Making an Injury Claim for Whiplash After an Accident

Whiplash injuries are often difficult to prove, but you can improve your chances of getting fair compensation.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the most common type of car accident is the rear-end collision. And one of the most common types of injuries resulting from a rear-end collision is whiplash.

Whiplash injuries are sometimes associated with dodgy personal injury attorneys and inflated insurance claims. But whiplash is a legitimate and often very painful injury. Still, since it's a soft tissue injury, whiplash can be difficult to prove as part of a personal injury claim.

If you suspect you have a whiplash injury after a vehicle accident, in order to protect your right to compensation for your injuries, it's crucial to:

  • see a medical professional as soon as possible
  • gather necessary evidence to support your injury claim, and and
  • think about hiring an attorney if the insurance company isn't taking your claim seriously enough.

What Is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a neck injury that occurs when the head is quickly moved back and forth, almost like the motion of a bobblehead doll. If this movement is forceful enough, it can result in damage to the muscles, tendons, and discs in the neck.

There are many potential causes of whiplash, but one of the most common is a rear-end car accident. Other possible causes include sports injuries, falling, and physical abuse.

Common whiplash symptoms include:

  • pain in the neck, shoulders, arms, or hands
  • lower back pain
  • stiffness in the neck
  • headaches and/or dizziness
  • reduced range of motion in the neck
  • numbness or tingling sensation in the arms or hands
  • blurred vision
  • trouble sleeping
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

Treatments for whiplash depend on the severity of the injury. For minor cases, rest, over-the-counter pain medications, and applying heat or cold to the neck may be enough. But more serious whiplash injuries could require prescription painkillers, antidepressants (these are sometimes effective to reduce nerve pain), and muscle relaxants. A doctor may also order the patient to complete physical therapy and wear a neck brace.

What You Can Do After Your Accident to Support Your Whiplash Claim

The moment you think you might have a whiplash injury from a car accident, you should seek medical treatment. Keep in mind that whiplash injuries, like cervical strains, don't always present themselves immediately after an accident. There are several reasons why the sooner you get treatment, the better. (More: steps to take after a car accident.)

First, it may be easier to treat the whiplash. If there's soft tissue damage, not taking the proper precautions could worsen the pain. Second, it'll be easier to file a claim with an insurance company later on. The longer you wait to seek medical help for a car accident injury, the more likely an insurance company will assume that the injuries you're claiming aren't as severe as you say they are.

Besides getting medical attention as soon as possible, it's crucial to follow your health care providers' instructions. If they say you need to complete physical therapy, do it. This will not only help ease your discomfort, it should also prevent the insurance company from questioning the legitimacy of your whiplash injury.

Filing an Insurance Claim For Whiplash Injuries

If you're in a no-fault state, then you'll likely file your whiplash injury claim with your own car insurance company. If you're not in a no-fault state or don't have no-fault insurance, then you'll file a claim with the other driver's car insurance company (assuming the other driver is at fault for the crash).

No matter who you file a claim with, do it as soon as you can. And if you're not ready to file a claim, at least contact the insurance company and notify them of the accident and your injuries. Remember that getting the claim process started doesn't mean you need to understand the extent of your injuries or be ready to settle.

Depending on how the claim process goes, you might want to think about talking to a car accident attorney. If the insurance company isn't cooperating, an experienced lawyer can be a key ally at every step in the personal injury claim process (more on getting a lawyer's help a little later).

Gathering Evidence to Support a Whiplash Injury Claim

Accurate and thorough medical records are usually the most important evidence for establishing the nature and extent of your injuries in any personal injury case. That's true for a whiplash injury claim too. While it's true that these injuries don't usually show up on x-rays, MRIs, and other diagnostic exams, having a record of visits to health care providers (and the written impressions of those providers when it comes to your pain, limited mobility/range of motion, and other issues) is crucial.

