How and When to Hire a Car Accident Lawyer
If you’ve been involved in a car accident, you may be asking yourself: “Should I get a car accident lawyer?”
For many people injured in a car accident this is the first time they’ve had to deal with this problem. They don’t have experience with how this works, and they’re not sure who to turn to. We want to help you out by giving you a lot of information about how car accident injuries are dealt with – who’s involved, what the process is, and what can be achieved.
This article will aim to answer all your questions regarding car accidents lawyers including:
If you’ve been injured in an accident and are worried about making your car accident claim, this article will put your mind to rest about when it’s best to hire a lawyer after a car accident. It will give you the knowledge to make a good decision about which lawyer or law firm you need for your case. It will help you see the differences between the different lawyers out there. Choosing a lawyer is a big decision. This article will help you with your choice.
What Does a Car Accident Lawyer Do?
Many people think that hiring a car accident lawyer will result in your case going to trial. But in most circumstances, a car accident lawyer’s role is to help you maximize your settlement value out of court and, more importantly, to help you avoid any costly mistakes in making your claim that could damage your ability to be compensated in full.
In Florida and other states, your financial recovery and settlement will depend on whether someone else was at fault in causing your injury and damages. Proving who was at fault can be simple in some cases, like a rear-end collision, and difficult in other situations. One of the first things your prospective attorney looks at is if someone else was at fault in causing the car accident, even if they were only partially at fault. If so, the attorney will want to help you recover compensation from that person. If you were completely at fault, or if your damages are very low, you will not have a case that a personal injury lawyer can help you with.
Offer a Free Case Evaluation
As part of a free consultation, the lawyer will conduct an intake interview to collect relevant details related to your case. Some lawyers do these consultations themselves and other lawyers have their staff handle them. The larger the firm is, the less likely you will be speaking with an actual lawyer at the beginning of your case. The lawyer or staff member will need enough basic information from you to decide whether you are a good fit for representation by them. They will want to know how the accident happened, who was at fault, and what your insurance coverage is. They will also want to know what your injuries are.
Part of the case evaluation will include advising you of your rights and helping you navigate the state and local laws that affect your claim. One important issue that comes up at this stage is the statute of limitations for your type of case. Another issue is whether you were driving your own car or someone else’s car.
The lawyer will advise you to ensure you protect the value of your claim. This will include advising you on what to say, or what not to say, to insurance agents and investigators. The lawyer might assist you in finding medical professionals to help in your physical recovery.
The lawyer will explain how insurance claims work and what to expect in the settlement process. He will give you a clear understanding of the steps you will need to take to prepare your claim for success.
The lawyer will help you evaluate what size car accident settlement to expect (link to car accident settlement article). This is highly dependent on the facts of your case. All cases are different. Don’t trust any lawyer who guarantees you a dollar amount of a settlement. Settlement values are based on a variety of factors and take time to determine. Even then, your lawyer will have to negotiate with the insurance companies to get them to agree to the settlement value.
If you decide to hire the law firm, the lawyer will present you with a contract for representation at the end of the free consultation. They will explain the contract and answer your questions. You will have time to review the contract before deciding whether to hire the law firm.
Help You Build a Stronger Case by Performing Discovery
Collecting evidence is a critical first step to building a successful car accident settlement claim. Evidence is required to make a strong case for a settlement with the insurance company. It also is critical if the case eventually goes to trial. Evidence and memories can fade with time. It’s best to gather useful evidence as early as possible.
The collection of relevant evidence begins with the initial consultation. The lawyer will ask you a bunch of questions about what happened to cause the accident, your insurance coverage, and your injuries and medical treatment. It’s important that you always be honest with your lawyer. He will be able to get you a better settlement when he knows the truth.
After the initial consultation, the lawyer will look at the police report for the accident. The police report contains important starting information for investigating the claim and gathering evidence. It will list all the people involved in the accident, eyewitnesses, insurance policies, and the police officer’s conclusions about what happened. The lawyer will use this information to start gathering evidence to prove who was at fault in causing the car accident. For example, if the report lists an eyewitness who saw the accident occur, the lawyer might have his investigator interview the witness and get a written statement from them. That way their testimony can be preserved. If they need to testify later at a trial, the statement can be used to help them remember what they saw.
