs, will pay to replace the car.

Disputing the Insurance Estimate

If you filed a vehicle damage claim with your own insurance company and you dispute the repair estimate or the assessment of the vehicle's "actual cash value", you can present the carrier with any documentation or evidence that bolsters your argument, including proof of any add-ons to the vehicle that would increase its value. If you can't resolve the dispute informally, your policy probably dictates procedures for dispute resolution, including the requirement that you submit any legal dispute to arbitration.

If you filed a third party claim with the other driver's insurance company, you can try the same approach (compiling and presenting evidence demonstrating that the repair estimate or the valuation is too low). And if these kinds of settlement talks stall, you can file a lawsuit to resolve the matter.

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