Understanding California’s Car Accident Insurance Claims Process

July 11, 2023 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff | Tips & Information

Understanding California’s Car Accident Insurance Claims Process

The screech of tires skidding across asphalt, the crunch of a collision, a rush of adrenaline, checking to see if everyone is okay: Car accidents are undoubtedly traumatic enough all on their own. But after an accident—perhaps while you’re dealing with injuries and losing a vehicle—you have to navigate the car accident insurance claims process.

California law requires drivers to carry a minimum level of car insurance—and with good reason. Your car insurance provides an important safety net to cover your expenses if you’re hurt or your car is damaged in an accident. It also protects you from liability for property damage and injuries if you’re at fault in a crash.

But many variables can muddy the waters and make things confusing when you file a car accident insurance claim, including:

  • When it’s not clear who’s at fault in an accident.
  • When insurance companies are more concerned about their bottom line than about paying your claim.
  • When the other driver leaves the scene of the accident.
  • When the other driver is uninsured.

This blog aims to bring you up to speed on car insurance policies, what to do after a car accident, and how to navigate a car accident insurance claim.

Understanding Car Insurance Policies

The first step in working through the details of a car accident insurance claim is understanding your car insurance coverage. When you understand your car insurance policy, you can answer questions like:

  • What types of coverage do I have? What are the limits?
  • Which type(s) of coverage apply to my car accident?
  • Does my coverage meet California’s car insurance requirements?

The primary types of car insurance coverage are:

  • Liability coverage: There are two types of liability coverage—property damage and bodily injury. Liability coverage applies when an accident is your fault.
    • Property damage liability coverage pays for damage to other people’s property in an accident you cause (up to your coverage limit).
    • Bodily injury liability coverage pays for medical expenses for people injured in an accident you cause (up to your coverage limits).
  • Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage: This pays for damage to your property and/or your medical expenses when you are in an accident caused by a driver without car insurance or insufficient car insurance coverage.
  • Collision coverage: This pays for damage to your car caused by collisions—with other cars or other objects—regardless of who’s at fault. The maximum amount collision coverage will pay is your car’s fair market value (FMV) minus your deductible. The deductible is a fixed amount you pay before the insurance policy kicks in.
  • Comprehensive coverage: This pays for damage to your car caused by extraordinary events, such as fires, floods, and other weather-related events, theft, vandalism, and collisions with animals (e.g., a deer). Like collision coverage, comprehensive coverage typically has a deductible.
  • Medical payments coverage: This pays medical expenses for you and your passengers, no matter who’s at fault in the accident.

There are quite a few other optional types of coverage, including:

  • Personal injury protection: PIP is similar to medical payments coverage, but it is not offered in California.
  • Rental reimbursement: This pays for a rental car while your car is being repaired under a claim on your insurance policy. If you choose this coverage, read the specifics carefully to ensure you understand the coverage limits.
  • Gap insurance: Many people take out loans to buy new vehicles. Suppose you borrow money to purchase a new car. A year later, your car is totaled in an accident. Your insurance covers the cost of your car up to its FMV of $30,000, but you still owe the bank $40,000. Gap insurance helps pay back the remaining $10,000 on your car loan.

The Declarations Page: A Summary of Your Insurance Coverage

If you want a quick snapshot of your car insurance policy, log in to your account (or call your insurer) and view the declarations page. The declarations page lists:

  • The policy number and coverage period
  • The drivers and vehicles insured under the policy
  • The included coverages, coverage limits, and their costs
  • The discounts applied to your account (e.g., for vehicle safety features or a good driving record)

California Car Insurance Requirements

Section 16020 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC) requires all drivers to carry property damage and bodily injury liability car insurance coverage. CVC Section 16451 lists the specific dollar amounts required.

Liability CoverageBodily injury (per person)Bodily injury (per accident)Property damage
January 1, 2025$30,000$60,000$15,000
January 1, 2035$50,000$100,000$25,000

CVC Section 11580.2 requires car insurance companies to include uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage in every policy in California. The only way to avoid adding it to your policy is to decline the coverage in writing. However, carrying uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage makes good financial sense, and we strongly recommend it.

The Chain | Cohn | Clark blog has more information on how much bodily injury liability insurance coverage you should carry.

What to Do After a Car Accident

Now that you’re familiar with the different types of car insurance coverage and (hopefully) know what coverage you have, it’s important to be aware of what you should do immediately following a car accident. What you do (or don’t do) after a crash can impact your insurance compensation for the car accident—positively and negatively.

If you’re involved in an automobile collision, here’s what you should do:

  • Call 911 so first responders can care for anyone injured as soon as possible.
  • Don’t leave the accident site—it’s against the law.
  • Call the police and request a copy of the police report.
  • Avoid confronting or arguing with other drivers, even if you are upset.
  • Exchange contact information, driver’s license numbers, vehicle registration information, and car insurance information with other drivers involved in the accident.
  • Get contact information for any witnesses to the accident.
  • Take photos of any damage to the cars and the accident scene. Write down everything you remember about how the accident occurred.
  • See a doctor for a medical exam as soon as possible, even if you don’t think you’re injured.
  • Keep records of all your expenses if you have injuries that need medical treatment.

Do I Call My Insurance After an Accident?

You should report an accident to your insurance company, but be careful what you say. In fact, you should watch what you say about a car accident no matter who you’re talking to. This includes your insurance company, another driver, the police, or even posting on social media.