Your lawyer will need pictures taken of your vehicle to show the damage. He may have your vehicle examined by an investigator to show hidden damage to the structure of the body of the vehicle. He may have the black box data recorder analyzed to show information about speed and braking prior to the wreck. If there was an issue with the function of the airbag, seat belts, tires, or any of the parts of your vehicle, your lawyer will want an expert to document those issues before the car is repaired.
Your lawyer will need you to take pictures of your visible injuries. This can include bruising or broken bones. Anything that will help show your injuries and pain and suffering. This goes a long way to getting you a better final settlement.
The lawyer might send an investigator to the scene of the car accident to gather more evidence. This can include photos of skid marks and debris or dangerous conditions of the roadway. Not all types of investigation and evidence collection are done in every case. The cost of investigations is subtracted from your final settlement, so you want a lawyer who knows how much investigation to do for any given case. For example, a case going to trial will need more costly investigation in order to be sure to win at trial. A small injury case, however, might not warrant as much investigation.
Interviewing witnesses can be an important element of discovery and documentation of evidence. Again, this is done based on the facts of the case. It can be nearly impossible to track down any witnesses unless they’re listed on the police report. Also, some witnesses may not want to make a statement while others may be helpful. If liability and fault are clear, then interviewing witnesses isn’t as important. The safest bet is to contact any listed witnesses and see if they are willing to sign a written statement of what they saw. This protects against any potential surprises at trial.
An eyewitness is mainly used on the issue of liability, though they might also testify to their perception of your injuries at the scene of the accident. An eyewitness can even help you dispute liability if you were erroneously found to be partially at fault in causing the wreck. Again, this will depend on what the witness saw. They could help or they could hurt your case. If an eyewitness is unwilling to make a voluntary statement, they may have to be deposed later in the investigation process. This will occur if the case is heading to trial and your lawyer wants to find out what the witness will say at trial.
If you can’t reach a fair settlement, and you decide to file a lawsuit, formal discovery will begin. In this process your lawyer will use formal methods allowed by law to gather evidence. These methods include interrogatories, requests for admissions, requests for production, and depositions.
Identifies Relevant Parties, and Sends a Letter of Representation
The first step is to identify all the other parties involved in the accident. Usually, they will be listed on the police report and be easy to identify. Sometimes, it gets more complicated. For instance, the other driver might be driving a vehicle owned by someone else. In that case, the owner’s policy needs to be identified in addition to the driver’s policy. If you were hit by a driver who was on the job, then we need to identify his employer in order to make a claim on his employer’s insurance policy.
Once the parties are identified, we will work to find all their insurance policies that could potentially pay for your damages. This process starts with contacting their auto insurance company. We send them a letter of representation. That informs them that we represent you and means that they are no longer allowed to contact you. They can only communicate with you through us from that point on. We also request that they tell us the limits of the other driver’s policy. That way we know early in the case how much insurance coverage is available to pay your damages.
The police officers who responded to the scene are usually identified from the police report. You will be given an ID number by the police to access your free copy of the police report. You can provide us with that, or we can pay a fee to access the report.
You will help by telling us who your medical providers are. That way the attorney can document all your medical expenses related to injuries from the car accident. You will sign a HIPAA release so we can access these medical records directly from your providers. If you don’t have adequate health insurance to pay for your treatment, we can arrange for a letter of protection with some medical providers. The letter of protection is a type of contract which says that the medical provider will treat you and delay collecting the bill until you receive a settlement. In exchange, you promise to pay that medical provider’s outstanding treatment bill from your settlement before you receive any of the settlement money.
It’s important that you let an attorney manage these conversations because:
Insurance companies are not on your side.
You may mistakenly say something to insurers or other injured parties that weakens or entirely eliminates your ability to make a claim.
For example, if you talk to the insurance company immediately after the wreck, you might end up describing your injuries. But sometimes injuries are not immediately apparent right after a wreck. Later on, if your injuries turn out to be more extensive or serious than you first thought, the insurance company will use your statement against you and say those injuries weren’t really caused by the accident.
Help You Document and Manage Medical Expenses
It can be a real headache to keep track of all your medical treatments, diagnoses and bills caused by your car accident. Your attorney will send your medical providers a letter of representation and a HIPAA release so he can get the records directly from them. He will then compile the records as you continue your treatment. If you have prior medical conditions that overlap with the injuries resulting from the car accident, then your attorney will work with the medical providers to make sure you are compensated for any effects resulting from the car accident.
