How to Settle a Car Accident Claim Without a Lawyer

Snapshot

Settling a car accident claim without a lawyer is certainly possible but requires diligence and patience. Even if you choose to represent yourself, a free consultation with an accident attorney can help steer you toward a fair settlement.

As the victim of a car accident that wasn’t your fault, settling a claim without incurring unnecessary expenses is both a reasonable goal and perfectly fair outcome. After all, the negligence of others should cost them, not you.

While legal representation is strongly advised in car accident claims involving serious injury and contentious insurance adjusters, less complicated cases (especially when the fault is clear cut) can be settled without an attorney.

Just keep in mind that reaching a car accident settlement without an attorney can require diligence in preparing even the most open-and-shut case and often demands patience in seeing it through.

Settling a car accident claim on your own is easier when you follow important protocols at the accident scene:

  • Document as many accident-specific details as possible.
  • Take photographs of the accident scene from all angles.
  • Get the names and contact numbers for all parties involved.
  • Call police and get a case number for the accident report.
  • Keep all medical records.
  • Calculate your present and future damages (if need be) to accurately portray how the accident has affected your life and your bottom line.

“Accident victims can advocate for themselves and avoid being reduced to numbers by emphasizing the personal elements of their story,” Tyler Kobylski, an attorney at Staver Accident Injury Lawyers, said. “Health insurance may cover a large portion of your medical bills but an insurance payout should provide an accident victim relief from the pain, suffering and other lasting damages they suffered.

“Sharing their experience and underscoring the human element of being an accident victim can help drive the point home.”

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Car Accident Settlement?

Consultations with car accident attorneys are free. If you decide to hire an attorney, legal fees aren’t due until a car accident claim is settled. The fees can, however, cost a third or more of the settlement amount depending on the case.

If you’re involved in a minor accident with no injuries, you typically won’t want or need a lawyer to file a property damage claim. That also applies to bodily injury claims if your injuries are minor.

In more complicated cases involving high medical costs and lost wages, hiring an accident attorney is the equivalent of putting an experienced sailor at the helm. It’s not required but when the waters turn choppy as they sometimes do in car settlement cases, you’ll be glad you did.

Accident attorneys steer a sometimes time-sensitive process that includes:

  • Filing a claim.
  • Sending a demand letter.
  • Compiling accurate and important records.
  • Negotiating a fair settlement that takes into account your future medical costs, earning power and pain and suffering.

“This endeavor is not for the faint of heart,” said Adam Rosenblum, founding attorney at Rosenblum Law. “Not for the inexperienced. First of all, when it comes to pain and suffering cases, lawyers don’t get paid upfront anyway. So, there’s no disincentive financial reason why a person should not hire a lawyer.

“In terms of (people) actually trying to handle something like this on their own, one thing is certain: insurance companies dealing with a pro se (a litigant who proceeds without legal counsel) are going to do whatever they can to try to convince that person to take the lowest number possible.”

“It’s also true that if the insurance companies know they’re dealing with an attorney that has no track record they’re not going to offer as much.”

First-Party vs Third-Party Claims

If you’re going to settle a claim yourself, you first need to get familiar with some terms particular to the insurance industry. First-party and third-party claims can be confusing at initial glance.

A first-party insurance claim is a claim you make with your insurance company for damages covered by your policy. For instance, you hit a pole while leaving a parking garage. After you’re done blaming your spouse or kids for distracting you, you call your car insurance agent and begin the process of filing a claim.

In this scenario, you are the first party and the insurance company is the second party.

Now, say a drunk driver plows through a red light and smashes into your car. In filing a liability claim against that driver’s insurance company, you  are not the policyholder and are considered the third party in the claim.

Keep in mind, state laws dictate how long you have to file a car insurance claim. Two years is a typical state statute of limitations, though in some states it’s only one year. The statute of limitations can differ depending on the type of claim (bodily injury or property damage).

“Statutes of limitations are the points of no return,” Rosenblum said. “No way to get around it. Some individuals may mess around … “Should I hire a lawyer, handle it myself?”… all the while the clock is ticking and they find themselves sitting on the statute of limitations. Lawyers will not take a case when it’s very close to the statute of limitations because they don’t have adequate time to prepare.”

Settling a Property Damage Claim

When you file a claim with the insurance company after an accident in which you suffered injuries, you may think of it as a single claim that takes into account your medical costs and the property damage to your car.

