If you're involved in an auto accident and you feel the insurance company's settlement offer is inadequate, there are several steps you can take in response. It may help to view the matter less as a dispute, and more as a negotiation. How well the negotiation goes may depend on whose insurance company it is. Ironically, you may hold a stronger hand when you're negotiating with the other driver's company.
Write Everything Down
To some extent, the settlement process is a documentation war. Keep copies of all correspondence with the insurance company. When discussing anything by phone, get the adjuster or claims agent's name, mailing address and call-back number. Keep written notes of every call, documenting the date and time and what was said by both parties. If you receive an offer by phone, always ask for it in writing. If you don't get it in a timely fashion, write the company your account of the conversation. If the insurance company fails to respond by disputing your account in writing, a judge may decide that they have accepted your view.
Avoid getting emotional about what has happened, or acting as if you are in a hurry to settle. When the adjuster makes a point, consider it carefully, asking questions about anything that's unclear or that may reveal a weakness in the adjuster's argument. Tell her that you disagree, but that you'll respond in writing so she can better understand your view.
Highball and Lowball
Respond to offers in writing with a counter-offer, naming a figure that's higher than you are willing to settle for, but not implausibly higher. For instance, if the insurance company's offer is $4,000 and if you really think the settlement should be $5,000, you might consider offering to settle for $6,000 -- that way both parties are the same distance away from the settlement you hope to get. Often, parties end up settling somewhere in the middle. Be realistic about each party's strong and weak points, and how prepared you are to go to court if the insurance company fails to meet your demands.
Escalating the Dispute
Few auto accident claims end up in court, but you may have to consider a suit if the amount in dispute is considerable. If it's your insurance company and your policy requires you to accept mediation, you may be at a disadvantage. Mediation, a process where each side presents their case to a mediator who rules on the case, often favors the insurance company. While the mediator may not be deliberately unfair, continued employment as a mediator depends upon acceptance by the insurance company. Some attorneys feel that fact loads the dice against the private party. If your claim is for less than the the small claims court limit in your state and it's the other driver's insurance company, you have a slight advantage. You can sue in small claims court, where neither party may be represented by an attorney. This saves you attorney's fees, and may incline the insurance company to settle rather than risk an unfavorable ruling.
Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.