Medical providers want to get paid as soon as possible for their services. But getting a car accident settlement takes time. Usually, you will have to be treating until it is known what permanent or long-term injuries you have. You don’t want to be taking calls from medical offices seeking payment. You also don’t want to have them send outstanding bills to collection agencies. Your attorney will let the medical providers know he is representing you. For those with unpaid bills, he will try to work out an agreement for them to postpone payment until a settlement is reached.
Compensation for Your Injuries
A major part of any car accident settlement is getting fairly compensated for whatever type of injury you sustained. Some injuries, like soft tissue or whiplash injuries, typically require a lot of physical therapy. Other injuries, like herniated discs or badly broken bones, typically require surgery. A surgery will often cost far more than many sessions of physical therapy. Thus, you can expect your medical bills for an injury requiring surgery to be much higher. This is will affect your ultimate settlement, since total medical bills are the main foundation for a settlement value.
Negotiate Down Your Medical Bills
Medical billing is a complex field. Hospitals and doctors often have a “list” price which is the highest price. Then there are lower “allowable” prices that your health insurance company may have bargained for. Your car accident settlement may be for an amount well beyond any medical bills you had. Or, if you were largely at fault in the accident, or if there is little to no liability coverage, then you may not get a settlement that covers all your medical bills. In either situation, a good attorney will try to negotiate your unpaid medical bills down before paying them out of your settlement. There are laws that give health insurers and hospitals a lien on your settlement. That means your attorney is required to pay them first before disbursing the remaining settlement money to you. Once the settlement is concluded, a good car accident lawyer will try to negotiate a reduction of these liens prior to paying them. If successful, that means you get more money.
Ensure You Recover Full Economic Damages that Resulted from the Accident
Economic damages include all the money you have to spend or that you lose due to your injury.
Medical Expenses and Ongoing Treatment
Your medical expenses are likely to be the largest cost resulting from your car accident. Health care costs are high and getting higher every day. One trip to the hospital can easily end up costing more than $10,000, depending on what treatment is required. Your attorney will seek to have you “made whole.” That means being paid for any medical expenses resulting from the accident if the other person was at fault. This also includes future medical expenses. So, your settlement should include payment for likely future medical care for the injuries caused by the car accident. The amount of money for future care will usually be estimated by your treating physicians.
Damage to Your vehicle
You should be reimbursed for any damage to your vehicle caused by the at-fault driver. This is a claim on the property damage part of their policy and is separate from the bodily injury claim. The lawyer typically does not take a fee on your property damage claim, and payment for the claim is usually more straightforward than the bodily injury claim. If you were at fault, even just partially, in the car accident, then you may have to pay some of your damages out of pocket or through your own collision insurance. Ask your lawyer what they can do to help you with your property damage claim. You may also want to pursue a “diminished value claim,” based on the fact that your vehicle is worth less after the wreck, even though it has been repaired. For example, even if your car is completely repaired after the wreck, if you try to sell it the buyers will know it was in an accident by doing a search through a service like Carmax. This will diminish or lower the value of what they are willing to pay you for your vehicle.
Lost Wages and Potential Earnings
Your lawyer will include your lost wages and potential lost earnings in calculating a fair settlement. People often miss work days due to the injuries caused by their car accident. The at-fault driver is liable for this loss of income. If you suffered a more permanent type of injury, it can also be expected that you will miss more work in the future, after your settlement. It’s important to try to estimate how much work you will miss in the future and add it to the tally for the overall settlement. Usually, the estimate of future earnings loss will need to be made by a treating physician or some other kind of expert. This level of detail is more important in cases with more severe and permanent injuries.
Transportation or other ongoing costs related to your injury
Although it is frequently a more minor aspect of your settlement, you should also be reimbursed for travel expenses caused by your injury. This includes travel to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, to your lawyer’s office, and any other related travel. You might use the IRS mileage rate to calculate this if you drive your own vehicle. Any other costs springing from your injury should also be included.
