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Auto Accident Settlement Process: FAQ and Answers

Woman holding her neck at a car crash before her car accident settlement process

If you’ve been in a serious car accident and seeking compensation from the other party, you may have discussed the possibility of a settlement. Recovering from a car accident can be stressful, but the auto accident settlement process does not have to be. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about settlements.

What Is an Auto Accident Settlement?

In law, a settlement is defined as the agreement that ends a dispute and includes the dismissal of the rest of the claims against the defendant. In a car accident case, it means you agree to accept a certain amount of money for your pain, suffering, and any other damage incurred. It means the lawsuit is over and you cannot change the terms later, even if you discover new injuries or other reasons you think you deserve more money.

The parties to the lawsuit—the plaintiff and defendant—must both agree to the terms of the settlement, usually on the advice of their attorneys. A settlement typically occurs in lieu of trial but can also take place later if terms of the settlement could not be reached prior to the beginning of the trial.

One or both parties may choose to settle a case rather than go to trial to avoid negative publicity. Terms of settlements are often kept confidential for this reason, either to avoid looking guilty, in the defendant’s case, or to keep the amount of money received under wraps, in the case of a successful plaintiff. The settlement process is useful to parties who want to resolve the matter and avoid messy, expensive litigation.

What Are the Steps in an Auto Accident Settlement Process?

Every case is unique and unfolds differently. Some claims settle without a lawsuit ever being filed, and some settle after a lawsuit is filed but before trial begins. If an insurance company offers to accept your claim and you begin the settlement negotiation process, the steps will roughly include:

  1. Gathering evidence after your accident
  2. Drafting and sending a demand letter to the defendant’s insurance company
  3. Waiting for the insurance company’s response
  4. Undergoing an initial review process
  5. Participating in the settlement negotiations
  6. Receiving a settlement check

If the insurance company denies your demand or their offer is so low you don’t think you’ll be able to negotiate an amount acceptable to you, then you may choose to file a lawsuit. Sometimes the threat of a jury trial will encourage insurance companies to settle on a higher amount, but it depends on how strong the evidence is in your case. If you do file a lawsuit, the parties will engage in discovery, or evidence gathering.

Settlements often take place after discovery but before going to trial, since both sides see the extent of the evidence against them and may be inclined to avoid trial. Still more settlements take place after trial begins, with either side holding out on a settlement agreement as long as possible for various reasons.

How Long Will the Auto Accident Settlement Process Take?

Understandably, plaintiffs want to know how long it will take to settle an accident claim. You may have medical bills piling up or be dealing with lost income from missing work due to the accident. How long should you expect the process to take?

The car accident settlement process takes slightly less than one year on average, with timelines ranging from a few months to two years. Settling quickly is appealing because you get paid faster, but it’s not always advantageous to settle quickly.

If you have bills piling up, getting any payout as fast as possible may be your priority. However, taking more time to calculate your damages, gather strong evidence, and draft the best demand letter or lawsuit possible could pay off in the end with a much higher payout. It comes down to the strength of your case and whether you’re willing to spend more time waiting for a potentially higher payout.

How Much Are Car Accident Settlement Payouts?

The answer to this question heavily depends on the facts of your case, and therefore can only be estimated by your attorney. The logical answer is that your payout should be roughly equal to the costs you’ve incurred, as the goal of compensatory damages is to put you in the same position you were in before the accident.

Calculating a payout based on medical bills and repair costs seems straightforward. But what about pain and suffering, lost wages, or punishment for wrongdoing on the part of the driver who is at fault? Those items are often subject to compensation but are more difficult to calculate. An experienced attorney will let you know what to expect.

Do I Need an Attorney for the Settlement Process?

You have the option to represent yourself in an insurance demand or lawsuit, but hiring an attorney is always a smart move. Since most personal injury attorneys get paid on a contingency fee, meaning they only take a portion of what you win, you won’t have to worry about paying out of pocket. Hiring a personal injury attorney for your car accident settlement will lessen the emotional burden of recovery and allow you to move on with your life more quickly.

What Do I Do If I Don’t Want the Low Car Accident Settlement That My Lawyer Wants Me to Take?

