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Icy crash: Make a claim or pay yourself?


Question: If snow and icy conditions cause me to have an accident, must I make a claim for damage? If it’s just minor damage can I pay for repairs myself?

Answer:  Whatever season it is, if you’re in an accident where your vehicle is the only thing damaged, you can decide if you’d like to make a claim or fix your vehicle yourself.  However, if you harm someone else, it isn’t your choice if that damaged party makes a claim.

If you’ve damaged others

If you end up in a winter auto accident where you damage someone else, then normally claims will be made against your liability coverages by the other party.  You have no say in this.  You damaged others, and they have the right to file claims and be compensated up to the liability limits you carry as part of your car insurance policy.

Your property damage liability will pay for property damage you are legally liable for causing to another vehicle or object. So even if you didn’t hit another car but just slid into a guardrail or fence, the person or entity that owns that property could file against your liability coverages for the repair costs.

Your bodily injury liability would cover, up to your limits, if you injured anyone outside your vehicle in the accident. If you live in a no-fault state, injury claims would first go through each party’s own personal injury protection (PIP) coverage.  If you injured someone and the medical expenses go beyond his or her PIP limit, then your bodily injury liability coverage could still have a claim made against it.

When it’s your car that is damaged

For you to make a claim for your vehicle’s damages, if you were at-fault, you’d need to have collision coverage.  If someone else were at-fault, then you could put a property damage liability claim through that party’s insurance company.

Let’s imagine though you have a single car accident and you slide off the road and hit a tree.  The tree is fine, but your car is damaged.

In this situation, you have the choice of making a claim or not – if you have collision coverage.  If you don’t have this coverage, then you are stuck paying for your own vehicle’s repairs no matter what.

However, if  you do have collision coverage don’t have to make a claim if you’d rather pay for your own car’s repair costs yourself. 

When to pay yourself and when to claim

My advice is to pay out-of-pocket for minor damages and save your collision coverage for major damages.

Thus, before even thinking of making a claim, unless you already know the car has major damage or will be deemed a total loss, get an estimate for the repair costs.  If it’ll cost less than your collision deductible to fix your vehicle, then there isn’t even a reason to think about making a claim since your collision coverage only starts up after your deductible amount is met.

If your car’s damages are more than your deductible amount but still cheap enough that you can afford to make the repair yourself, then I still recommend paying out-of-pocket for the repairs.  Keeping a claim off of your record will help you keep your car insurance rates down in the future.

If your damages are major -- way beyond what you could easily pay yourself -- and especially if you believe the vehicle may be a total loss, then go ahead and make a claim.  You will pay your deductible and your car insurance company will pick up the repair costs over that amount.

If the damage is severe and costly, then your car insurance company may declare the car a total loss instead.  When this happens the car insurance provider pays out actual cash value for the vehicle, minus your deductible amount.

Keeping small claims to yourself, and away from your insurer and claims history, can help you keep future car insurance rates down.  Accidents, especially at-fault ones, can be surcharged, which means your rates would go up. 

One caveat is that your policy may require you to report any accidents your vehicle is in.  If that is the case, you need to report the accident to your insurer even if you don’t make a claim.  This may be noted in your file somewhere -- ask if it will be – so it’s clear you are not yet making a claim but are prepared to pay for the repair costs yourself at this juncture.

Beyond fulfilling a requirement of your policy, calling in an accident can be helpful if it’s found that the damage is much worse than the initial estimate took into account. 

In this instance, your car insurance company will already know about the incident and be ready to take on the claim if you now decide it is more than you can afford for the repair work.  If you didn’t previously report the accident, your insurer may have questions about the delay and investigate the claim more.

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