Loss of Future Wages from something permanent disability or wrongful death
As mentioned, loss of future wages can be an important aspect of your financial recovery. These usually require an expert to estimate, especially at trial. If your injury is a permanent one, then you might not be able to continue in your pre-injury occupation. Or you might not be as effective at it. This element of your damages will require a very specific analysis of your work history and probable future work. That way a dollar figure can be reasonably placed on your lost future earnings. If your loved one was killed in the wreck and you are pursuing a wrongful death claim, then their future lost income will be a critical aspect of your settlement demand.
Costs for Household Services
Your injuries will likely make it more difficult to do household upkeep like you did before your car accident. This can be a permanent change with serious injuries, or it may just be temporary while you are healing. You should be reimbursed for these out-of-pocket expenses in your settlement. It’s critical that you document these expenditures along the way so that you can prove them. Examples of expenses in this category are housekeeping and cleaning, lawn care, and grocery shopping. In each case, you will have to prove that you did these activities yourself before the injury and that the injury made it impossible for you to keep doing them.
Non-economic damages are a crucial part of your recovery if you have a permanent type of injury. You should be paid compensation for the following permanent losses.
Permanent disability is one of the worst outcomes of a car accident. Unfortunately, it is frequent. Even with the best health care in the world, a serious injury often has some kind of permanent effect on your life. This can be lingering pain, reduced mobility, or even severe physical limitations.
Disfigurement or Scarring
Under Florida law, scars or other disfigurements are supposed to be compensated. This can be a hard thing to put a dollar value on. But it’s important to the injured person and shouldn’t be ignored.
Pain and Suffering
Pain and suffering is the category of non-economic damages where your case will usually run into the most resistance from the insurance company. They don’t want to pay for these damages. Even when they are willing to pay for it they will want to minimize it and pay as little as possible. This is where you need a good attorney who will fight for you. It might even require you to file suit if the insurance company is not forthcoming with a fair settlement. In Florida, you can only recover pain and suffering damages if you have a documented permanent injury from the car accident. Your medical provider will have to diagnose you with a permanent injury. At that point, it is a matter of trying to put a dollar value on that pain and suffering.
Loss of Enjoyment of Life
Loss of enjoyment of life is a separate category of non-economic damages that you can recover in Florida. Again, as with the other non-economic damages, it requires you to have a permanent injury or disfigurement. Although similar to pain and suffering damages, loss of enjoyment of life damages are distinct. They are damages awarded to compensate you for the lost ability to enjoy life. For instance, you may have enjoyed outdoor activities, sports, or dancing prior to your injury. Or maybe you were active in community activities with other people. Either way, if your injury causes you to not be able to enjoy those activities anymore, then you will have a strong claim for these kinds of non-economic damages.
Loss of Consortium
A loss of consortium claim is usually made by your spouse if you have a permanent injury or disability from the car accident. The loss of consortium claim is for loss of services, comfort, companionship, and society. This means that after your injury, you can no longer provide the same social benefits to your spouse that you did before the injury. Your spouse then has a claim for damages against the at-fault party. A child or dependent may also be able to bring a loss of consortium claim, but in Florida that’s only possible if you suffer a permanent total disability.
Seek Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are a separate kind of damages that are awarded to punish the wrongdoer for conduct that is considered especially bad. Punitive damages are also meant to deter the defendant and others from engaging in this kind of conduct in the future. Florida allows for punitive damages if the defendant was guilty of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Some examples of when punitive damages might be possible in auto accident cases would be when the at-fault party caused the accident due to:
Cell phone use
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to recover punitive damages from your Uninsured Motorist coverage (UM) in Florida. In addition, many Bodily Injury Liability policies exclude coverage for the kinds of acts that lead to punitive damages. So, punitive damages may only be worth pursuing if the defendant has sizable private assets.
Help Negotiate Your Claim to Insure You Maximize Your Settlement Value
Before making a demand on the at-fault party’s insurance, your lawyer will typically want you to have finished most of your medical treatments. This way the full extent of your damages are known and can be demanded in the settlement proposal. However, the right time to file the demand also depends on how much insurance coverage applies to your case. Sometimes a demand will be prepared very quickly if the injuries are severe or the insurance coverage is low. If you are seeking pain and suffering damages, there will need to be a doctor who says you have a permanent injury. Your lawyer will have gathered all the relevant evidence and documentation and will send the insurers a demand letter, also known as a proposal for settlement. First your lawyer will get your approval of the demand, as it states a dollar figure that you are willing to settle for. At that point, negotiations with the insurance company will commence. In some cases, they may agree to pay the full demand. This usually only happens when your injuries are clearly higher than the policy limits and the liability of the other driver is clear. Otherwise, negotiations will start where the insurance company tries to get you to settle for less and your attorney tries to get them to pay a fair settlement.