Besides providing the insurance adjuster with medical records that will substantiate your whiplash injury claim, you'll also need documents to prove the financial losses you've incurred. Potential whiplash expenses may include:

  • medical bills
  • insurance co-pays or deductibles
  • mileage for travel to and from medical care
  • out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions or over-the-counter medications
  • lost wages due to time missed at work
  • any other costs that you've had to pay that are directly related to the whiplash injury

It might seem cumbersome to provide documents detailing the out-of-pocket expenses associated with your injuries, but insurance adjusters need evidence to support any money they pay out in a claim.

In addition to providing medical records, bills, and receipts, it may also help to offer copies of accident documentation, including photographs and police reports. For example, photographs from the scene of the accident showing extensive skid marks behind your vehicle and the back of your car completely caved in can go a long way toward legitimizing injuries that are otherwise difficult to establish.

What Happens If Your Whiplash Symptoms Don't Show Up Until Later?

After any kind of accident, the body tends to produce larger-than-normal amounts of adrenaline and endorphins. These can numb pain and make it harder to notice pain and discomfort. But hours or days later, you might start to notice aches, pains, limited range of motion, and so on. It's important to see a doctor as soon as you notice any indication that something's not right after a car accident. Learn more about later-appearing car accident injuries.

How Long Will an Insurance Company Take to Settle Your Whiplash Claim?

It's hard to say for sure. Assuming you promptly notify the insurance company of the accident and provide all requested documentation, it could take anywhere from a few days to a few months. There are several reasons why the insurance company may take longer to settle your claim even though you've fully cooperated.

First, the adjuster could be very busy. Car accident adjusters handle many claims simultaneous, all at different stages, so something else might be taking priority.

Second, the adjuster could be waiting on additional information. Even though you've given them everything they've asked for, they might be waiting on documents they requested from a state agency or your medical provider. Or maybe the insurer hired an investigator to look into a few details related to your accident.

Third, they could be stalling. A car insurance company might do this in the hopes you'll accept a lower settlement offer or that you won't pursue your claim. Stalling is one thing, but if the insurance company is completely ignoring your claim, depending on the circumstances, this could open them up to legal liability for bad faith.

How Do Insurance Companies Calculate Your Whiplash Settlement Payout?

A whiplash claim will consist of two main parts.

First, there are the economic costs you've incurred, like medical bills, lost wages, and your insurance co-pays. These are easy to calculate for the insurance company. The only real issue might be if the insurance adjuster disagrees with a claimed amount (they may argue that it's excessive or unnecessary).

The second and more complex part of a whiplash injury claim is the non-economic damages side, which includes compensation for pain and suffering. Pain is inherently subjective, so what's significantly painful to one person is a mere annoyance to another. But even if pain could be objectively determined, there's the issue of putting a dollar value on it. Despite these challenges, car insurance companies have ways to estimate pain and suffering damages.

In addition to looking at documents and applying formulas, car insurance adjusters will consider:

  • how long it takes to recover from the whiplash or other injuries from the accident
  • the extent of medical care required to treat your injuries from the accident
  • the impact of your injuries on your ability to work, pursue hobbies, and perform household chores, and
  • how credible you come across concerning your claims.

What Should You Do If Your Whiplash Claim Is Denied?

The first thing you want to do is ask for a detailed written statement of why the insurance company made the decision to deny your claim. Make them go on record. Then, if you disagree with the basis for the claim denial, feel the insurance company is relying on incorrect or incomplete information, provide your own detailed response and ask the insurer to reconsider. If this doesn't work, it might be time to discuss your situation with a lawyer.

When to Talk to a Lawyer About Your Whiplash Claim

Besides claim denial, you might want to consider getting an attorney's help if:

  • the insurance company's settlement offer is unreasonably low, and they're refusing to budge; this is where a lawyer's negotiating skills can really make a difference
  • you feel it's necessary to file a personal injury lawsuit over your whiplash injuries; the expertise of a lawyer is essential when an injury case moves to the lawsuit ("litigation") stge.

Learn more about when to hire an attorney after a car accident, or connect with a lawyer in your area using the tools right on this page.

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