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Will Your Car Insurance Come Through After An Accident? Lessons Learned From A Total Loss

Last fall, an errant driver broadsided my Ford Escape, trapping me inside until firefighters cut the car apart with the jaws of life. This is what I learned about the hassles and — even though I had car insurance — the significant costs of being in an accident.


window smashed open on crashed carLast Fall, I had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a rescue scenario for which, as a former firefighter and EMT, I had trained and performed numerous times: an auto extrication.

As I passed through one of Boston’s beloved rotaries (traffic circles for you non-New Englanders) I was met with the force of an unyielding driver who took on the rotary like a Frenchman and tipped my top-heavy Ford Escape onto its side. Priorite de droite!? Non, c’est l’Amérique! Merde.

The photo above is my car after it was righted.

Luckily, the experience of playing a trapped driver during my fire department’s drills translated somewhat to the real-life event. After a tirade of swearing and calling 911, I was able to talk myself through exactly what was about to happen next. So as the panic set in from having been flipped onto my side and realizing my seatbelt had jammed, I was relieved by the sound of the fire engine and ambulance sirens (the back-pain, not so much).

I was not at fault in my accident and, fortunately, I had car insurance. As the crew pulled me from my torn up Escape, I overheard them say “Dang, somebody’s getting a new car.”

“Heck yeah, I am. Wait… No, I’m not, I still owe money on this. Crap… will I even get enough for a down-payment? What do I do, now?!”

However prepared I might have for becoming an auto accident victim, after the dust settled and my discharge from the hospital, I faced a situation I was completely unprepared for: being an auto insurance claimant.

Unfortunately, what I perceived it meant to have insurance contrasted sharply with the reality of what it means to depend upon your auto insurance to make you whole. In short, it takes the two things of which you never seem to have enough: money, which you hope you’ll get back, and time, something for which you simply can’t be reimbursed.

Even with insurance, car accidents are expensive

Getting into an accident is expensive. Yes, you can get some of it back, but don’t expect a fat check before you need cough up some major dough for the living expenses that will come during the weeks following your crash.

Naturally, this is the perfect time to plug that having an emergency fund is absolutely essential to your financial security. Not just for the expense of a rental car or downpayment for a replacement vehicle, but also for the one thing I was absolutely unprepared for: being forced to take unexpected earned time.

In addition to having the cash on hand to pad a few weeks without a car, make sure you have enough vacation days, or short term disability plan, to cover any time you may need to take off from work after an accident. If you expect (read: need) to be paid during your time off after an accident, you should know that most auto insurance policies will only provide reimbursement that’s not covered by vacation or sick days — and only 80 percent of your regular wages, too.

In my situation, the implications of taking several days of unpaid leave were not worth 80 percent cash in hand, even though it would cost me dearly in earned time hours. The lesson to take away from this? Understand how your employer would support you in this situation, and how you should reach out for help. Whether it’s using vacation, sick, or earned time hours, you should know what actions you should take if you suddenly need a few days off, and the expense that may result.

Whenever a national auto insurer pops on the TV screen, they tout their customer satisfaction scores, ease of claims processing, and ensure you peace of mind as their customer. Unfortunately, when the complexity of your accident goes up, so does the amount of time it takes for things to get settled.

Contacting the insurance company after the accident

After receiving the incident report from the police, my fiancee contacted Geico with the incident number and began the process of filing for a claim while I was still on the backboard in emergency room. Right off the bat, she was given the name and number of not one, not two, but three different agents that we would need to deal with throughout the claims process.

The first agent was the medical claims representative, who would be making sure that the bills we acquired following the incident would be covered up to the limit of your policy. In my case, my coverage didn’t even pay the entire ambulance bill. So, her job was simply to pass along the rest of my bills to my health insurance. Out of pocket expenses? For me it was a $100 co-pay. Without health insurance, that ER visit would have cost $12,345.

Second on the list was our claims adjuster, who operates in the field and assessed the damage done to my vehicle. His job was made relatively easy by the fire department’s robust work with the jaws of life — the Escape was a total loss.

Unfortunately, the adjuster’s job bounces him between claims across a wide geographic region and he is constantly on the phone. Between playing telephone tag and dealing with the impound lots hours, it took 9 business days — nearly two weeks after the accident — to receive my check.

Lastly, there was a separate agent assigned to reclaiming my deductible and would keep me posted as a decision was reached. This process took an absurdly long time, nearly six months, as the other driver’s insurance company wasn’t able to locate the original police report because they “couldn’t figure out who filed it.” Befuddling, I know. Yet all I could do is call, leave a message, and wait another few days to be told “We’re still tracking things down.”

It took half a year to get back the money lost from an accident that was entirely not my fault. I lost out on several hundred dollars in car rental expenses, a week’s worth of earned time, and the freedom of having my own vehicle. Did we make it work? Fortunately, yes. But there was a thin line between this from being an inconvenience and life-altering event.

