You’re in the thick of an accident scene, pumped on adrenaline and stress hormones, wondering if you have any broken bones. In that nerve-wracking situation, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is how to file an insurance claim. You just want to make sure everyone is okay. You want to get your injuries attended to. You want to get that car fixed and just move on with your life.
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget the essential things you need to do right at the scene of the accident.
Yet it is vital to prepare a claim for you to get fair compensation for your damages—vehicle repairs, treatment, medical bills, missed time from work ,and other factors—that negatively affect your life as a result of the accident.
When there’s an auto accident, insurance companies and their policies play a significant role towards a claims settlement. Regardless of whether you file a claim with your own insurer or with the at-fault driver’s insurance company, there are a few rules and requirements that may affect your case.
How to Handle Your Own Personal Injury Claim
If your personal injury is minor, and you are physically up to it, you may decide to handle your own personal injury claim. However, if you have serious or disabling injuries, or if your injuries were caused by something like medical malpractice, exposure to toxic substances, or defective and complex machinery, then you may find that you need the services of an experienced personal injury attorney.
In most personal injury cases, such as those involving auto accidents, pedestrian accidents, bicycle accidents, and slip-and-fall accidents, the responsible party is covered by insurance. Most of the time, you will be communicating and negotiating with an insurance adjuster.
Arizona is a “Fault” Insurance State
Arizona operates under a traditional “fault” auto insurance model, which means if an Arizona driver becomes involved in an accident, they are free to:
- file a claim with their insurance company
- file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance provider
- file a personal injury claim in court seeking damages
How Long Do You Have to File?
In the state of Arizona, you have two years to file a personal injury claim or lawsuit. In some cases, it’s acceptable to file after two years have passed, but you’ll have to check with your attorney to see if that’s possible.
Guidelines for “Do-it-yourself” Personal Injury Claims
Before you talk with the other party’s insurance adjuster, please read our guidelines.
1. Keep All Communication in Writing
It’s better to keep most of your communication in writing, so you don’t verbally blurt out something that could damage your case. Of course, you should also be extremely careful about what you put in writing.
2. Damages Is Based on Medical Expenses and Lost Wages
The amount of compensation you’re entitled to is based on the combined amounts of your medical expenses and lost wages.
3. Your Compensation Depends on Your Portion of Fault—If Any
If you were partly at fault for the accident, the adjuster will reduce the total by the percentage you were at fault. For example, if an accident was 20% your fault, then the total settlement offer would be reduced 20%.
4. Gather All Necessary Documentation
To get the maximum possible compensation, you will need documents and witnesses to establish things such as the extent of your injuries, your costs, your lost income, and who was at fault for the accident.
Step 1: What to Do Immediately at the Accident Scene
Before you do anything else, get medical attention for anyone who needs it. If you or someone is seriously injured, call (or have someone else call) an ambulance right away.
If you (or any of your passengers) are physically able, there are things that need to be done at the accident scene.
Collect As Much Information As You Can
First, take photos of the scene. Be sure to capture wide-angle photos including pertinent traffic signs and signals, the damage on both cars, and close-up shots of the damage. Take photos of your injuries and those of your passengers as well.
Second, write down the information of the other driver: full name, vehicle make and model, and insurance information.
Third, obtain a Traffic Information Exchange slip from the police on the accident scene. You may need this to request a police report later. The slip tells you the following:
- Who the other driver or drivers are in the accident
- If they or someone else owns the vehicle they were driving
- If they have insurance, who their insurance provider is, and when their policy expires
- A report number so you can receive the full police report
The Traffic Information Exchange will not indicate whether the driver was cited for the accident. To get that information, you’d likely need a police report, which you can obtain later.
Fourth, if necessary, call a tow truck to take your car to an auto body shop. You may instruct them to take it to the auto shop of your choice. If in doubt, call your insurance carrier and ask them for a recommendation of the auto body shop they work with.
Fifth, if possible, take statements from witnesses or bystanders as to what they saw leading up to and during the accident. You may be able to get statements that support your claim if the other driver was at fault.
