What to Do When You’ve Been in a Car Accident

Earlier this year, my beloved Lexus was totaled! I had the car for 14 years and I was hoping it would last me at least another 10. I was stopped at a light when a distracted driver in a large SUV rear-ended me. How did I know he was distracted? That’s an educated guess considering everybody else was stopped at the red light yet he somehow thought that he could keep driving. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any permanent injuries. Hopefully you’ll never experience this. But if you’re ever in this unfortunate situation, here are some tips on how to deal with a car accident and what to do when your car is totaled.

The Night of the Car Accident

I was driving home from work, taking the same road I always take. It was just another day and traffic was busy, as usual. Anxious to get home to see my family, I was stopped at a light, waiting for it to turn green. BAM! Out of nowhere (well, behind me, actually), this large SUV rams into me. He hit me so hard it pushed my car into the one in front of me.

At that point everything felt surreal. I was making the same uneventful commute, like I do every day. I mean, I can practically drive home blindfolded. And now I’m in this car accident? The air bag didn’t go off and there was no blood, thankfully. Also, I was glad that my kids weren’t in the car with me.

Make Sure Everybody is Okay

The first thing everybody does after a car accident is to check whether anybody is hurt. 90% of the time, the response is going to be, “I’m okay.” And you probably are at that point in time, when you have all this adrenalin flowing through your body. There’s no point in arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong here. You want to make sure everybody is okay and safe from the traffic that’s now pissed off you’re blocking the road.

car accident
If your car is on fire, ignore all these tips and run away!

The second thing you need to do is get everybody’s driver’s license and insurance information. Take a picture on your phone so you’ll have the details saved for later. Also take pictures of the damage on the vehicles. And if possible, try to take pictures of where the accident happened, in case you need proof of how events unfolded.

Next, you need to get off the road. Your life is going to be majorly inconvenienced, beyond what you can imagine. There’s no point making it bad for all those other commuters behind you as well. If your car can’t drive, you’ll need to call for a tow truck. The rear end of my car was smashed in. The front as well. I had radiator fluid leaking all over the road, so my car wasn’t going anywhere on its own.

Call the Police

Laws vary by state. In Texas, if there’s more than $1,000 worth of damage, you need to call the police. These days, practically any car accident involving a new car will cost over $1,000 to repair since there are so many sensors in the bumpers.

It’s also very helpful to have the police take statements from everybody involved. The driver who hit me was very apologetic and admitted responsibility. The driver in front confirmed that we were stopped at the light. This is very important information to have because people forget things over time. Or they may change their minds as the days go by. Insurance companies may try to shift the blame to avoid paying out claims.

Make Sure You Have Proof

A long time ago, I was in a much less serious car accident. It was more of a fender bender. The guy was clearly in the wrong. I was driving straight and he turned into me. We traded information and I went on my way, happy it wasn’t more serious. A few days after I contacted my insurance company, he was trying to blame the accident on me! It doesn’t matter how clear cut and obvious the accident is. When it comes to avoiding responsibility, you’d be surprised at what people will do. Make sure you have either a police report that shows the other person was at fault, or witnesses to confirm the truth.

In my most recent car accident, the driver who rear-ended me was given a citation from the police. With that, there was no way the insurance company could weasel out of paying for damages or somehow find a way to pin the blame on me.

Whiplash

I was shook up after the car accident. All I wanted to do was go home and spend time with my family, but instead I was standing outside in the cold, waiting for my car to be towed. I was angry too. My car of 14 years was totaled. Now I was forced to get a new one, even though I didn’t want a new one. But one thing I was thankful for was that I wasn’t injured. At least that’s what I thought…

A few hours after the car accident, when I finally got home, I felt this soreness in my lower back. It felt similar to how you feel after working out too hard. I brushed it aside, thinking that it would go away the next day. It didn’t. It actually got worse because I started to feel the soreness in my neck as well.

Seek Medical Attention

As soon as I woke up and realized the soreness wasn’t going to go away, I made an appointment with my primary care physician. Your #1 priority is to make sure you’re healthy and back to 100%. Remember, you didn’t ask to be in an accident. You weren’t at fault. So it’s not fair that you should suffer. It’s important to see a doctor immediately. If you go two or three weeks later, the insurance company will make it seem like you’re faking it just to increase the size of your settlement.

While I was waiting for my doctor’s appointment, the other driver’s insurance company called me. She was so friendly, asking how I was doing and make sure I was okay. I told her about the soreness.

Whatever you do, don’t say you’re fine. If you don’t feel the whiplash shortly after, you may feel it a few days later. Everybody reacts differently to an accident. The last thing you want is for the insurance company to have a recording of you the day after the accident saying you’re fine. This can be explained away, but you don’t want to give the insurance company any ammunition that could make you look like you’re untruthful. If you don’t feel any pain or soreness right away, just tell them you’re shook up and unsure about how you feel, and that you want to see a doctor to make sure everything is okay.

Never Accept the First Offer

Once she heard about my soreness, she offered to settle for the princely sum of $500! She also said that this was her final offer (totally untrue). Never take the first offer. Also, it’ll cost you over $100 just for one doctor’s visit alone. My accident wasn’t even that bad and my medical bills were about $6,000. I politely told her that it was way too early to discuss a settlement since I didn’t even know what was wrong and how much it would cost to get treatment. I could have used more colorful words, but remember that she’s just doing her job. She’s also going to be the person that approves of the settlement in the future, so it’s best to stay on her good side.