After a serious car accident, you’ll have plenty of things on your mind. Once you’ve sorted through the event’s immediate aftermath and sought medical treatment for your injuries, you’ll need to worry about getting your car repaired or purchasing a new one. This will probably require you to engage in a sustained exchange of information with your auto insurer’s claims department. Eventually, it may also necessitate a lengthy and stressful period of negotiations.

Depending upon its policies, your insurer may choose to pay off the body shop that repairs your vehicle. On the other hand, it may ask you to cover your repair costs and submit a detailed accounting of the charges to its claims department. In this case, your vehicle’s repair costs will become part of your “accident settlement.” If your vehicle was totaled in the accident, the resale value of the car will almost certainly be bundled into your settlement as well.

Unfortunately, your settlement can take weeks, months or even years to come. In many cases, this time frame is directly proportional to the total cost of the accident. If you sustained relatively minor injuries and property damage, your settlement check could come within just a few weeks. If your accident was more serious and necessitated a lengthy physical recovery, your settlement could be delayed by many months. The slow pace at which some medical institutions compile and issue their bills is usually the cause of this “holdup.”

However, financial disputes between you and your insurance company may also serve to delay the issuance of your settlement check. If you’re enrolled in an expensive program of physical therapy or claim to have suffered psychological damage as a result of your accident, your settlement may take years to arrive. Ironically, your settlement is likely to be further delayed by your decision to retain a lawyer. In addition, your lawyer may be willing to make unpleasant compromises in the service of expediency.

If your lawyer urges you to accept an expeditious but inadequate settlement, you may refuse to do so. If he or she presents the settlement as a “final offer” that isn’t likely to be repeated or exceeded, you have the right to bypass him or her and negotiate directly with your insurance company’s claims department. Since your lawyer may be working on multiple cases at once, this might actually speed the claims process along. However, your “fired” lawyer may still have the right to bill you for his or her services.

Tips to Find Good Lawyers for Auto Accidents

You can find lawyers for auto accidents everywhere! They advertise online, on TV, and even on bus benches and billboards. All this information makes it challenging to figure out whether an attorney is good at handling auto accidents or is a good match for your situation. Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier to find a lawyer for an auto accident. Here are five tips to help you find a personal injury attorney.

1. Know When to Call a Lawyer After a Car Accident

If you find yourself asking, Should I get an attorney after a car accident? chances are, the answer is yes.

You may need to call a lawyer sooner rather than later if your insurance claim doesn’t go as planned or if you face any of these situations after a car accident:

  • Another driver in the accident sues you
  • Your accident involved an uninsured driver
  • Your medical bills and other damages are higher than the other driver’s insurance coverage limits
  • The other driver’s insurance company denies all or part of your claim
  • You sustained severe accident injuries, including fractures, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, or depression
  • Your assigned adjuster does not seem to investigate or communicate well

You also have a limited window for filing a legal action against another driver. These laws are called statutes of limitations. Depending on your state, your time limit may range from two to three years from the date of your injury. Hiring a lawyer can help you avoid missing these deadlines.

2. Ask Friends and Family for Referrals

You likely trust your friends’ and family members’ judgment, so ask them who they hired. You may find an excellent personal injury attorney match or learn who to avoid.

If you don’t know anyone who has recently hired an auto accident attorney, search online and read reviews. You can find reviews when you pull up law firms on search engines. One review site, Avvo, lists attorneys and allows former clients to review them.

3. Assess Experience and Success

Generally, you want to find an attorney who is skilled, professional, and reassuring. Most of this is personal preference, so take your time with this step.

Start with calling attorneys first. Those first phone calls will give you an idea of how an attorney communicates and whether their office runs smoothly. Calls also indicate turnaround time; you want responsiveness, not days waiting for a return call or email.

When you find someone promising, schedule a time for a consultation. Many attorneys offer a short consultation free of charge to discuss your case. If you’re not sure whether there will be a charge, be sure to ask.

Some lawyers for auto accidents run like ‘personal injury settlement mills,’ which take as many cases as possible and settle them quickly. Proceed with caution if:

  • Staff rush by and ignore you
  • You arrive on time (either in-person or virtually) and have to wait more than a few minutes
  • You don’t get a response to emails or text messages within 24 hours
  • Your consultation is rescheduled more than once.

The “mill” approach often fails to give your case the personal consideration or attention to detail it needs. You likely want to avoid those law practices and seek an attorney who treats you like a human rather than a potential settlement amount.

