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Dealing with another driver's insurer when a crash is not your fault
Doing business with your own insurance company after a car crash can be time-consuming and a hassle. Just imagine what it's like to deal with the insurance company of someone else who crashed into your car. Here are some tips to ensure you maintain your cool — and your sanity — when making a claim with the at-fault person's insurer.
The driver who crashes into your car is responsible for informing his or her insurance company about the incident. However, it's a good idea for you to call his or her insurer because motorists who cause accidents often may be reluctant reporters. So, it is important that you obtain the most complete insurance information from the at-fault person at the scene of the accident: insurance company name, claims phone number, address, and even the insurance agent's name.
You then inform the other person's insurer that you have been involved in a crash with one of its policyholders and tell it about any property damages or injuries. Also, relate only the facts of the accident to the insurer, even if you believe the other driver to be at fault. The police will determine who is at fault and the insurer will make its determination of fault based on the police recommendation, your commentary notwithstanding. (Click to What to do after an auto accident for more on that.)
Although you may feel you are not at fault in the auto accident, you should contact your own insurance company. This is crucial because it establishes your good-faith accident-reporting effort and, more importantly, can aid you if the other party and/or his or her insurer deny responsibility for the accident. (More on that later.)
Theory vs. reality
Auto insurance, in the simplest terms, is a contract between a motorist and a company in which the company agrees to pay for damages or losses its insured motorist causes. If a motorist damages your car and injures you, his or her auto insurer is responsible for paying you for your damages and injuries. Theoretically, all you should have to do is notify the other party's insurer of your damages and injuries, take the car to a body shop, go to the doctor, and expect the insurer to pay your bills.
Theories are not always put into practice, however. Insurance companies often say you must obtain their authorization to go ahead with vehicle repairs and injury treatments. Taking matters into your own hands can create a payment problem down the road if the insurance company claims adjuster says, "I didn't authorize that." So at least get the insurance company to accept liability before going ahead with repairs. You'll want to get the authorization in writing, so ask the insurer to fax it to you in order to expedite the repairs.
A good strategy to use if the insurer's claims adjuster resists paying for certain car repairs or treatments for injuries because they were not authorized is to remind the insurer that seeking its approval on every repair technique and treatment can cause unnecessary delays, which increase the cost of your claim in the form of vehicle-storage charges and more legwork for the adjuster.
In addition, the at-fault driver's insurance company can't force you to take your vehicle to a specific repair facility. Most states allow auto insurers to recommend auto body shops, but insurers aren't allowed to demand you employ a certain repair facility. The choice is yours.
Pick your battles
Another person's insurer also might say you need to seek payment from your own insurer because it has no evidence of its policyholder's fault. This is why it's a good idea to notify your insurer immediately after the crash. Although most states have made it illegal for insurers to deny claims without reasonably investigating the facts, or to deny claims when its liability is reasonably clear, you might not be interested in fighting the other person's insurance company.
Hiring a lawyer if you decide to take on the at-fault driver's insurer may be a good idea, especially if you've been seriously injured. (Read When to hire a personal injury lawyer for more on that.) An attorney can help you navigate the sometimes-murky laws that govern insurance. But keep in mind that if you hire an attorney, he or she will take a cut of the settlement he or she helps secure.
When the other driver lies
You might have evidence of the other driver's fault — they may even have admitted it at the scene — yet find your claim denied by his insurance company. Why? Because he's told a version of how the accident happened that doesn't square with yours, and his insurer is standing behind that story all the way in order to avoid paying your claim.
"It happens all the time," says Texas attorney James Holmes. "Remember, the company's first impulse is to say 'no'. The insurance company will wholeheartedly adopt its policyholder's position."
This is especially common in cases where no police accident report was made, showing the importance of calling the police to the scene of any accident. In many states, if an officer at an accident scene determines the damage is minimal (usually less than $500), he will not make an accident report. Body shop estimates for that same accident, however, might run into the thousands of dollars. What now?
"You can't make the police officer write a report," says Holmes. "The best advice in that scenario is to do the officer's job by getting witnesses and all the information from the other driver. Then, get that car to a repair shop immediately, so you can minimize any questions about what caused the damage."
Write down the other driver's address and policy information, together with statements and contact information from any witnesses at the scene. That way, if questions arise later, you'll have a body of evidence gathered at the scene to bolster your stance on how the accident occurred.
Say you took the policeman's word that your damages were minimal and drove off from the scene feeling relieved that nothing worse happened — and only later discover that it will take $2,000 to fix that supposedly minor dent. You didn't think to get witnesses, and you're positive the other driver ran a red light (or a stop sign, or disobeyed some other traffic rule). Now it's your word against his, and not only will his insurance company side against you, but you'll have a hard time changing the insurer's mind without evidence to support your story.
You can ask the insurer to demonstrate how the accident could have happened as the other driver said. Or, if it's a small enough claim and you have extra time, you can drag the other driver to small claims court. "Outside of that, the best hope you've got is to get a lawyer," says Holmes. "Insurance companies know that unless you've gotten serious and hired an attorney, they can tell you 'no', or they can say they'll get back to you. And the longer it drags on, the longer the insurer holds onto its money and the more likely you are to take a compromise."
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