Not all car accidents result in injuries. Even when an accident causes a personal injury, the injuries are sometimes minor. When an accident results only in minor damage or injuries, you may want to file your own car accident claim rather than hiring an attorney.
Amateurs should not try and decide for themselves. By contacting an attorney you trust, you can obtain a free case evaluation and find out from a professional.
California law makes it easy to bring claims in small claims court. Before you do that, you should decide what your case is worth, whether you can resolve it through negotiation, and whether your own insurance company should be involved.
Property Damage Only Claims
If your car was damaged in a collision, you have two choices. You can make a claim against your own insurance company under the collision coverage that your policy provides. Your insurance company is required to negotiate in good faith to arrive at a reasonable cost of repair. If you select that option, your insurance company will subtract your deductible in the amount you selected when you bought your policy.
Your other option is to make a claim against the insurer of the other car involved in the collision. If the accident was entirely the other driver's fault, the other driver's insurance company should pay you the full value of the repair. That saves you from paying the deductible.
If you and the other driver were both at fault, you'll need to decide how the fault should be shared. Your entitlement to repair costs is in proportion to the other driver's fault. If that driver was 70% to blame, you can recover 70% of your repair costs.
If you were mostly at fault, or if the other driver's insurer is likely to argue that you were, it might be easier for you to make a claim against your own insurance company. If you have a high deductible and the other driver is almost entirely to blame, it might be better for you to make a claim against the other driver's company.
If you were injured, you might want to handle your own claim if the car accident injuries healed quickly and did not involve significant medical expense. Scratches and bruises that did not require a doctor visit, or muscle soreness that resolved after a single medical examination, probably won't result in a substantial settlement. Those are the kinds of injury claims you might want to handle yourself.
If you do handle the claim yourself, you need to be certain that your injury has fully healed before you settle. If you are still experiencing nagging pain, wait to see if it goes away. Once you settle, you can't ask the insurance company for more money. If the injury turns out to cause prolonged pain that eventually results in future doctor visits, you won't receive the full compensation you deserve if you've already settled the case.
After you have healed completely, you will be in a position to settle your case. If you aren't sure whether your injuries warrant a large or a small settlement, get advice from a personal injury lawyer. In some cases, you can get more than you expect — more than enough to offset the attorney's fee — by letting an attorney handle your claim.
Negotiating with Insurance Adjusters
Before you think about bringing a claim in court, try to negotiate your claim with the other driver's insurance adjuster. Don't expect this to be a quick and painless process unless you are willing to accept the adjuster's first offer. The job of an insurance adjuster is to save money for the insurance company. Adjusters do that by paying less than a claim is worth. Unlike your own insurance company, the other driver's insurance company has no duty to settle your claim in good faith. Don't expect fair treatment from an insurance adjuster.
You should start by obtaining proof of your losses. That includes repair estimates for your car, medical bills, medical records, and proof of lost wages if you missed a few days of work. If you missed more than a few days, you should ask a personal injury lawyer whether your claim for compensation is large enough to make it worthwhile to obtain professional help.
Put all of that information into a letter to the insurance adjuster. The letter (known as a “demand letter”) should tell your story. Explain how your injury has affected your life. Be as detailed as you can in your descriptions of pain, inconvenience, and emotional anguish. At the same time, don't go overboard. If you make it sound like a minor accident has ruined your life, the adjuster won't take you seriously.
End the letter with a settlement offer. Ask for more than you expect to receive. Send the demand letter to the adjuster and wait for a counteroffer. You may need to exchange offers and counteroffers three or four times before you arrive at a settlement.
Small Claims Procedure
If you cannot settle your claim on terms that you believe are fair, you can sue the other driver in small claims court. In California, you can bring a small claims lawsuit for any amount up to $7,500. Make sure you file before the statute of limitations expires (usually 2 years after the accident for personal injuries and 3 years for property damage claims).
Each California county has a small claims court. The clerk of small claims court can give you written information about filing and serving a small claims complaint, or you can search for information on the county's website. The clerk can also give you a standard complaint to fill out.
Make sure you know the name of the responsible driver and that you include the correct name in the complaint. Explain in simple language that an accident occurred in a specified place on a specified date, that the other driver (the “defendant”) was negligent, and that the negligence caused your injuries or property damage or both.
You can probably serve the complaint by certified mail, but if that doesn't work, you will need to use a process server. The court's paperwork will explain what you need to do.
At your small claims hearing, you will need to prove that the other driver caused the accident. You can probably do that with your own testimony and by providing an accident report, although you can bring witnesses to testify if anyone else saw the accident. You should bring copies of medical bills, medical records, and wage loss statements to prove your losses. Explain your injuries to the court just as you did in the demand letter. You can also have witnesses testify about how your injuries affected your life.
After you sue in small claims court, the insurance company may improve its settlement offer. If not, the small claims judge will tell you whether you proved your entitlement to compensation and, if so, how much you will be awarded.