4. Seek a Contingency Fee Arrangement

Most personal injury lawyers charge a contingency fee for their services. The terms for this fee are outlined in a contingency agreement, which explains how lawyers receive compensation.

Unlike a fixed hourly fee, you don’t have to pay attorney fees until the lawyer settles or wins your case. Once that happens, the attorney receives a portion of your damages award as their fee. That portion depends on when the case is settled. Percentages can range from 25% (if the case settles before the insurance company gets its attorney involved) to 50% (if the case goes to trial.)

Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say you sustained a bad whiplash injury, and your case settles directly with the insurance company for $25,000. In this case, your attorney receives 25% of the award as a fee, which is $6,250, leaving $18,750. You receive the balance after your attorney arranges payment of outstanding medical bills and other costs.

Any agreement regarding contingency fees must be in writing, so don’t go forward with an attorney if they never present a written fee agreement. Make sure you understand how much an attorney receives and when. Ask questions if any part of the agreement is unclear.

5. Trust Your Instincts

Choosing a personal injury attorney is similar to finding a therapist. You want to get along with them, but more importantly, you should feel safe talking to them. Successful car accident cases depend on you being as open as possible about everything, including items that may affect your credibility (past felony convictions, work issues, etc.). Your attorney can’t deal with those issues unless you share them.

Also, injuries may come with embarrassing symptoms and circumstances. Your attorney may need to provide these facts to insurance adjusters and the attorney for the other party. The impact of your injury may be important to the success of your claim. Don’t hire an attorney if you can’t discuss these details with them.

Your attorney should also listen well, answer your questions, and explain things you don’t understand. You should feel seen, and if that’s not the case you should find someone new.

How to Get Compensated for Common Car Crash Injuries

While money can’t replace the time and enjoyment lost after a wreck, it can make things easier — especially if you miss work or incur expenses due to car crash injuries. Even a minor car crash injury, like whiplash, can be painful and disruptive. Here’s how you can get compensated and move forward after an accident.

Get Information and Evidence

The first step to receiving compensation for car crash injuries is filing insurance claims. Those claims are more likely to be successful if you have information ready.

Start with the basic information you need for an insurance claim:

  • The other driver’s name and contact information
  • Insurance information
  • Names and contact information for witnesses
  • Name and badge number of law enforcement reporting to the scene

Also, consider taking photos, especially if you feel shaken and worry about forgetting important details. Examples of compelling car crash photos include:

  • Damage to both vehicles
  • Personal property damage, e.g., broken laptop screens, spilled drinks on devices, stained upholstery, activated airbags, etc.
  • Street signs and other landmarks near the accident site
  • Vehicle license plates
  • Injury signs, including bruises, cuts, scratches, burns, and abrasions

Later, you can request accident reports, including anything filed by a law enforcement officer. The report may include facts you don’t remember and, more importantly, any tickets issued to other drivers.

Record what happened while it remains fresh in your memory and note any pain or distress. You can write these observations down, but you might find it easier to record a short video or audio account on your smartphone after the accident.

Seek Medical Attention for Car Crash Injuries

Seeing a doctor after a car accident documents your injury. Your injury claim is more credible if you seek medical attention immediately than if you linger in pain for days or weeks. If hidden injuries present themselves later, you at least have a pattern of establishing medical treatment and seeking care.

Unfortunately, accident victims frequently overlook medical and mental health treatment as an important step to receiving compensation. Many drivers lose insurance claims because they downplay soreness or brush it off as ‘not that bad.’ Seek treatment for these common car accident injuries if you are sore, unusually distressed, or feel simply “off.”

Soft Tissue Injuries

Soft tissue injuries include sprains, strains, and bruises to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Symptoms can be immediate or show up days after an accident. However, without treatment, these injuries become extremely painful. Examples include whiplash and back pain after an accident.

Scrapes, Cuts, and Abrasions

Accident victims may sustain bruises and cuts from broken glass or impacts with the steering wheel, door panel, dashboard, or flying objects. Also, deployed airbags cause abrasions, especially with shorter drivers who sit closer to the steering wheel.


You can suffer burns if your car or anything inside it accidentally catches fire. Airbag deployment can also cause burns on your hands and face. Drivers may also sustain burns if vehicle fluids or hot drinks splash on them at impact.

