Car crashes can be more common than you think. Here’s what to do if you find yourself in that situation.

Story by Will Chappell

Story by Will Chappell

On Dec. 20, 2021, I was driving home after getting lunch and filling my car with gas. After passing through the intersection of Woodmont and Hillsboro, in Green Hills, the woman driving the car in front of me decided that she wanted to turn onto the next residential street. Unfortunately, she made this decision about halfway through the intersection. She slammed on her breaks. I quickly did the same and managed to come to a halt several feet short. It was then that I looked in my rearview mirror and realized I was about to have a very bad day.

The young man in the lifted, black Jeep Wrangler driving behind me had either been following a bit too close or not paying attention, and it was clear that I was about to be hit. I had time to brace for the impact, but my rear windshield was completely shattered, and my hatch lid and several rear lights were ruined. I was fortunate that my car was not pushed into the woman’s car, but I knew that I was looking at a real hassle. After the woman decided that getting out in the middle of a busy street was the right decision, I yelled at her to pull into the large church parking lot whose driveway she was sitting in. After assuring me that her car was fine, you can imagine my relief when she quickly drove off.

That left me and a shaken sixteen-year-old sitting in the parking lot. I got on the phone with the police’s non-emergency line. After waiting for about twenty minutes, the operator told me that accidents that don’t involve physical injury don’t require a police officer to attend the scene. I exchanged information with the young man and drove home, realizing on the way that I was quite shaken myself.

I won’t detail the entire process of insurance claims, garage estimates and payout haggling here, but I do want to share some advice that I picked up through the process.

First and foremost, don’t get in a car crash within a week of Christmas. That’s obviously not something you can plan for. Still, as I started calling garages, I learned that it would be over a month before I could have my car’s damage evaluated.

Considering that, my first piece of real advice is to call a garage as soon as your accident happens and make an appointment. You don’t need to have an insurance claim number handy to do this. That’s easily added later— and if you delay, it will be that much longer you will be waiting to get your situation resolved. I would also recommend starting a claim with your personal insurance company, even if you are not at fault, just to cover all your bases.

Second, when dealing with insurance companies, be prepared to hang up and call back. When I first contacted State Farm, the other party’s insurer, I waited on hold for about thirty minutes, only to be connected with a nice gentleman who was no help. After spending fifteen fruitless minutes trying to add the information for my appraisal to my claim armed with the garage’s name and address, I gave up. I called back and was able to complete the process within five minutes.

At that point, I was left to wait for a month, with my car operable but undrivable, before I would take it in to move the process forward. The insurance company is legally obligated to provide alternative means of transportation in that time, which they promptly offered me. When I got to the Hertz office, there was a lack of clarity about the check-in process, and the agent let me know that she knew of several instances where people had a difficult time getting insurance companies to cover their bill.

Hearing this, I made the split-second decision to bail on the rental car. I was in the fortunate position of having access to two other cars in the household and not needing a car to get to work or school. Later in the process, I was very happy to learn that the insurance company would be able to pay me over $1,000 for the loss of use of my personal vehicle because I hadn’t taken a rental car. I know that the law varies from state to state, but if you have an alternative method of transportation and live in Tennessee or another state that allows payment for loss of use, keep that in mind.

A month later, I took my car to the autobody shop. After about two weeks, garages are very backed up in the great resignation and supply chain crunch as well. They got in touch to let me know that my car’s title had been branded as salvage, effectively totaling the car.

Later the same day, State Farm reached out to begin the process of negotiating a payout for my car.

This is by far the most critical stage of an accident where your vehicle is totaled— the insurance companies know it and will do what they can to get out of the situation with as low a payout as possible.

Do not let them. They are legally required to give you payment for a replacement car, and you are in a strong position for negotiations when their client has destroyed your property. Do as much research as possible before negotiating so that you know what a fair number is, and hold your ground until they come to that number.

The first agent who called me was an aggressively unpleasant man. I knew that my car was worth around $15,000 given the mileage and condition. His opening offer was $11,000. I laughed in his face, told him that was at least three to four thousand off, and asked him to give me a real number. He told me that this was the number. The computer gave it to him, and he couldn’t just make a better offer.

I didn’t appreciate being lied to directly. I told him that he needed to start negotiating with me or connect me with somebody who could. He told me I could submit service receipts and find comparable cars listed for sale and that could affect the number but that “this is not a negotiation.” At that point, I took my own advice from earlier in this piece, told him to pound sand (I was more expletive), and hung up. That evening I forwarded along several listings of comparable cars as well as receipts for the clutch and transmission replacement I had done on my car in Los Angeles at the end of July last year.

The next day when I called back, I was put in touch with a charming lady. She looked at the materials I had submitted, noticed that my car’s information had been entered incorrectly (imagine that) and started working with me. Over the course of a forty-minute phone call, she managed to get the “computer number” up to $15,000 and helped me to secure an additional $1,200 for the loss of use. The rest of the process was easy, and payment was issued within a week. I do not know if I was simply lucky with my call back or if perhaps State Farm had made a note on my file that playing hardball would not work and directed me to a more amicable and helpful claims agent. In either case, I learned that there is a definite variance among claims adjusters, and some are quite helpful, and I would do my best to deal with one of them.

I had dealt with a few smaller insurance claims prior to this situation, but this was on a different level and taught me valuable lessons for if I’m ever unfortunate enough to find myself in this situation again. Be proactive, don’t wait for the insurance company to reach out to you or start a claim. Research your car’s value and be informed in your negotiations. And, above all, be ready to hang up and call back.

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