Personal Injury

How Long Will My Vehicle Damage Claim Take After a Car Accident?

By Joe Kornowski, Attorney
If your vehicle is damaged in a car accident, it will likely reach resolution via settlement with the at-fault driver's insurance company, but if things get contentious the process could drag out.

After a car accident, if you are only making a claim for damage to your vehicle -- meaning you are asking the at-fault driver to pay to have your car fixed or to reimburse you for its "actual cash value" -- the process will almost certainly take less time than it would if a personal injury claim were involved. But when might a vehicle accident claim get resolved? Let’s take a look at some possibilities.

Settlement of a Vehicle Claim Before a Lawsuit Is Filed

Many vehicle damage accident claims can be resolved through the insurance process, without a lawsuit ever being filed. If all parties (meaning the drivers and their respective car insurance companies) fundamentally agree about

  • who was at fault for the accident (or the apportionment of fault)
  • the extent of the vehicle damage, and
  • the cost to get the vehicle repaired, or
  • where applicable, the "actual cash value" of a vehicle that has been declared a "total loss"

Early resolution typically also requires the absence of potentially contentious issues such as whether the vehicle had any pre-existing damage that the accident may have worsened. Finally, if the at-fault driver doesn't have adequate insurance coverage in place, that can extend the resolution process.

But if there really is nothing to argue about in terms of liability and losses, and the at-fault driver's policy can cover all losses stemming from the accident, a vehicle damage claim can be resolved via settlement within the first 30 to 90 days after an accident. That means the insurance company cuts the vehicle owner a check to cover repairs or replacement of the vehicle, the vehicle owner signs a release, and the matter is resolved.

Discovery and Motions

In the unlikely event that a lawsuit is filed -- this is a rare occurrence when no one was injured in the accident -- the parties must adhere to specific timelines for gathering information that could lead to evidence at trial. This is called the "discovery" phase, and it includes sworn testimony from parties and witnesses (depositions) and the exchange of written questions and answers (interrogatories). During this phase, disputed issues becomes clearer, in terms of how the accident happened and the nature and extent of the damage actually caused by the accident.

For example, if it turns out that the damaged vehicle’s driver was speeding, changed lanes quickly without signaling, stopped abruptly, or ran a stop sign or stoplight, those facts would suggest that the plaintiff may well share the fault -- or even bear complete responsibility -- for any damages.

The discovery phase usually lasts from six to 12 months following the lawsuit’s filing. After the discovery process.

Mediation

Shortly after discovery is completed, most courts schedule the parties for what is called “alternative dispute resolution” (ADR), typically mediation, to encourage them to reach resolution with the help of a neutral third party.

In a vehicle damage case, a mediator can help the parties see how successful their arguments and evidence might be to a judge or jury, including on issues such as:

  • whether the plaintiff was partially at fault
  • the likelihood that some or all of the alleged damage predated the accident, and
  • whether the amounts claimed for repair or replacement of the damaged vehicle are excessive.

The mediation process itself may last between a few hours and a couple of days. If successful, the claim may be resolved and the lawsuit dismissed within less than a year after the accident.

Small Claims Court and Civil Trials

If a vehicle damage claim does end up in court, chances are it will be in small claims court, which is a branch of the civil court system where disputes involving a relatively low amount of money are heard and resolved (Check out Nolo's 50-State Chart on Small Claims Court Dollar Limits to see the rules in your state.) Small claims court cases proceed quicker and less formally than regular civil lawsuits. Parties usually represent themselves, and argue their side of the case to a judge (not a jury), who will typically consider the evidence and issue a ruling on the same day.

Very few vehicle damage (non-injury) cases ever reach the trial stage in regular civil court (outside of small claims court). Trial is expensive and time-consuming, and the outcome is uncertain. Parties sometimes can wait as long as two years or more before their property damage case gets to trial. Especially where no injuries and obvious vehicle damage occurred, your claim stands a very good chance of being resolved well before trial.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2016 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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