That’s not accurate. You are actually filing two separate claims that might well be handled by separate insurance adjusters, and there’s a good reason they’re treated differently.

One reason is that your property damage claim is a market-value amount attached to your car in its pre-crash condition. Property damage claims are contested at times but they’re less complicated and more easily agreed upon.

A bodily injury claim typically takes far longer to settle since it’s based on the types of injuries and subsequent treatment involved. Medical costs, past and future, can send settlement costs skyrocketing.

Assessing future medical needs and costs can be infinitely more contentious between a claimant and insurance company than body shop estimates.

Settling a Bodily Injury Claim

If you are self-settling a car accident claim involving injuries, you will likely deal with two different insurance adjusters.

A bodily injury claim requests compensation for expenses stemming from physical injuries sustained in a car accident. Those expenses typically include medical bills and or lost wages.

Most state laws allow you to file a bodily injury claim against an at-fault driver. In no-fault states, drivers must use their own insurance to pay their medical bills following an accident. No-fault laws are aimed at limiting lawsuits, though some states allow lawsuits if damages exceed a specified threshold.

Be prepared that when you file a bodily injury claim, the insurance adjuster who contacts you will ask for all pertinent information you have related to your accident: medical records, eyewitnesses, police reports and the like.

You may think you’re clearly the victim of another driver’s negligence. Just know that the insurance company’s job is to mitigate its losses, sometimes by claiming that you’re partially or wholly to blame for an accident, or that you are exaggerating your injuries and financial losses.

“The more time that passes, and, of course, when it comes to things like getting medical treatment, making sure the police are called – all these things are very critical steps,” Rosenblum said. “Many (people) don’t know that, they don’t realize they’ll be asked to build a case.”

Gathering Evidence

Proving your case in a car accident claim might well depend on evidence gathered at the scene of the accident but it doesn’t end there.

The evidence you’ll need to provide an insurance adjuster includes the following:

  • Accident details such as time, date and description of accident.
  • Contact and insurance information of other involved drivers.
  • Contact information of eyewitnesses.
  • Video evidence of the accident if available.
  • Pictures of property damage.
  • Pictures of injuries you may have sustained.
  • Police reports.
  • Medical bills.
  • All documentation pertaining to lost wages.

The better organized you are, the better chance you have proving your case and reaching a fair settlement.

Estimating Your Damages

Some damages are easier to calculate. Other damages spill into a gray area where calculation (and often negotiations) become more difficult.

Special damages and general damages are the two main categories you’ll need to account for in a personal injury claim.

Special damages are primarily monetary damages that include property damage, medical bills and lost earnings.

Calculating your medical bills and the cost of repairs to your car is fairly straightforward. Lost wages are a definable cost, too. Lost earning capacity can be a trickier calculation if your claim involves long-term or even permanent injuries.

General damages are those damages that defy an exact calculation. They include pain and suffering and mental anguish resulting from your injuries. In many cases, this is where accident attorneys prove their value.

Insurance companies might use the “multiplier method” or the “per diem” method to calculate general damages.

The multiplier method adds the special damages and multiples it by a factor between 1.5 and 5 to calculate pain and suffering and mental anguish.

An insurance adjuster applying the less common per diem method assigns a dollar amount to every day a claimant had to deal with pain and suffering resulting from injuries sustained in an accident.

» More About: How to Calculate a Car Accident Settlement

Sending the Demand Letter

You’re probably familiar with the acronym TMI or the expression “too much information.” It doesn’t apply to demand letters. You can’t include too much information when stating your case.

Once you’ve gathered the evidence and all associated documentation and filed your claim with the insurance company, the next major step in the process is a demand letter explaining why the insurance company or defendant is liable for your injuries and financial losses.

This is your chance to tell your story, beginning with the details of the accident and including police reports, eyewitness accounts and any treatment required at the scene.

The demand letter not only states the nature and extent of your injuries and the medical costs and other financial losses incurred as a result of the accident and injuries, it should include a detailed list of your medical expenses, the specific amount of lost wages and lost earning capacity.

Make the same case in your demand letter as you would make in front of a jury if you would go to trial (most car accident claims do not.)  It’s your chance to tell the story of your accident and any pain and suffering caused by it.  Your demand letter should include a specific monetary figure you’re seeking, allowing room to negotiate.

A final note on your demand letter. Send it when you have a firm grasp of the accident’s fallout on your health and your life. And be prepared to get low-balled by the insurance company.