After seeing my primary care physician, I followed up with treatments with a chiropractor. For a while, it felt as though the pain would never go away. But after a few weeks of treatment, everything started feeling better. Note that when you tell doctors that you’ve been in an car accident, the price increases dramatically. It’s like how cakes and flowers suddenly cost more when you tell them it’s a wedding. Not that it should make any difference to them. But I guess everybody smells the settlement money and then decide they want a piece of it too. Remember that you can negotiate this down.

PIP Insurance

I don’t know what insurance is like in other states, but I had PIP (Personal Injury Protection) through my insurance provider in Texas. Basically, it’s no-fault insurance for medical claims. For my medical bills, I was able to recoup payment from my insurance, but still claim the full amount from the other insurance company. In my example, I had $2,500 of PIP. My medical payments were over $2,500, so insurance paid the first $2,500 and I was responsible for the rest. However, when I filed for damages, I filed for the full $6,000 of medical claims, which meant I got to keep the $2,500 when everything was said and done. The best part is my rates don’t go up for filing this type of claim.

Get a Lawyer

Lawyers are not cheap. They can take 30-40% of a settlement. This sounds really high to me considering you’re the one that was in the car accident and you’re the one that was hurt. I’m all for saving money, but the problem here is most people get into a few accidents in a lifetime, at most. Insurance companies deal with thousands or tens of thousands of claims a year, so your inexperience puts you at a significant disadvantage.

A lawyer evens out the odds, since they deal with a lot of cases too. And laws vary by state, so you need to make sure you’re following the right rules. It’s also your implied threat to litigate. Lawsuits are costly, both from a time and monetary standpoint. So both parties always prefer to settle. Luckily, my brother-in-law is a lawyer, so he helped me and I didn’t have to pay any fees.

What to Do When Your Car is Totaled After a Car Accident

When your car is in an accident, the insurance company will send it to an adjuster to estimate damages. Since it was the other person’s fault, I had to work with the other insurance party. The first thing I asked for was a rental. Again, you didn’t ask to be in an accident, you didn’t ask to be injured. You didn’t ask to be inconvenienced. They need to give you a car to get around.

As soon as I saw my car after the accident, I knew it was totaled. Fixing things is never cheap and given how old my car was, I knew there wasn’t much residual value. This is why I immediately started looking for options. I searched used cars and I looked at new cars as well. I knew that I needed to find something right away. Luckily, I ended up getting a good deal on an Audi S3.

If you think your car is going to be totaled, you need to find a new car immediately. If your car is going to be repaired, you’ll be able to keep the rental until your car is fixed. When your car is totaled, the insurance company will want to cut you a check immediately and cut off the rental car. If you can’t afford to not have a car, you don’t want to be stuck paying for a rental yourself.

Find the Highest Comps

When the insurance company came back with an estimated value for my car, I thought it was reasonable. Still, it never hurts to double check. What you need to do is check your surrounding area for comps. Try to find cars that are the same make and model, up to 250 miles away. Make sure they’ve got all your features listed correctly, like upgraded wheels, power seats or a more expensive trim.

If you can find comps similar to your car but listed at a higher value, you have a decent shot of increasing your payout. Comps are more valuable coming from a dealer than a private seller, since some private sellers ask for too much, believing their car is always the best one out there.

Replace Infant/Child Seats

If you have any infant/child seats in your car, make sure they note those. These seats can’t be used again after a car accident. Infant/child car seats are designed to keep you child secure and absorb the energy from an impact before it reaches your child. They may look fine structurally, but you can never be too sure.

Diminished Value Claim

If your car isn’t totaled, file a diminished value claim. A car that’s been in an accident is worth less than one that hasn’t been in one. The insurance company needs to compensate you for the decreased value of your car.

Settlement

The insurance company will want to settle as soon as possible, because they want to settle for the least amount possible and get this liability off their books. But there’s no need to rush. In fact, rushing it is detrimental to your health. My biggest fear at the time of the accident was (still is) that I’d be left with a permanent injury that would make it difficult for me to pick up my kids or play with them.

Roller Coaster Recovery

When I was going through my chiropractic visits, I remember one week when I finally felt 100%. There was no soreness in my neck or back, and it felt like I had never even been in an accident. It was such a relief, since I was worried the pain would never go away. But then a week later, the soreness returned. My chiropractor told me that treatment can be like a roller coaster. Some days you feel great, some days you feel horrible. That’s why you want to make sure you’re 100%, permanently, before you even think about settlement. When you’re done with treatment, wait a few weeks to make sure you don’t regress. Once you settle, you won’t be able to file for more damages afterwards.

If You Decide to Skip the Lawyer

It’s funny how you can pay up to make sure you have a good insurance company that takes care of you, but when you’re in an accident, you need to deal with somebody else’s insurance company. The driver who hit me had some crappy no-name insurance company, and it showed. They were a nightmare to deal with and were difficult every step of the way. Thankfully, my lawyer dealt with all of this.

I still think it’s best to seek professional legal council. But if you insist on doing it yourself…

The main area where I needed legal help was negotiation of the settlement. I scheduled my own doctor’s visits. Determining fair value for my vehicle was a straight forward process that’s largely automated. My lawyer was helpful in walking me through the process, but you’re getting it here for free!

Average Settlement Ranges

From what I’ve been told, most settlements range from 2-5x your medical bills. Chiropractors aren’t generally considered real doctors (his words, not mine). So if the majority of your bills are from chiropractors, you’ll probably fall in the 2x range. If you have any surgery, it’ll be closer to the 5x range since that means there was serious physical harm and a lot of recovery time (pain and suffering).

Just because you don’t have a lawyer, it doesn’t mean that you can’t hire one in the future. Make sure the insurance company understands that you’re considering getting legal representation in the event you can’t come to a settlement. If the insurance company believes there’s a risk of a lawsuit, they’ll be more willing to meet halfway.

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