A car accident can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a life-changing event. But however serious, there’s almost always a financial cost – and behind the scenes, insurers battling to determine who should pay for what.
Regardless of who was to blame for an accident, if you have comprehensive insurance, you shouldn’t personally face the steepest of those repair costs. Yet determining who was at fault matters. It’s a common bone of contention among policyholders and can be more than just a matter of pride.
We spoke to five claims experts working in and alongside the insurance industry to find out what methods insurers use to reach their decision about who’s at fault after a collision and whether your insurer is always fighting your corner.
What ‘fault’ actually means – and why it’s important
Being at ‘fault’, in insurance jargon, means your insurer has had to pay out some money for your claim, and can’t get that money back. Having a fault claim can cost you in three ways.
If you’re at fault, some or all of your excess is at stake. If you aren’t, the at-fault driver’s insurance takes care of your claim in full.
You can expect a recent fault claim on your record to drive up your premiums over the next few years – as the insurer will probably view you as being at greater risk of being involved in future accidents.
3. Reduced No-claims discount
Adding salt to the wound, in most circumstances a fault claim means you’ll also lose some of your No-claims Discount (NCD), adding yet more to the premiums you’ll be paying over the following few years.
How insurers determine liability
When you notify your insurer of an incident, a claims handler takes your statement, aiming to build a step-by-step picture of events and evidence you may have to support it. They’ll commonly use mapping software, such as Google Maps or Streetview, to develop a solid idea of the scenario and the environment in which it occurred.
If your story is at odds with the other driver’s, the credibility of your account – for instance, the level of detail, coherence and overall plausibility – can go a long way towards helping your insurer fight your corner.
Having an independent witness back your side is ‘gold dust’, said one claims manager at a major insurer. It’s therefore worth taking down the contact details of anyone nearby who saw what happened and would be willing to speak to the insurer.
Go further – making a car insurance claim
What happens when liability is disputed?
Where there’s disagreement about how an accident was caused, insurers reach their initial position about liability based on what they think would happen if the case went to court.
Few cases actually get that far – less than 1% according to NFU Mutual and AXA, both of which shared data with us. Insurers prefer to settle cases between themselves, with matters only going before a judge where these negotiations fail.
Where there are ambiguities in the evidence, specialist claims investigators can be brought into play. Their primary job is conducting follow-up interviews with witnesses, although they might also be enlisted to inspect the scene of an accident.
Engineers can also be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from inspecting a vehicle for estimates of repair costs to carrying out forensic ‘reconstructions’ of accidents.
Telematics (or ‘black box’) policies can also offer insurers revealing GPS data about accidents – in particular, precisely where the tracked vehicle was and how fast it was moving. Dashcams also provide invaluable detail to help back a case, providing difficult-to-refute evidence of the circumstances surrounding a crash.
Go further – How black box insurance works
When your insurer doesn’t fight your corner
Suppose you’ve been in an accident with another driver, and you disagree as to how it happened. Frustratingly, it can simply be the case that the evidence – or how a court would interpret it – doesn’t conclusively back either side. Here, your insurers may be prone to split costs 50:50, potentially resulting in an unearned fault claim on your record.
Insurers told us that the economics of pursuing a claim can play a role in their decision as to how they’ll handle it. For instance, if accepting some fault in a claims dispute would cost £1,500, whereas fighting it in court would cost tens of thousands in legal fees, your insurer could be tempted to settle for the former option unless it’s highly confident it would win – even if it believes you.
How to strengthen your case
So what can you do to strengthen your case with your insurer?
After an accident, if you’re able to, take notes of all the details you can, and take photos of the damage to the involved vehicles. Small variables can make significant differences to the outcome.
If you feel your insurer isn’t sufficiently fighting your corner, you may be able to get a second opinion. You can commission an engineer yourself to inspect vehicle damage (costs vary according to the amount of work required), and if you’re insured through a broker, they may be willing to advocate on your behalf.
Where your story really does stack up (or the other driver’s doesn’t), we’ve heard from Which? members whose insurers have reviewed their cases after a complaint was made. In other words, the unhappy grind of pestering your insurer into action can pay off.
Who are the best car insurance providers?
There’s no guaranteed way to ensure a claims dispute will end in your favour, but there are certain elements of cover to protect you where it doesn’t.
For our newly updated car insurance reviews we’ve laid out how each of 31 insurers’ standard policies compare over 58 distinct areas of cover. We also surveyed 4,756 policyholders to find out how happy they were with their provider.
Six insurers stood out in the analysis, winning our Which? Recommended Provider icon. All will leave your NCD alone if you’re involved in an incident with an uninsured driver (these technically register as ‘fault’ claims if there’s no other insurer from which yours can reclaim its costs).
All also offer £100,000 Legal Expenses Insurance cover – which can be an invaluable resource to reclaim costs (such as excesses) that your insurer wasn’t able to cover.
One provider stood out for also having a ‘vandalism promise’. This again shields your NCD from being affected where your car has been vandalised by a person who can’t be traced.
For full details of which insurers did best and the breakdown of cover, log into our website.
A version of this story was published in the August issue of the Which? Money magazine.