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

If you sustained whiplash or experienced a headache after a car accident, it may be a good idea to have a doctor evaluate you for traumatic brain injuries (TBI). They can happen when accident victims hit their head on a dashboard, door frame, or steering wheel — but the jerking back-and-forth motion of a whiplash accident can also cause brain trauma. You don’t have to lose consciousness to sustain a TBI; if you feel dizzy, tired, confused, nauseous, or “foggy,” see a doctor immediately.


Bad car crashes may result in broken bones, often hands, wrists, arms, ankles, and ribs. Drivers may suffer a fracture when they brace against the steering wheel or floor.

Blunt force trauma is another cause of fractures. But you may not notice the fracture right away. For example, “dashboard knee” is usually a soft tissue injury resulting from the knee hitting the dashboard. However, further investigation can reveal cracked knee caps along with ligament swelling.

Internal Injuries

Internal injuries are frequently hidden and you may not feel them until they become serious and life-threatening. It is a good idea to head to an emergency room or urgent care center as soon as possible after an accident so doctors can check for internal injuries before they become serious.

Mental Health Conditions

There are instances where people develop PTSD from a car accident. Even minor accidents can lead to anxiety disorders, phobias, and other disruptive mental health conditions.

File an Insurance Claim

You have two options for filing an insurance claim for car crash injuries: filing it with your insurance or filing with the other driver’s insurance. It’s normal to want the at-fault driver to cover your damages, but there are good reasons for using your own insurance.

Using Your Insurance CoverageYour insurance policy may include personal injury protection (PIP), which covers medical expenses, lost wages, and rehabilitation costs when you sustain injuries in an auto accident.

PIP pays these bills regardless of fault, so it keeps your expenses paid and under control. It’s also helpful if you miss work since it covers lost wages.

Another benefit of PIP is its replacement services coverage. If pain, recovery, or immobility make life matters unmanageable, PIP will cover basic services like house cleaning, landscaping, and extra child care.

Besides PIP, you may also carry uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. This coverage pays medical bills, property damage, and noneconomic damages, like pain and suffering. It activates after hit-and-run accidents or when the at-fault driver doesn’t have enough insurance coverage to pay your damages.

Pursuing the At-Fault Driver’s Insurance

You may wish to skip your insurance and go straight to the other driver’s insurance if:

  • There is no dispute about liability
  • You carry liability-only insurance and do not have PIP coverage
  • You face high medical costs and do not have health insurance
  • Your claim only involves property damage

Claims limited to property damage are the easiest to settle with another driver’s insurance policy. Insurance companies typically don’t dispute property damage after they accept liability. Also, repair receipts or estimates make property damage objective and easy to prove. If the insurance declares your car is a total loss (totaled), it will reimburse you for the car’s actual cash value (ACV).

Itemize Your Damages

Car accident injury damages fall under two categories: economic damages and noneconomic damages. Economic damages include medical expenses, lost wages, rehabilitation costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses. Noneconomic damages are less tangible and they involve placing a dollar amount on things like “pain and suffering” and “reduced enjoyment of life.”

You need to take different approaches when proving these damages. Here is how to start itemizing damages from a car crash injury.

Proving Economic Damages

Economic damages are easier to prove in a car crash injury claim if you keep receipts and invoices. Once you start medical treatment and the claims process, you can likely get reimbursement for expenses arising from the accident.

Medical care will likely make up the largest share of your economic damages. You can prove these expenses by keeping the following:

  • Medical bills
  • Copay receipts
  • Prescription drug prescriptions and receipts
  • Cost estimates for future medical care
  • Mental health counseling invoices
  • Physical, occupational, or vocational therapy invoices

Medical payments will likely pay out directly to your providers, not you personally. So, when you submit bills to the insurance company, ensure you provide the most updated statements. Otherwise, you risk still owing a balance after your case settles.

For lost wages, take a compare and contrast approach. Start with pay stubs showing your income before the accident, and then pull up pay stubs after the accident. The comparison shows your wage loss and determines your compensation amount.

You can take the same approach with diminished earning capacity. Sometimes, people can’t return to their previous profession due to disabling injuries. Head trauma, for example, may make it impossible for an accident victim to continue working as an accountant or attorney. Likewise, a physical disability may remove a car crash victim from a heavy-duty job into a lower-paying light-duty one. You may establish diminished earning capacity by comparing your previous pay to your current salary.

