Can I settle my claim myself or do I need a lawyer?

In my opinion, about 80% to 90% of car accident claims can be safely settled without a lawyer’s help (and without paying legal fees).

A routine claim is one where . . .

  • fault is clear
  • you were not injured or, if you were injured, your injuries healed fully and relatively soon (within a few months) and
  • the amount of your financial losses is not too large, say $10,000 or less.

If this is your situation, I think you can definitely settle your own claim if you want to. However, I also think you should educate yourself about the car accident claims process, and get all the necessary forms and checklists, by reading my book, The Car Accident Claims Kit.

But don’t be foolish. If you have a serious claim involving permanent or long term injuries and large amounts of money, don’t mess around. This is no job for a rookie. Hire a lawyer.

Do I have to accept what the insurance company offers for my injury claim?

No. You have choices. You can negotiate with the insurance company, exchanging offers and counter offers until the insurance company stops raising its offer. Their first offer to you is almost never their best offer . . . so push them to see how high they will go.

If you’re still not satisfied, you can file a lawsuit.

All states have small claims courts that are ideal for resolving smallish car accident claims. In small claims court, there are no technical procedures or rules of evidence that can trip you up. You don’t need a lawyer.

Larger cases, however, must go to regular civil court and that’s not a place for a do-it-yourselfer.

What if the insurance company says I caused the accident even though I didn’t?

Technically, a car accident fault claim is a negligence claim. Negligence means carelessness. Therefore, you are claiming that someone else carelessly did something — such as failed to pay attention to their driving, ran a stop sign, made an unsafe left turn, etc.

In 4 states – Maryland, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina – there is a defense called contributory negligence. That means that you did something that contributed to causing the accident, and in those states contributory negligence is a complete defense. That’s right, in these states, any contributory negligence, however slight, completely defeats your claim.

So, in one of these 4 states, when an insurance company says that you caused the accident, they are saying they have a defense and don’t have to pay you anything. You should get a lawyer if there is going to be a fight over fault, especially if it’s going to be in court.

In the other states, there are various forms of something called comparative negligence. This means that if you did something that contributed to causing the accident, your negligence is compared to the other driver’s and your recovery is reduced by the percentage of your fault. For example, if you were 25% responsible for causing the accident, you can only recover 75% of your losses.

So, in a state that has comparative negligence, when an insurance company says that you were a cause of the accident, they are saying they don’t think they have to pay you for all of your damages. You can continue to negotiate with them without a lawyer, explaining why they are wrong and why they owe you full value.

In most routine cases that you should be handling yourself, fault will be clear and won’t be an issue.

Is it safe to settle with the other driver at the scene of an accident?

No. In fact, it could turn out to be very foolish.

If the other driver caused the accident, you want his insurance company involved in case it turns out that the damage to your vehicle is more than you thought or that you actually were injured even though you didn’t know it at the accident scene. Sometimes, injuries caused by an accident don’t cause symptoms for a few days or even a few weeks.

If your car damage is more than you thought or if you turn out to be injured, the other driver will not be able to pay for all of your damages. That’s why you want his insurance company involved, so they can pay you what you are owed.

If you caused the accident, you want your insurance company involved in case the other driver’s claims get larger later, as I just explained they can. Your insurance company might try to avoid defending and paying a claim if you did not advise them of your accident promptly.

This is why you have liability insurance, to protect you if you cause an accident. Inform your insurance company and use the insurance you paid for.

What if the driver who clobbered me didn’t have insurance?

The driver who caused the accident is responsible for the damages she caused, even if she does not have insurance. However, if she has no insurance and is not financially responsible, you may not be able to recover anything from her. You can’t get what she hasn’t got!

However, if you have uninsured motorist (“UM”) coverage on your insurance policy – and you should! – you can make an uninsured motorist claim under that coverage. If you have UM coverage, your insurance company defends and pays the claim, just as if it were the other driver’s insurance company.

That’s right, they treat you as an adversary. Don’t think that they’ll roll over and pay your claim just because they are your insurance company. They won’t.