Contacting your own insurance company is the first step toward setting up your medical claim, and potentially a property damage claim. However, to make a claim for damages such as pain and suffering, you have to go through the at-fault party’s insurance company. Whether your accident involved a motor vehicle or a hazardous commercial or private property, the process is the same. You should formally notify, in writing, all other parties involved of two important facts:
- That the accident occurred and
- That you may be filing a claim
Though the prospect may seem intimidating, this is definitely something you can handle. There’s no special code you need to know, no magic words or legal jargon that you need to throw around to make your letter “right.” The letter can be simple and concise. Include your name, address, and, if you choose, phone number. Make sure to include whatever information you have about the party you believe is at fault – for example, the name and location of the business where you suffered a slip-and-fall or the policyholder name and policy number of a driver who hit you. Most importantly, include basic information about the accident, such as the location, date and time. Let the recipient of the letter know that you suffered injuries and other damages as a result of the accident, and that you may or intend to pursue a claim.
If you’re worried about formatting the letter, keep it simple and consistent. You don’t have to follow a specific format for your letter to be correct, but it should look professional. You want the insurance company to know that you are dedicated to your claim. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
It’s important to make sure that the addressee actually receives your letter and acknowledges what you have said. You may wish to ask the recipient to provide a written response. You can also mail the notification as a certified or registered letter, which may cost a little more than traditional postage but will allow you to be certain that the letter was delivered. If the recipient tries to claim that you never notified him or her, you have a receipt or tracking information to prove otherwise.
Who Do You Notify?
If the accident has just happened, there’s a good chance that you may not yet know all of the factors that contributed to it. While the negligence in some accidents is pretty clear-cut, such as in the case of a motor vehicle accident in which one driver hit another from behind, liability is not always so obvious. Some auto collisions involve multiple at-fault drivers. A slip-and-fall may be the fault of the person who owns the property but failed to maintain it and also the fault of the company renting the property and failing to keep it clean and safe. The good news is that, at this stage in the claim, you don’t have to know for sure who is at fault yet. Lay the groundwork for your claim now by notifying everyone who could be a possible defendant.
In the case of a car accident, notify in writing all other drivers involved, and the owners of the cars involved in the collision. While the driver who caused the accident obviously knows that the collision happened, you should notify them that you suffered damages and that you may pursue a claim. If you don’t already have their insurance information, request that they notify their insurance carrier of the accident and your intent to file a claim.
If the accident involved an unsafe premises rather than a motor vehicle, you may have more digging to do. For injuries that occurred on a commercial residence, find out how to contact the store or restaurant. Officially contacting a local mom-and-pop business may be easier than determining who to get in touch with at a major national or global corporation. You should also find out who owns the property, since many businesses rent commercial properties rather than buying them. Accidents that happened on a private residence should be handled similarly. You should notify both the owner and, if the property is rented, the tenant. While landlords typically are responsible for permanent fixtures of the home, a tenant may be held liable in certain cases. You still want to notify these potential defendants in writing that you may file a claim.
Before you start writing, gather all of your notes and addressee information at your work space. Keeping organized will help you finish these letters more quickly, without the frustration of having to stop working to find a missing scrap of paper.
Ultimately, you will be dealing not with the individuals or even the companies themselves, but instead with their insurance carriers. If you made the wise decision to get insurance information of the driver or company early on, you are in a better position to begin notifying the insurance companies now. Send them a letter of notification as soon as possible. If you don’t already know which insurance companies to contact, you may have a more difficult time getting the information you need from the people and companies at fault. Be persistent, and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. If you meet with a lot of resistance from the at-fault parties, it may help to remind them that you’re seeking compensation from their insurance company, not from these individuals directly.
Finding a Balance between Acting Too Early and Waiting Too Long
In pursuing a personal injury claim, timing matters. Wait too long to initiate your claim, and you could miss important deadlines. Attempt to resolve your claim too early on, and you could end up with a lower settlement than you really deserve.
In the initial stages of your claim, you should act quickly. Send the notification letter as soon as possible. If you don’t get any sort of response, you may have to follow up with the recipient. Taking action sooner rather than later means that you have plenty of extra time to follow up on a situation. It also means that you won’t risk missing any important deadlines. Without having extensive knowledge of personal injury law, you don’t know what unusual deadlines might pertain to your situation. If your claim involves a government entity, for example, you can have as little as a couple months to formally notify the defendant of your intent to pursue a claim.
After you submit your letter to the insurance companies, don’t be surprised if they want to talk to you. Remember to watch out for tricks, such as insurance adjusters asking you for a recorded statement. At this stage in your claim, don’t sign anything – not an authorization to access medical records, not a form entitling the insurance company to view your work records, nothing. Unfortunately, even though you are capable of handling your claim yourself, the insurance adjuster may think that since you don’t have professional legal representation, they can take advantage of you. Your best bet is to refuse to sign any paperwork and decline to discuss the specifics of how the accident occurred and your injuries and wage loss until you have completely finished all treatments for your injuries.
The only thing you must sign is a release for compensation for property damage, if you choose to go that route. Be extremely careful about signing such a release, because you could be signing away your right to future treatment or to pursuing a claim.
One thing to keep in mind: your right to pursue a claim does have an expiration date. The deadline by which you must file a lawsuit, known in the legal field as the statute of limitations, is two years from the date of the accident in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The clock on the statute begins ticking on the day the accident occurs. This means that you must have finished the treating phase, submitted your demand for compensation to the insurance company, completed negotiations, and agreed to a settlement before that two-year deadline. Don’t expect the insurance adjuster to remind you of this deadline, since it is in the insurance company’s best interest for you to miss it. If you are approaching the statute of limitations – even if that date is still several months away – and it doesn’t look like the insurance company is going to cooperate, or if you still need treatment this long after the accident, it’s time to call an attorney. Of course you want to handle this yourself and save the cost of legal fees, but there’s no shame in getting help from a professional, and the money a lawyer can attain for you is certainly better than nothing.
As you work toward recovery, don’t let the lull in communication with the insurance companies trick you. You may not have to actively communicate with the other party’s insurance company about your claim at the moment, but now is the time to prepare for your claim. Document every doctor’s appointment, medical cost, and impact of your injuries on your life. It’s also time to start compiling and organizing the information and evidence you need to show the insurance adjuster that their policyholder is at fault for your injuries. Check back soon for the next installment of How to Handle Your Own Personal Injury Claim to learn how to collect and present evidence to demonstrate liability.