What did I do right?

First, I was wearing my seatbelt — but that’s beside the point.

Second, I financed well below my vehicle’s value, which kept me from owing money after it was chalked up as a total loss.

Third, while I don’t yet have a full six-month emergency fund, I had enough to cover the incidental expenses that followed without going into debt, or impact our ability to pay our regular bills.

Finally, I had health insurance, without which I would have been looking at a five figure bill to settle on my own.

What did I do wrong?

Although I didn’t cheap-out on my car insurance coverage, there were aspects that I’ve since changed or added.

First, my deductible ($1,000) kept my monthly payment down a few bucks, but it was a big hit to have waited as long as I did to be reimbursed.

Second, I didn’t opt-in for rental car coverage. Especially in a city like Boston, rental expenses can be prohibitively expensive. And while my fiancee and I made due with one car, it was another big hit to our quality of life that left us depending on a much less reliable vehicle.

Most importantly, I allowed myself to not understand what it truly means to be covered by auto insurance. At the end of the day (or year) you might get what’s owed to you back. But without understanding the process of submitting a claim, or knowing exactly how much an incident like this would cost,  I allowed myself dangerously close to letting an errant driver break apart the financial security I’d worked so hard to obtain.

So now might be a good time to check — how does our car insurance stick up? You can learn more about car insurance coverage options here or get free quotes from top auto insurance companies here.

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About Jamie Weliver

Jamie Weliver is a Boston-based multimedia producer and Marketing Manager for Money Under 30.

Comments

  1. Chad Christensen says:

    The at-fault party (or their insurance) is responsible for the loss of use of your vehicle even if you don’t have rental reimbursement coverage with your insurance company. In other words, they owe you for the cost to rent a similar car from the date of the accident until the date of the settlement. They owe you this money even if you didn’t rent a car because you still lost its use.

    For example, if it costs $40/day to rent a Ford Escape similar to your own, and it took the insurance company 30 days to settle, the “loss of use” is $1,200.

    They will never tell you this, never offer it, and rarely actually pay it until you take them to court. It’s usually a very simple small-claims court case, and you don’t need an attorney (some states don’t even allow one in small claims court). I’m not sure what the timeframes are for making the claim, but it’s something you should look into.

    I know several people that have done this, including one in an accident with a very expensive classic car (daily rental of a classic car could be $400/day, and the other insurance company made up every delay they could before settling. Those delays cost them $400/day). This isn’t just a frivolous lawsuit, it’s an incentive for the insurance companies to pay up in a timely fashion; and loss of a use is a real loss that should be reimbursed, by law.

    I believe the exact wording for laws are different in each state, but the results are fairly similar. Here’s an example from Utah’s state website (https://insurance.utah.gov/auto-home/auto/autoclaim.php):

    “Utah insurance regulations require an at-fault driver’s insurance company to provide payment for the “reasonably incurred cost of transportation” or for the “reasonably incurred rental cost of a substitute vehicle” during the time your damaged vehicle is being repaired. The insurer is obligated to pay for loss of use only if they accept liability. If your vehicle is a total loss, that payment would be from the date of the accident, which has been timely reported, until the time a reasonable settlement offer is made by the insurance company..”

    One other thing to watch out for if you do rent a car (with or without rental reimbursement coverage): be careful to decide whether you really need the insurance on the rental car. I know another person that did have the rental reimbursement coverage, but also got insurance when renting the car (it happens automatically unless you reject it on the rental forms – a good scam for the rental companies).

    The car rental charges were around $40/day, but the insurance was almost $30/day. The car was rented for about 30 days. The insurance company covered the $40/day rental, but not the $30/day insurance, leaving this person with nearly a $900 bill not reimbursed by anyone!

  2. I’ve dealt with three accidents now, none of which were my fault, and one which occurred when I was 7 months pregnant and left me with a totaled car. You can imagine the look on that drivers face…

    Regardless, they are one of the many reasons I will never “shop” car insurance. For us, its not about the cheapest plan as no matter how safe we drive, accidents happen all the time (six years in Boston further cemented that in my mind). If I pay a bit more for quality service, so be it. When my car was totaled, the guy had two insurance cards and both companies were impossible to work with, wouldn’t return phone calls, denied he was a client…it was a mess. The vehicle was being driven by an employee for a small business and the owner of the company called me the next day offering to pay out of pocket to avoid insurance then dropped off the face of the earth when he heard I was pregnant and had to be hospitalized, After three days of dealing with all their nonsense, I called my insurance company and asked them to handle it. I was immediately (within 24 hours) reimbursed for time off work, they had an adjuster out within 24 hours and the money was in my bank account three days later for the car. Hospital bills were all routed directly to them and I never paid a dime. My deductible was waived and they handled going after the other insurance companies. They gained a customer for life after all that.