“A common mistake accident victims make with filing a claim on their own is agreeing to settle with the insurance company before they know the extent of their damages,” Kobylski said. “Taking a settlement right away means you might have to pay out of pocket if complications with your injuries require you to get additional treatment later.”

Negotiating with the Insurance Company

You’ve sent your demand letter. Good for you if the case you made was so compelling to the insurance company that the adjuster met the settlement amount you specified. (You might consider opening a business writing demand letters for other car accident claims).

But chances are the response from the insurance company was underwhelming to say the least. You were offered much less than you thought was fair.

Don’t take it personally. The demand letter is pretty much the start of negotiations. Be patient. A fair settlement is worth your time and effort.

You have options if the negotiations reach an impasse. One, of course, is hiring a car accident attorney to handle negotiations. Depending on the size and nature of your claim, the threat of going to court might be the leverage necessary to reach a settlement.

The other possible options are mediation and arbitration. “Possible” is the key word because both sides must agree to mediation or arbitration. Insurance companies are under no obligation to agree to either alternative dispute resolution (ADR.)

Arbitration is a process involving a mutually agreed-to arbitrator who hears both sides of a car accident dispute and renders a decision much as a judge would in a court trial.

Mediation is sometimes an option if an insurance company isn’t willing to agree to arbitration. Mediation can be part of a court order or happen before a case goes to court.

A mediator in a car accident settlement does what the name suggests: tries to facilitate, or mediate, an agreement between two sides in a car accident dispute.

Both alternative dispute resolutions have costs involved but they’re much less expensive and time consuming than a jury trial.

Tips for Settling a Car Accident Claim Without a Lawyer

The nature and extent of car accidents vary greatly. What doesn’t vary is the advice for how best to increase your chance of reaching a fair settlement.

Don’t Accept the First Settlement Offer

The insurance adjuster you speak with may sound sympathetic to your claim. (Or not.) Just know that their job is to save the insurance company money. Rarely is an insurance company’s initial settlement offer enough to cover your damages.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

Car accident settlements can be contentious. Even when they’re less so, the process of building a case and the time required to reach a settlement can be frustrating. Don’t let your emotions steer your decisions, whether the decision is to settle for less than you need to cover your damages or to take the case to court.

Be Prepared

Being prepared means keeping detailed records and notes about every aspect of your accident claim. It also means being prepared for the process to drag on. You’re just another claim number to an insurance company. And adjusters know people filing claims often have other financial burdens that can make them anxious for a settlement.

Get Familiar With State Laws

Be aware of the statute of limitations for filing a claim. Don’t let the deadline pass. It doesn’t matter how credible your claim is if you don’t meet the deadlines for filing.

Settle an Injury Case After You Have Finished Medical Treatment

The last thing you want to do is to settle a claim with an insurance company, then incur medical costs such as surgeries or rehab visits that you didn’t account for in the initial settlement.

Evaluating and calculating the amount necessary to cover your damages, present and future, is the biggest challenge in settling a car accident claim without a lawyer.

Speak with an Attorney About Serious Injury Claims

Insurance companies negotiate car accident settlements for a living. They are armed with years of experience and sophisticated software programs. You’re likely not armed with either, unless you’ve been in several accidents in your lifetime (at which point, your chances of winning in court aren’t so hot.)

A free consultation with a good accident attorney can steer you in the right direction, whether that direction leads you to pursue a minor claim on your own or to procuring the legal support you need to level the playing field with a contentious car insurance company.

“Reach out to an attorney to discuss your case in a consultation,” Kobylski said. “They might say you can handle the claim on your own, but it’s always a good idea to get an outside opinion and learn your options.”

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw is a writer based in Ohio who brings decades of newspaper experience as a reporter, columnist and editor to his freelance work. Shaw has written on topics as diverse as the city of Atlanta's successful bid to secure the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, to the educational challenges faced by an urban Cleveland school during the Covid-19 pandemic, to federal home buying loan programs designed to help teachers, firefighters, police and emergency personnel get a foothold in the housing market. Whatever the topic, Shaw strives to bring a sharp focus and clear understanding to the issues affecting people's everyday lives.

Sources:

  1. Goguen, D. (ND) The Demand Letter in a Car Accident Case. Retrieved from https://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/auto-accident/demand-letter-car-accident-case.html
  2. Bieber, C. (2022, August 23) Car Accident Lawyer Fees 2022 Guide. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/auto-accident/car-accident-lawyer-fees/