1. Do I need to talk with the at-fault insurance company when they call me?
You are under no obligation to speak with the other driver’s insurance company after a car collision. Typically, the other driver’s insurance company is trying to box you into statements made about the collision itself, the injuries you initially report, or they are trying to pressure you into a premature settlement. If you do not retain an attorney to handle the case, I would suggest not having extended and frequent conversations with the at-fault insurance company until you are ready to settle the case. However, you are under a contractual obligation to cooperate and assist your own insurance company in their investigation of the claim.
2. Will the at-fault insurance company pay for my bills as I get treatment?
No. You are personally responsible/liable for your own medical bills related to the collision. The at-fault insurance company will not pay you a cent towards your personal injuries (property damage is different) until you sign a release and agree on a final settlement amount. Normally, the at-fault insurance company wants you to sign a release as soon as possible, which is risky since you are typically unaware of the extent of your injuries early on. As such, you will need to arrange for payment through your own Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage on your auto-policy, your own private medical insurance, or pay out-of-pocket until you have completed your treatment. At that point, you or your attorney can submit all the bills to the at-fault insurance company and essentially get reimbursed for the previous payments.
3. Once I settle a case, do I need to pay my insurance company back for any medical bills they pay?
If you claimed medical bills to the at-fault insurance company as part of the settlement, and your insurance company (auto or private medical) paid anything towards those bills, you may owe your own insurance company reimbursement at the end of the claim. Washington law is set up so that you essentially cannot double dip on your medical bills (i.e. have someone else pay the bills, and then receive reimbursement of the paid bills yourself). That being said, an attorney can potentially identify one of the numerous exceptions that may apply to paying back some or all of your own insurance company’s payments. Lastly, if you do not ultimately recover for certain medical bills in the settlement, you do not owe your insurance company reimbursement for anything that they paid but was not recovered as part of the settlement.
4. How long do I have to resolve my case?
If you are making a claim of negligence against another person for a car collision, the Washington statute of limitations is three years from the date of the collision; meaning, you must either settle the claim or file a lawsuit within that timeframe or you will lose the legal right to pursue it. If you are making a first-party claim with your own insurance company (e.g. uninsured or under-insured claim), this is typically treated like a contract claim and the statute of limitations is six years from the date you file the claim (unless otherwise stated in your policy).
5. What is Liability coverage?
Liability coverage is the benefit on your auto-policy that protects you personally from claims when you are found to be at-fault for a collision. Washington law requires drivers to carry a minimum of $25,000.00 in liability coverage. However, it is a prudent idea to take an accounting of your assets and to purchase a lability policy big enough so that you and your assets are not personally exposed to any kind of judgment in the event that you seriously injure another person while driving.
6. What is Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage?
PIP coverage is an optional benefit you can add to your auto-policy that helps pay for medical bills, wage loss, loss of services (e.g. household maintenance), and funeral expenses arising from a car collision. In my experience, PIP policies are primarily used to help pay for the client’s medical bills. Your PIP coverage will pay for medical bills that are deemed reasonable in amount, medically necessary, and causally related to the car collision. PIP coverage typically extends to other passengers in your vehicle or to pedestrians that you strike with your own vehicle.
7. What is Uninsured (UM) coverage?
UM coverage is an optional benefit you can add to your auto-policy that allows you to make a claim against your own insurance company when the other driver was not insured. This is extremely important coverage to have on your auto-policy because there are unfortunately many uninsured drivers on the road. If you do not have UM coverage and you are hit by an uninsured driver, your only recourse is to go after that driver personally and usually they do not have any assets to satisfy a judgment (essentially, they are what we call “judgment-proof”). When you make a UM claim with your own insurance company, your company essentially steps into the shoes of the at-fault driver and you make a settlement demand to them. While it may seem initially awkward to make such a claim against your own insurance carrier, the serious epidemic of uninsured drivers on the road is why you have the coverage so don’t be afraid to use it.
8. What is Under-Insured (UIM) coverage?
UIM coverage is an optional benefit you can add to your auto-policy that allows you to make a claim against your own insurance company when the other driver does not have enough liability insurance to cover your claim. In Washington, the law only requires drivers to carry a minimum of $25,000.00 on their liability policy. As such, if you have serious injuries that necessitate a surgery-or even multiple surgeries-as a result of the collision, $25,000.00 is typically insufficient to cover your medical expenses and make you whole again. As such, you have UIM coverage as a supplemental coverage so that you are not at the mercy of someone else’s insufficient policy limits.
9. What is gap coverage?
Gap coverage is a benefit that allows you to recoup the difference of the purchase price of the vehicle and what the fair-market value is of the vehicle on the date the vehicle was deemed a total loss. As we all know, cars have a tendency to depreciate at an extremely rapid rate. Unfortunately, if you are involved in a car collision where your car is deemed a total loss, Washington law states that the at-fault driver only owes you the vehicle’s fair-market value on the date of the collision, regardless of what you initially paid for it. Tragically, I have seen clients suffer a total loss of their vehicles, and, thanks to depreciation and no gap coverage, have to continue paying on a loan for a car that no longer exists. As such, when you are purchasing a vehicle, consider whether gap coverage makes sense for the transaction.
10. What kind of damages can I claim?
Washington law allows you to recover any damages that are caused by the collision. In Washington, damages are split into two main categories: special damages and general damages. Special damages are those damages which can be quantified by documentation (e.g. a medical bill invoice, a property receipt, loss wages etc.). Typically, you need some kind of documentation to substantiate any special damages you are claiming. General damages are damages which are not quantifiable (e.g. pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, inconvenience etc.). Speaking with an attorney is a prudent way to reasonably gauge the range of what your general damages might be for a specific case. In Washington, we do not have punitive damages available for negligent car collision claims; meaning, you cannot get additional money solely on the basis of punishing someone for particularly bad behavior. For example, if I get hit by a drunk driver who was three times over the legal limits, but I fortunately suffer little to no injuries, I will not be able to argue for extra damages by virtue of the fact that the other driver acted extremely recklessly. Typically, it is the what my damages actually are which drive the value of the claim, not the other person’s egregious actions.