How to Dispute an Auto Insurance Settlement Amount

by Cheri Dohnal

Settling an auto insurance claim can be a lengthy process. The insurance companies enjoy a distinct advantage because insurance claims are ordinary daily activities for them. The people you'll deal with don't have a personal stake in the settlement like you do. For them it's a ho-hum business transaction in which they've been instructed to give you as little as possible. Sadly, most people take the first settlement that's offered to them, not realizing they have a right to fair compensation. Knowing how the system is set up will level the playing field in the settlement process.

Settlement, Part One

If you are involved in an auto accident, there are two main parts to the settlement process. The first and usually simplest part is to obtain a fair settlement on the vehicle damages. Whether you are dealing with your own insurance company or the other driver's insurance company is of little concern. The process is the same either way. You will need to get at least one estimate on the damage to your vehicle, either from a body shop or from the insurance company's own estimator/adjuster. Your insurance agent will tell you how many estimates you need and who can provide them. Each insurance company has its own requirements on this and you have little if any say in the matter.

THE OFFER: If the cost of repairing the vehicle exceeds its insured value, the car is considered "totaled." The insurance adjuster will declare a dollar value and offer to pay you that much. If your car was "loaded" with a lot of options and the adjuster is using low Blue Book value, you can refuse the payment and make a counteroffer. You will need to provide the adjuster with a list of the options and know what the high Blue Book value is. You can find Blue Book values through Kelley Blue Book (see Resources). If the car's value is higher than the cost to repair it, it will be taken to a body shop for repairs.

REPAIRS: Your body shop should have a skilled estimator on staff who is willing and able to find anything the adjuster missed and request a "supplement" of additional repairs from the insurance company. If you ask the estimator to look for any additional repairs that might require a supplement and he doesn't know what you mean, take the car to a more reputable shop. Having a knowledgeable estimator could mean the difference in hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of repairs to get your car back to its preaccident condition. Adjusters often write an estimate using the value of used or off-brand parts that you may not be required to accept, and they frequently miss necessary repairs entirely because some damage can't be seen until the car is dismantled. You want to be sure your body shop estimator knows how and is willing to "supplement" the insurance company for additional repairs. Surprisingly few estimators have been trained sufficiently to get full value out of supplements.

PERSONAL INJURIES: The second part of an auto insurance settlement is the most complicated part. Settling a claim for personal injuries you suffered in a car accident can be a long, miserable process. Be prepared to wait. You will most likely be assigned an adjuster who specializes in personal injury claims (not the same adjuster who looked at your car). Insurance companies will generally pick up the tab for whatever medical care is required as you go along. You'll need the claim number and other insurance information to give to each medical provider, who will bill the insurance company directly in most cases. Medical providers typically know how to handle accident claims, so you won't have to be involved in this part of the process. Make sure you report all new symptoms to each medical provider. Take a notepad and pencil with you to help you remember every detail. Continue getting medical care for your injuries until you are symptom-free or until the doctor believes you have recovered to the maximum degree you ever will recover. If you have to pay for lawn mowing, errand running or anything else during this time because of your injuries, keep receipts for everything.

KEEP TRACK OF EVERYTHING: The adjuster can't offer you a settlement until your long-term prognosis is a sure thing. Until then, keep track of every penny it has cost you to be injured. That may include income you were not able to earn after the accident, cost of any help you had to pay to run your errands or take you to doctor appointments, etc. If your spouse had to take time off work to play taxi for the kids while you were recovering, make a note of it.

PREPARE: It is pointless and could be to your disadvantage to start talking to the adjuster before you have recovered to whatever extent you possibly can. The adjuster will probably make contact with you once the medical bills start rolling in, but it's best to wait before you start talking about any potential cash settlement for your long-term injuries. Once you get to that point, carefully make a list of all of your lasting injuries (these should be documented in your medical records), future income you will not be able to earn due to your long-term injuries, and so on. If you have a long-term injury that will keep you from being able to lift your children into a car seat or perform any other ordinary parental or spousal duties, write a short narrative about it. Insurance companies don't normally offer anything for pain and suffering unless you take them to court, but they should compensate you for some of the future losses you'll incur as a result of your lasting injuries. Start thinking about what would constitute a reasonable settlement.

TIME TO DICKER: Contact the adjuster and tell her you want to start working on a settlement. She will have you sign release forms to send copies of your medical records to her, and you'll need to mail or fax copies of all expenses you've incurred. Do NOT send the narrative about your future inability to perform family duties. Once she has all of the information, she will make you an offer by phone or mail. It will be a low-ball offer, so you probably shouldn't accept it. If it's so low that it offends you, say so. Be prepared to stand your ground. Ask for a larger settlement than you actually expect. The adjuster is trained to make low offers that benefit the company's bottom line, and to act like she's doing you a huge favor to offer you anything at all. She will listen to you when you remind her of all those figures you sent her, and how many ways the injuries have altered your life since the accident. If you are lousy at dickering, ask a family member or friend to be on a three-way call with the adjuster or to write a settlement request on your behalf. It may take several calls and several months to get what you want.

THE OFFER: Eventually, if you hold your ground and demand a reasonable settlement that you've justified on paper, the adjuster will either make an offer you'll feel is reasonable or he will ask you what it will take to get the claim settled. If he asks what it will take to get the claim settled, name a price slightly above what you actually think it's worth. Chances are good that he will either accept your price outright or he will have to "try to get his manager to approve it." Congratulations. You've just reached a settlement.

Tip

  • check Once you've agreed on a settlement amount, all you have to do is wait for the check to arrive. You should have it in your hands within a week or so.

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About the Author

Cheri Dohnal has written professionally since 1978. Her publishing credits include "The EA Journal," Rootsweb Review, Historysavers, eHow and numerous print publications. A graduate of Texas Tech University, Dohnal has enjoyed a successful parallel career as a licensed tax accountant and published book author.