For example:

  • If you apologize, admit fault, or say you were partly to blame, your words may be used to reduce or deny your car accident insurance claim.
  • Suppose you say that you’re not injured, but 24 hours later, your neck and back are so sore you spend the whole day in bed. Your previous statement—“I’m not hurt”—might be used to reduce your car accident insurance compensation.

Refrain from giving a recorded statement when you talk to the insurance company. Answer questions simply, without volunteering more information than what’s requested. Avoid talking about your opinions; just stick to the facts as you remember them. If you don’t know something, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

California Accident Reporting Requirements

Under California law, you may need to report a car accident to the nearest police department and to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

If an accident caused more than $1,000 in property damage OR if someone was injured or killed in the accident, you must:

  • Notify the nearest police department.
  • File Form SR-1 with the DMV within ten days.

You should also notify the police if the other driver is involved in an accident:

  • Did not have a license
  • Was under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Left the scene of the accident

The Chain | Cohn | Clark blog provides more detailed information on California car accident reporting.

The Car Insurance Claims Process

The car accident claim procedure can be daunting. But if you’re equipped with a thorough knowledge of your insurance coverage and follow the proper steps after an accident, you’ll be in a good position to have your claim approved.

We’ve already discussed notifying your insurance company of your accident. But what happens after you file an insurance claim? Here are the typical next steps:

  • The insurance company should contact you for more detailed information. Follow up if you don’t hear from them within a couple of weeks.
  • An insurance claims adjuster will investigate the accident. Claims adjusters are trained to investigate and estimate the value of insurance claims. The adjuster will contact you about any damage to your car and your injuries. Cooperate with the investigation, but remember to be careful what you say.
  • When the investigation is complete, the insurance company will either approve or deny your claim.
    • If your claim is approved, you will be offered a settlement. You can accept, negotiate with the insurance company, or contact a lawyer for help in negotiating the car accident insurance settlement.
    • If your claim is denied, you can appeal the insurance company’s decision or contact a lawyer to review your case.

Your Rights Under California Fair Claims Settlement Practices Regulations

Insurance companies are subject to the California Code of Regulations, which spells out your rights in the car accident insurance claims process in a section titled “Standards for Prompt, Fair and Equitable Settlements.”

If you suspect your insurer is discriminating against you, unreasonably delaying your claim, or offering you an unfairly low settlement, you can contact the California Department of Insurance at 800-927-4357 to file a complaint or discuss your options.

Insurance companies are often far more responsive and offer a more substantial settlement to someone who is represented by a car accident lawyer. The car accident attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark work on a contingency basis. Contingency basis is a fancy way of saying that you aren’t charged any fees unless our team wins a settlement or jury verdict on your behalf; then, our fee is a small percentage of the compensation you’re awarded.

Car Accident Insurance Claim FAQs

How do I know what’s reasonable compensation for a car accident?

Compensation for economic damages—damages that can be assigned a definite dollar value—can be fairly straightforward. Economic damages include the cost of repairing your vehicle, medical bills, and payment for lost wages, among other things.

For example, suppose your car—currently worth $10,000—is damaged in an accident. Once your claim is approved, the insurance company will offer you the lesser of the cost of repairing your vehicle or the vehicle’s current FMV.

In other words, if it costs $12,000 to repair your car, your car will be “totaled”—declared a total loss—and you’ll receive $10,000 (minus your deductible if you’re using collision coverage). If it costs $5,000 to repair your car, you’ll receive $5,000.

Depending on the circumstances, the insurance payment may be issued directly to you, to the bank that holds your car loan, or to the shop making the repairs on your car.

Compensation for your medical expenses may also be simple if you have minor injuries. However, an insurance company may initially offer you an inadequate settlement for serious injuries and noneconomic damages—compensation for things such as your pain, mental anguish, or loss of enjoyment of life. If you have serious injuries from a car accident, you can usually receive a much better settlement with the help of a car accident lawyer.

Why was my car accident insurance claim denied?

There are some valid reasons for insurance claim denials. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Your claim is not covered. For example, if you are at fault in an accident and don’t have collision coverage, damage to your car is not covered. If you file a claim for repairs to your car, it will be denied.
  • You waited too long to file your claim. Your insurance company may not have a specific deadline for filing a claim, but if you delay too long, they may deny the claim. Generally, it’s a good idea to file your car accident insurance claim as soon as possible.
  • You didn’t provide required information. For example, if you file an injury claim, the insurance company may ask you to see an independent doctor to verify your diagnosis (i.e., not your family doctor). If you don’t cooperate, your claim may be denied.

What happens if the insurance company doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do?

Although car insurance is intended to support you at a time of need—when your car is damaged or you’re dealing with injuries from a crash—car insurance companies are for-profit ventures, and they don’t always act in good faith.

Insurance companies that delay claims unreasonably, deny compensation for covered items, or offer far less than what is fair are said to be acting “in bad faith.” The Bakersfield insurance bad faith lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Clark can help you pursue damages when a car insurance company breaches its contract with you.

Experienced Bakersfield Car Accident Attorneys

We hope this blog helps you feel more prepared to manage a car accident insurance claim. The more you know about your insurance policy, follow proper procedures, and keep good records, the better equipped Chain | Cohn | Clark’s Bakersfield car accident lawyers will be to help you get the compensation you deserve.

Contact Chain | Cohn | Clark today for a free, no-obligation review of your car accident case.