I need advice on dealing with a car insurance claim.
August 15, 2007 5:08 AM   Subscribe

I need advice on dealing with a car insurance claim. The insurance company's offer is too low and I think I may have screwed myself.

I was a passenger in a car accident a year and a half ago. The driver of the other car was at fault. I suffered a whiplash injury. It has not caused me to miss any work, or materially altered my life, but it has been a nagging annoyance. Just a dull mild pain in the back of my neck that comes and goes. I went to a doctor and a physical therapist shortly after the accident. The physical therapist gave me some exercises to do. They didn't help. I was very, very patient waiting for those exercises to help. Then, more than a year later, I made five or six visits to a chiropractor. That, too, didn't seem to help.

So I need to settle my claim with the other driver's insurance company before the two-year statute of limitations is up. They have offered to pay for the doctor and physical therapist bills, plus $500 for pain and suffering (they will not pay for the chiropractor, because it was too long after the accident, but those bills total only about $100 worth of co-pays so I'm not so concerned). For what might be a permanent injury, I certainly deserve more than $500. But how much? And how am I going to negotiate? Did I screw myself by letting so much time lapse before going to the chiropractor? The insurance company rep said that I would have trouble convincing a jury that I had not re-injured my neck in that year, which is why they won't pay for the chiropractor. In other words, I can't prove that my current neck pain is related to the accident. I know I can get a lawyer with no up-front cost to me, but should I bother?

(Also, if anyone has any advice on making my neck stop hurting, I would appreciate that too.)
posted by Dec One to Work & Money (8 answers total)
IANAL. But, based on my personal experience with a similar problem (girlfriend rear-ended & suffered whiplash symptoms for moths) in a different state:

(1) As long as you have not yet settled and the statute of limitations is not yet up, you can still negotiate.

(2) Insurance companies will always offer you a flat figure to try to get you to settle quickly. Where potential lingering medical expenses are concerned, you should be very careful about accepting this offer.

(3) Refusing to pay for the chiropracter bills because it is "too long after the accident" is just a negotiating strategy. You can demand that they pay any and all medical or expenses related to your injury for any length of time. (Insurance company paid for my GF's medical, chiropracter, and physical therapy bills for over a year following the accident).

(4) The most important thing is to have everything documented, including pain (ideally, you would have kept a pain log). The better you have things documented, the more seriously the insurance company will take you. It signals that you aren't just trying to take them for a ride.

(5) Insurance companies do not like to be taken to court. It uses up time and resources, and they will negotiate to avoid it. That is your biggest leverage.

If you think that you will continue to need treatment, then it may be worth consulting a lawyer to figure out your next step. I paid a lawyer for one hour of his time and advice, and it was well worth it.

Good luck!
posted by googly at 5:35 AM on August 15, 2007

*er. whiplash symptoms for humans, for months.
posted by googly at 5:37 AM on August 15, 2007

In my experience $500 for pain and suffering is low even for a first offer.
posted by grouse at 5:41 AM on August 15, 2007

$500 is the standard offer for a soft-tissue injury that can't be proven. This from the experiences of myself, family, and friends over the years. (Aside: it was the standard offer in 1983 when my wife got rear-ended. Why no raise for inflation?)

Again, just based on experience, this is what they offer to get it over with, and to get rid of a lot of the fakers.

My last personal experience with this was when I was rear-ended and suffered a lower-back injury. Nothing that shows on x-ray, and I didn't miss any work to speak of. I refused the initial $500 offer, and ended up settling for about $2000. That was still not "fair" in that if someone asked if I would endure the pain I did for $2000, I would say no. It took over a year to settle.

There's no telling what they will settle for, but before they are done, they will probably accuse you of faking, or already having an issue, or even that it was somehow your fault for not being properly buckled, or not having your headrest adjusted right. If you think they are being unreasonable, tell them all further communication will go through your attorney. Then get an attorney who is willing to take your case for a percentage of the settlement, which is basically any personal injury attorney.

A big factor is also what juries tend to decide in your area. Here in Montana, they are notoriously stingy, so the insurance company knows that a soft tissue injury will be awarded very little. On the other hand, they would rather settle out of court than pay an attorney to try the case, which could cost them more.

So, if you are willing to go to court over it, and get an attorney, you will probably do better than just doing it yourself.

One last word, which you may have already discovered. In letters and other communication, they will phrase things in a way that makes it sound like they are in control, and rely on you having the typical response to "authority" by doing what they say. For example: they will ask you to sign a form to have access to all of your medical records. They will say they can't settle with you until they have it. NO, do not do this. You can give them the bills related to the specific injury. Your medical records are none of their business. They can subpoena them for the court case if it goes that far. In short, do not sign ANYTHING until the settlement is to your satisfaction. Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 6:04 AM on August 15, 2007

You absolutely want a Personal Injury attorney, at no cost to you. If you did not have preexisting injury to your neck, then the whiplash/accident caused it. You will not regret getting an attorney to negotiate with the insurance company. The adjusters for the companies make much lower offers to unrepresented parties than those with counsel.

Do not wait any longer. Use martindale.com to find one in your area. In some states, the Statute of Limitations on a tort claim is two years, but I've never heard of less. That means time is of the essence.
posted by letahl at 6:25 AM on August 15, 2007

Seconding letahl. Get an attorney to negotiate on your behalf. You may not end up having to go to trial, but you should get more money. $500 is a ridiculously low amount; if you are seriously considering it, you would benefit from having an in-person adviser to talk this over with.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:45 AM on August 15, 2007

Only 5% of these cases go to trial. Think of the lawyer as your well-educated thug for negotiation.
posted by letahl at 8:00 AM on August 15, 2007

The insurance company rep said that I would have trouble convincing a jury that I had not re-injured my neck in that year, which is why they won't pay for the chiropractor. In other words, I can't prove that my current neck pain is related to the accident.

Oh, so you DO think I need a haircut, Mr Barber?

That person is not on your side, s/he represents the insurance company, whose interest it is in to pay you as little as possible. Their advice is worth less than nothing and cannot be trusted. (And even if you re-injured your neck you can posit that you were more prone to injury as a result of the first one.)

If you really don't want to involve a lawyer then come up with a number you think is appropriate and write back stating that that is your counter-offer and if they are not willing to accept then you will have to involve council. Then follow through.
posted by phearlez at 8:15 AM on August 15, 2007

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