Be Careful What You Say
Unfortunately, what you say to the other driver or to the police at the accident scene can later be used against you. We understand traffic accidents can be confusing and stressful. You might not be thinking with clarity. Words may slip out to the detriment of your case. Nevertheless, here are a few don’ts to keep in mind:
The most important thing to avoid is lying. After an accident, the police will likely require an official statement of the drivers in the accident. Lies can be difficult to continue and are often more costly than the truth. Drivers are seldom the only witness to the accident, not to mention the potential for objective forms of evidence like traffic cameras. If nothing else, a lie on a police report can damage a person’s credibility in court.
Don’t Say You Are “Okay”—Even if You Feel Fine
There is a difference between lying and providing more information than is possible. For instance, many people say that they are not hurt at the scene of an accident. Yet, serious injuries can often take days, weeks, even months to manifest. People at the scene of the accident can be hurt without even knowing it.
Don’t Admit Fault
Another important thing to remember is to never admit fault. People at the scene of the accident commonly admit fault or apologize. However, determining fault is a complex legal decision. Accidents are chaotic things with many possible causes. Drivers involved in an accident cannot know moments later whether they were the one at fault.
Step 2: Proving Fault After a Car Accident
In the moments immediately following a car accident, a driver is usually focused on making sure everyone is physically okay. Once it is determined that there are no serious injuries, the next thought is usually about who was at fault for the accident.
Who to Blame?
To determine which driver involved in an accident is liable for the damages, an accident reconstructionist, insurance company claims adjustor, and the police will all gather and review all available evidence.
Generally, a police officer will be the first investigator on the scene and will review the damage. The police will also take testimony of witnesses and speak to both drivers before writing a report.
A police report can provide support to a non-negligent driver’s case if it ever needs to go to court. The report typically states any evidence showing traffic law violations that led to the accident.
Can Phoenix Police Really Judge Who Was at Fault in a Car Accident?
The aftermath of a car accident is scary. Crushed and twisted metal, injured parties, and swarms of Phoenix or Chandler police seem to be everywhere. What makes the situation even worse is when you know you weren’t to blame for the accident, but investigators are pointing their fingers in your direction.
But can the police, who weren’t there when the accident occurred, really be the best judges of who’s at fault?
There’s no simple answer. Every case is different, and your personal injury lawyer will let you know that from the beginning. However, a lawyer who cares about digging into the specifics of your case may uncover evidence that proves the other party was at fault–even if police issued you a citation or blamed you for the accident.
Gathering Witness Statements and Other Evidence
Luckily for a driver who is not at fault for an accident, the words of the other driver are not the only pieces of evidence that are used to determine what happened. In many cases, there are witnesses to the accident who were either in a separate vehicle close by or pedestrians who were around the area when the accident occurred.
In the example above, testimony from these witnesses should be gathered to determine which light was red and which was green, who had the right of way, and the speed of each driver.
It is important to remember that the damage to each vehicle also tells a story. Photos of vehicle damage can be used in court to prove that the at-fault driver needs to pay for the damages sustained by the victim.
Step 3: Get Documentation Needed to Support Your Claim
You’ll need to collect medical records and copies of bills from your doctors, your hospital, and any other medical professionals or institutions that treated you.
This can be a considerable hassle, especially if you have multiple providers. Some providers will require you to fill out special forms. Most will charge you for copies of your records.
Maintain a Paper Trail as You Undergo Medical Treatment
Keep all copies of all bills, receipts, insurance explanation of benefit statements, doctors’ notes, and every piece of paper you receive from your doctor or hospital. These will come in quite handy for backing up your claim and the compensation amount you are demanding.
If you also used your medical payments insurance policy to cover your deductibles and copays, keep copies of those receipts as well.
Talk to your doctor about future care and potential changes in your treatment plan. If you may need surgery later down the road, you will want to document this potential cost in your claim. The same goes for future treatment of chronic injuries that may not fully heal.
