As a personal injury and car accident attorney, I deal with auto insurance companies A LOT. Like…. Constantly. They are generally good people who want to be reasonable and helpful, but the business landscape they inhabit dictates that they find ways to reduce and minimize the value of your auto claim, in order to be viewed favorably by their employers. This makes it tricky for normal people who are looking for just and reasonable compensation for their injuries and property damage. Auto adjusters know that you, as a normal person, don’t know much about how auto claims are handled. In fact, they count on it. They may use ethically questionable methods in order to give them the upper hand in negotiations. Here are some basic tips, and examples of what to look out for:
Don’t speak to an adjuster following an accident: Why should you clam up when the at-fault party’s insurance adjuster calls you? Here’s the classic example: They call you the day after your crash “just to check on you and make sure you’re alright”. Seems reasonable enough, even compassionate. How, you ask, is could that be shady? Well, for one thing, many injuries have delayed onset, from 24-72 hours for symptoms to develop or reach peak intensity. If they call you 24 hours after the accident to ‘check on you’ and you tell them that you ‘think you’re fine’, you have unwittingly just undermined the severity of your injuries, in the event that your symptoms increase and require additional treatment. But guess what? They have a recorded conversation on file where you specifically told them you were “fine”, and you can be sure they will reference this when you are negotiating the value of your claim. This is why I tell people not to speak to an adjuster following an accident, until you have a better sense of the severity and ramifications of the accident. It’s too easy to tell them something they can use against you, when the rubber meets the road.
Seek immediate treatment and follow your doctor’s orders: Guess who doesn’t get evaluated by EMT’s, go to the hospital after an accident, or skip doctor’s appointments? Answer: A person who is not really injured. And guess who knows that? Answer: Your friendly insurance adjuster. Not seeking medical treatment, and not following up with prescribed appointments is an indicator that your injuries are not significant. If you were really hurt, you would surely be seeking treatment, right? It is important to err on the side of caution and get checked out immediately after an accident, or run the risk that an adjuster may try to use that against you when it comes time to negotiate.
Be very clear with your doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors about your symptoms: Every time you go to a medical provider, be sure to tell them about every and all symptom you are experiencing. That way, there is no ambiguity in your medical records about the nature of your injuries. It’s easy to think that your doctor already knows that your neck hurts, so you don’t need to mention it. The reality is that relaying your complete symptoms with every visit will strengthen your case, as it paints a complete picture of the severity of your injuries, and increases the value of the claim when it comes time to negotiate a settlement. Personal Injury lawyers take all of your medical records, bills, etc… and create a “demand letter” which they send to the insurance company as part of the negotiation process. The more clearly referenced your symptoms and injuries are by you and your physician, the stronger the case. For more info on how to write effective demand letters, click here
Document the crash: Take pictures of your vehicle, and the other driver’s vehicle. Get statements from anyone who witnessed the crash, or at least get their contact info so you can contact them later. Ask for a copy of the accident report, and keep a file of all pertinent info, so that you can be prepared to provide the information needed to justify the legitimacy of your claim.
Be nice, but be firm: Adjusters are good people, but their job is to find ways to pay you less than what you deserve. I know that sounds bad, and it is, but the best way to get maximum value from a claim is to be polite and courteous, but firm in the negotiation process. If the number they come up with is insufficient, politely tell them that you appreciate their offer, but you will need to get your attorney involved if they cannot make a fair offer. Often times, the idea of pulling in an attorney is enough to get them to pony up to a more reasonable offer.
Be realistic: Here’s what this whole negotiation thing boils down to: If I put this case in front of a jury, what are they going to think? It is in an insurance companies best interest to settle a claim out of court, because of the uncertainty of what a jury will award an injured victim. They know it’s worth bumping up an offer a little bit to avoid litigation, which is costly for both sides. I say, “be realistic” because I have clients who don’t realize that things like pre-existing conditions and a checkered criminal past can have a huge impact on the value of the claim. Passing on a settlement offer that seems low doesn’t guarantee a higher award in court. Sometimes the smart play is to take the ‘bird in the hand’ rather than roll the dice in court. It really depends on the case, and a good injury lawyer will help you make the right decision when the time comes.
It is possible to settle small claims without a lawyer, provided you are equipped with the knowledge and tools to advocate for what is fair. Often times, an attorney can demand higher amounts from an insurance company than an individual, as the threat of filing a lawsuit can pressure them to offer more money, to keep it out of court. Remember, they have to pay a lawyer too, if the case goes to court.
If you have been in an accident, it is always wise to talk through your case with an experienced personal injury lawyer. An attorney will tell you whether or not you need their services, not just try to sign you up regardless.
For more information and advice on handling personal injury or car accident claims, visit the following articles from our blog archive: