How to File a Car Insurance Claim in California

To file a car insurance claim in California, a policyholder must promptly notify his or her insurer. Notification of a claim can be made by calling the telephone number listed on the policy holder's insurance card. A claim can also be initiated online using the insurer's website or mobile app.

People who have an auto insurance policy should notify their own insurer first, regardless of who was at fault for a motor vehicle accident in California. Those who were uninsured can file a claim with the other party's insurer if they believe the other party was solely or partially at fault.

In either case, someone who was in a car accident may wish to retain an attorney first. Insurance adjusters are paid to look after the insurance company's interests. These are not always the same as the interests of the policyholder – even though the insurance company may make it look that way.

To help you better understand how to file a car insurance claim in California, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:

You may also wish to review our article “What to Do After a Car Accident in Californa.”

Bearded man on cell phone after car accident

1. Who should I call after a car accident in California?

After a motor vehicle accident in California, people should contact the following parties, in this order:

  1. First responders, if immediate medical assistance is required;
  2. Local law enforcement, if it is more than a fender bender; and
  3. The person's own auto insurer -- or, if the person is uninsured and not at fault for the accident, the other party's insurer.

2. What if the accident was my fault?

People involved in car accidents in California should generally notify their own first-party insurer regardless of who was at fault.

Some types of insurance policies -- such as Med Pay insurance and California collision insurance -- pay without regard to fault.

Additionally, it may turn out that the other party was actually wholly or partially responsible for the accident. California’s “comparative negligence / shared fault” law allows people to recover damages even when they were partly to blame for an accident.

And finally, when an accident is your fault, the other party is likely to make a claim against your insurance anyway. Promptly notifying your insurer gives you the opportunity to present your version of events first.

3. Do I need to notify the California DMV after a car accident?

California law requires drivers to notify the DMV of an accident within 10 days if:

  • Anyone was killed or injured (no matter how minor the injury), or
  • The accident caused more than $1,000 in property damage.1

Note that reporting the accident to the DMV or your insurer is not the same as suing for damages.

If the responsible insurance company or party does not pay up, you may eventually need to file a lawsuit in order to protect your right to recover damages.

4. How long do I have to recover damages for car accident injuries?

The California statute of limitations to sue for injuries from a car accident is generally two years. Note that this is how long you have to sue the other party or his/her insurer, not how long you can take to report the accident to the California DMV and your insurer.

Most insurance companies require that you notify them promptly after an accident if you have a claim. Delaying too long could compromise your ability to recover damages.

5. What if I don't have insurance?

If you don't have insurance but were not at fault for the accident, you can file a claim with the other party's insurer.

Keep in mind, however, that the other party's insurance company does not represent you. While your own insurer must act in good faith in regard to your claim, the other party's insurer has no such obligation. They can simply ignore you.

For this reason, we recommend contacting an experienced California accident lawyer before making a claim directly against another party's insurance.

man with clipboard examining wrecked car
California law lets you use a body shop of your choice after an accident

6. Can I take my car anywhere for repairs after an accident in California?

Yes. After a car accident, you are free to have repairs done by a body shop of your choice.

However, most insurers have a network of repair shops that will bill the insurer directly (at discounted rates).

If you choose a body shop that is outside of the network, you will usually have to negotiate the price of repairs with the adjuster (and probably the body shop as well).

Another advantage to using an in-network repair shop is that it can be easier to get additional costs approved if the shop discovers more damage after the initial estimate.

But whichever shop you choose, make sure you research them carefully. Shoddy repairs can make it difficult to sell your vehicle later. And if you lease a vehicle, you may get assessed with penalties for damages beyond usual wear and tear.

7. Can I get my car repaired even if I am still injured?

Yes. Insurance companies are usually willing to separate out damage to a vehicle and physical injuries.

Be sure to read any documents you are asked to sign carefully, however, in order to avoid comprising your rights.

8. Do I need an attorney to make a car accident claim in California?

No. But unless your claim is small and straightforward you will often get a larger settlement if you have a lawyer make your claim.

Insurance adjusters are trained to make you go away or take less than you deserve. They deal with claims all day every day.

An experienced California personal injury attorney will know how to see through their tricks to get you all the compensatory damages to which you are entitled.

man and women in suit across table from each other negotiating

9. The process for settling a California vehicle accident claim

9.1. Getting assigned to an adjuster

When a car accident claim comes into the insurance company, the insurer assigns an adjuster to a case. The insurance adjuster will then contact you, usually by phone, but sometimes by mail or email.

Under California law, the insurer must contact you within 15 days of receiving notice of a claim.2

The adjuster will ask you for a statement and will gather other evidence to determine who was at fault and what each party's damages are.

9.2. Do I have to give the adjuster a recorded statement?

The adjuster will want to record your statement. You are not obligated to agree and should politely decline.

Simply present the facts of the accident, without embellishment. Avoid stating that you feel fine or giving the impression that you are in a hurry to settle. Anything you say can and will likely be used to deny or delay your claim.

If asked how you are doing you can honestly say that it's too early to be certain.

9.3. Do I have to agree to an independent medical examination (IME)?

No. The adjuster may ask you to undergo an independent medical examination (IME). The IME is not as independent as the insurer would have you believe.

For one thing, it is an exam paid for by the insurance company. It cannot help your claim. Politely tell the adjuster that you will sign a medical release so that he or she can obtain treatment notes from your medical providers.

In general, you should say as little as possible about your medical condition and let the evidence (and your attorney if you have one) do the work.

9.4. What evidence will the adjuster need to obtain?

Evidence the insurer will collect can include (but is not limited to):

  • Your claim form,
  • Your recorded statement (if you give one),
  • The statement(s) of the other party and any witnesses,
  • An inspection of your vehicle,
  • Photos of the accident scene,
  • Damage reports from car repair shops, 
  • Medical bills,
  • Medical reports,
  • Evidence supporting any claim for lost wages and/or lost earning capacity, and
  • Anything else that is relevant – including, potentially, your social media posts.

9.5. How long will it take to get my money after a car insurance claim?

By law, insurance companies in California must open a good faith investigation within 15 days of being notified of a claim. Notification does not need to be in writing.

The insurer must accept or deny the claim not later than 40 days after it has been proved.3 Proof involves establishing that you are entitled to recovery and how much you are entitled to.

If the claim is simple and fault is not at issue, a claim can be proved in a matter of days.

When fault is an issue, it can take longer, especially if anyone was seriously injured. In the most serious cases, proving your case may take many months (or even years).

You can speed up the processing of your claim by being prepared with paperwork, photos, witness contact info and other evidence.

For tips on how to do this, please see our article listing 15 Steps to Take After a Car Accident in California.

9.6. The initial settlement offer

Once the adjuster has investigated the claim, he or she will usually make a settlement offer.

In straightforward cases, it will usually be the amount necessary to pay for your car repairs and necessary and reasonable medical treatment. If you are lucky, it may include a small amount for your pain and suffering.

Often, however, the offer will be less than you can get if you are willing to stick it out and fight a little.

Reasons for a lowball offer can include (but are not limited to):

  • You are still undergoing medical treatment and the adjuster wants to limit the insurance company's exposure;
  • The other insurance company is disputing the adjuster's determination of fault; or
  • The adjuster is simply hoping you are desperate or uninformed enough to accept his or her initial offer.

9.7 Should I send a demand letter?

It is not necessary to send a demand letter to the insurance company after a car accident in California, but it can be useful.

A demand letter sets forth your version of events, with a brief statement of the evidence to back it up, and a request (“demand”) for a certain amount.

If you have retained a California personal injury lawyer, your lawyer will usually opt to send the insurance company a demand letter before (or even after) the adjuster makes an offer.

Just as an adjuster's initial offer is usually on the low side, the demand letter often asks for an amount higher than what you would like to obtain.

The initial offer and the demand letter are best seen as opening bids. They are simply a way to begin a negotiation.

Unless one side's evidence is very strong, the final value of the claim will usually fall somewhere in the middle.

9.8 The negotiation

The most critical part of a car insurance claim is the negotiation. This is where you or your lawyer present your evidence and argue for more money.

The adjuster will want to bring the case to a quick resolution. In addition to getting work off the adjuster's plate, it limits the insurance company exposure in case you later discover your injuries were more serious.

Being patient but persistent is often the key to obtaining the best results from a negotiation.

In rare cases, you may need to file a lawsuit in order to get a decent settlement offer. Be sure to keep track of when the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit expires. In California, this is usually two years from the date of the accident.

9.9. The settlement agreement

Once you and the insurance adjuster have agreed to a number, you will be asked to sign a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement is a full and final settlement of your claims, so make sure you read it and understand it.

Once you sign a settlement agreement, you give up your right to sue – even if you later discover that you were injured more seriously than you initially thought or your car needed additional repairs.

10. How do I get my money after I settle my California car accident claim?

If you used a repair shop within the insurer's network, the insurance company will usually pay the shop directly. All other damages will be paid once the insurance company receives an original of your signed settlement agreement.

Note that you may be responsible for paying other parties out of the proceeds – for instance, doctors and body shops that weren't paid directly by your insurer.

Make sure you don't have any outstanding bills for services before you spend your settlement money!

Were you in an accident in California? Call us for help…

If you or someone you know was in a car accident in California, we invite you to contact our California auto accident lawyers for a free consultation.

Call us at (855) LAWFIRM to discuss your case with a lawyer today.

We also have offices to serve you if you were injured in a car accident in Nevada.

Legal references:

  1. California Vehicle Code 16000 VC.
  2. California Code of Regulations 2695.5(e).
  3. California Code of Regulations 2695.7(b).

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