Proving Noneconomic Damages

Noneconomic damages are difficult to prove because they are subjective and vary between individuals. Your compensation amount can depend on how much your injuries change your life.

Proving noneconomic damages is challenging but not impossible. The trick with these types of damages is contemporaneous records; you’ll need a history of what you were feeling or experiencing. These records are much more persuasive than recounting memories of your experience when you discuss them after your recovery.

Consider keeping a journal of your recovery, either written, video, or voice recorded, and document your challenges. Even the most mundane details will help your case. For example, note any time you miss a vacation or a long-anticipated event or if you have severe pain one day that prevents you from grocery shopping.

Other people can help you prove noneconomic damages, too. Your family, friends, and other loved ones can submit statements of what they witnessed. If you have mental conditions like PTSD from a car accident, psychiatric and counseling notes could help.

How to Get a Police Report for a Car Accident

The aftermath of a car accident can be exhausting. Once the dust settles and you’re away from the scene, it’s time to deal with paperwork. This is how to get a police report for a car accident, what you can expect, and the reasons you need one. The most common reason to obtain a report is to send it to your insurance company. All critical information such as contact and insurance for the other parties, diagrams of the accident, vehicle details, and date and location are contained in this one document

. These five tips can make the process clearer and easier for you.

Tip 1: There Is More Than One Way to Request Your Report

There are a few strategies for how to get a police report. For a car accident in which police respond to the scene, it is a good idea to get the officers’ names and badge numbers. This makes tracking down the report much easier later. You can access a report filed by a responding officer in the following ways.

Contact the Law Enforcement Office

Contact the appropriate law enforcement office to request your report. Whether the local police, county sheriff, or highway patrol respond depends on the jurisdiction. For example, state troopers may respond to accidents occurring on interstates and highways. The responding officer should give you instructions on how to find your report once it’s filed. If not, call or visit the appropriate police department. Additionally, many jurisdictions have simple online forms you can fill out to request your accident report.

Request a Copy from the Responding Officers

It is worth asking the responding officer if they have a carbon copy of the accident report available at the scene. This is unlikely as most jurisdictions charge a fee to access accident reports. If there is not a carbon copy available, the officer should provide you with a free report receipt, which you can reference to request the full report later from the appropriate law enforcement office.

Request a Copy from Your Insurance Agency

Usually, you are the one who obtains the report and sends it to the insurance company. Occasionally, however, your insurance company will collect the report, and you can request a copy from them. It’s worth asking your insurer since it could save you time and money.

Tip 2: Learn When Your Report Will Be Ready

Your instinct will likely be to track down the accident report as soon as possible, but it might not be ready. Some jurisdictions may not make the report available until, for example, at least 14 days after the accident. On the other hand, some jurisdictions limit how long you have to request your report before it’s no longer available. It may be possible to obtain a copy if you miss the deadline, but it will be more difficult. Check with the responding police officer or law enforcement office.

Tip 3: You May Have to File Your Own Report

You should get documentation even if the police weren’t called. Legal problems can arise even after the most minor fender-benders. Other parties can claim later that they were injured, or claim you were at fault even if you were not. A police report may protect you from liability for something you didn’t do, or from car accident fraud. You may wonder how to get a police report for a car accident when police officers did not respond to the scene. In that case, you would need to file your own accident report by visiting your closest Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) location. You may have between 10 and 30 days to report an accident on your own, depending on your jurisdiction.

Tip 4: Only Certain People Can Request Your Report

Depending on the state, your accident report may only be available to you, your attorney, your insurance company, and the other parties to the accident. You will likely need to request the accident report yourself. Rules for how to get a police report for a car accident vary by state. Some reports become part of the public record after a certain amount of time. Even when records are technically public, they may still be behind a paywall or only available for certain purposes.

Tip 5: Try to Correct Any Errors on Your Report

Your accident report was created by another person, so it likely won’t be perfect. Review it closely and bring any errors to the attention of the law enforcement office, or ask if you can amend it to include missing information. This can shield you from liability that may arise from a mistake or omission in the report.

What Is a Minor Car Accident: Definition and FAQ

Have Questions About the Auto Accident Settlement Process?

The settlement process can seem daunting in the months after a car accident. Find your match with an experienced attorney who can guide you through the process.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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