Keep Full Records of Your Vehicle Damage and Repairs
As with medical records, it is also important to maintain records of all the repairs to your vehicle, as well as the prior value of your vehicle. If you’ve added any recent upgrades, such as new rims or improved interior seating, you may include these records in your claim.
If the damage was severe enough, you may be entitled to a diminished value claim in Arizona if your car is six years old or newer. You would need to retain an expert appraiser to mark the value of your car pre- and post-accident and obtain a copy of the appraiser’s report for your claim.
Document Any Lost Income
If you were forced to miss time from work, you could get compensation for lost income, even if you are salaried and had used up your paid time off work (sick days or vacation days).
To best prove lost income, you’ll need:
- a doctor’s note saying you need time off work
- a letter from your employer stating how much time you missed from work along with your salary or commission information. It should also indicate how many sick or vacation days you used up while out of work.
Accident Reports and Evidence for Personal Injury Claims
You’ll need to get an accident report from the police, if relevant for your case.
You can learn more on the Arizona Department of Public Safety website. The Department of Public Safety has records for accidents that were investigated by Highway Patrol Officers and that occurred on state highways. If your accident happened on a city or county road, you’ll need to contact the local law enforcement agency that investigated the accident.
You can also get additional photographs of the accident scene, if any were taken by the police.
Write a Letter to Demand Compensation
When you’ve collected all your documentation and are ready to present your claim, you’ll need to write a demand letter stating the basis for your claim and the amount you expect to be compensated.
What to Expect in the First 30 Days of Your Auto Accident Claim
Arizona insurance regulations require the insurance company to contact you within 10 working days after they have been notified of a loss. If they intend to exercise their right to inspect the damaged vehicle, they must do so within seven working days. However, the insurance company is under no obligation to inspect your vehicle if they do not believe that their insured was legally responsible for the accident.
The insurer can only require your vehicle to be made available for inspection at a time and place that is reasonably convenient for you.
How (Not) to Talk to Insurance Companies
Here is another important thing to consider when talking to insurance companies.
Insurance companies often want to discuss settlement. People have full authority to settle their own legal claims virtually at any time. This means an insurance company can call the victim of an accident and get them to agree to a settlement. Once a case has been settled, it cannot be reopened.
Consequently, it is important for people who have an accident claim to seek legal advice as soon as possible. Insurance companies that see an accident victim with a strong claim will often call early attempting to settle for a low amount—before the person has had a chance to talk to an attorney.
If you feel you have a strong case and the other insurance calls you asking pointed questions, the best way to respond is: “I’d prefer you discuss this with my attorney” and give them your lawyer’s name and phone number. If they get pushy, hang up.
How Much Time Does the Insurance Company Have to Settle My Claim?
Auto insurance companies in Arizona are not under any deadline to settle your claim.
You have two years from the date of the accident to notify the at-fault driver and their insurance of your claim and to reach a settlement. Alternatively, you could bring a lawsuit prior to that two-year deadline.
If you miss the two-year deadline, you will lose the right to bring a claim.
Is the Insurer Required to Reimburse Me for Renting a Car?
When you inform the other driver’s insurance of your claim, you should ask them if you are entitled to payment for a rental car or other substitute transportation. While the insurance company is required to tell you how much they would allow for a rental car or other transportation, they do not have to commit to making any payments until it becomes reasonably clear that their policyholder was legally responsible for the accident.
Once the insurance company knows that their insured is going to be 50% or more at fault, they must commit to paying you for a rental car or other substitute transportation costs. However, auto insurance companies are allowed to cap the amount they are required to pay. Typically, most cap their rate at $25 a day.
Settling Your Claim
85% of all cases end up getting settled out of court. If your accident was a straightforward case, and both you and the other driver are insured, your case will likely be settled.
There are ways to negotiate your settlement to get the most out of your case. See our article on settlements.
How to Deal with Low-Ball Offers
If, after you present your claim and all of your supporting documentation, the insurance company refuses to pay, or low-balls you with an amount that won’t fully compensate you for your injuries and costs, you’ll probably need to retain an attorney to change their minds—or to bring a lawsuit, if needed.