A good car accident attorney will leverage his knowledge of the law, the evidence in your case, and past jury verdicts and settlements to negotiate on your behalf. The attorney will let the insurance company know that they are taking a risk in not settling with you. That risk is that you take the case to trial and get a large jury verdict. Sometimes that path is necessary for you to be compensated. Usually, a fair settlement can be reached so that you get the money much sooner and without the stress and time of going to trial. Trial is also costly, and the costs of trial experts and preparation come out of your final award. The goal is for you to receive full-and-fair compensation, not the “average car accident settlement”. Often, this can be achieved by settling your case.
Take Your Case to Trial or Demand Arbitration
If your attorney is unable to negotiate a fair settlement with insurers and the at-fault party, he may file suit, seek a mediation, or demand arbitration.
Filing suit doesn’t mean your case will necessarily go to trial, but it sends the message to insurers and at-fault parties that you intend to defend your claim to the full extent allowed by law. Sometimes this is a wake-up call to the other side that they need to increase their settlement offer. Other times, they simply dig in their heels and make you take them to trial to get a fair award. Sometimes they will use the pre-trial period to simply delay paying you and then increase their settlement offer close to your trial date.
Mediation is an informal process that uses an impartial mediator, usually a retired judge, to help the parties come to a settlement. The process takes place in a neutral setting, usually the mediator’s offices, and is confidential. The mediator is experienced at helping the adversarial parties see the other side’s arguments in order to reach a mutually agreeable settlement. Mediation can be pursued at any time in the process, both pre-suit and after a lawsuit is filed. If you choose to file suit, at some point the judge will probably order a mandatory mediation between the parties. This mandatory mediation does not force you to settle your claim, but it does require you to engage in a good-faith attempt at mediation.
Arbitration is different than mediation. In arbitration, there is a neutral arbitrator who is given authority to make conclusions about issues in the case. Typically, these conclusions are binding, meaning they will be enforced by the court. Arbitration is not required in your claim against the at-fault drivers. Arbitration is only required when both parties have agreed to it. Typically, this happens in written contracts before the dispute emerges. The only time when arbitration might affect your car accident case is if you bring a claim for Uninsured Motorist (UM) coverage against your own auto insurer. Somewhere in the fine print of your contract with your UM carrier you may have agreed to mandatory arbitration with them. Ask your lawyer to review your policy for you.
When all else fails, your lawyer will help you take your case to trial. Many people don’t want to go through the stress and delay of preparing for trial. Others are motivated by making the defendant pay for their negligence and think trial is the best way to hold them accountable. In our civil justice system, the outcome of your lawsuit will only ever be a money award. It’s best to be realistic about what a trial can achieve. Sometimes a trial is necessary, but it shouldn’t be pursued without a full awareness of the costs and risks involved.
Prepare Interrogatories or Manage Depositions
If your case can’t be settled to your satisfaction and you decide to file a lawsuit, your attorney will file the suit and commence discovery. Discovery is the name for the procedures for gathering and exchanging evidence in the litigation prior to trial. Most of this pre-trial litigation revolves around the parties exchanging information which helps them learn all the facts of the case. Trials are not done by surprise. Rather, courts require both sides to cooperate in a full and fair exchange of information before the trial. In practice, some parties seek to hide information or delay the process. This will cause your attorney to have to file documents with the court and litigate issues of evidence and delay.
Interrogatories, Requests for Production, Requests for Admissions, and Depositions are some of the main components of pre-trial litigation. Your attorney will send these documents to the defendants to gain information. Your attorney will also have you answer the questions from the other parties. You will likely be deposed. Your attorney will be present while the other attorney questions you under oath at your deposition.
This discovery process commences soon after your suit is filed. It can be a time-consuming and stressful process. You will have to tell the full truth under oath in your responses. Your attorney will advise you on the process and what to expect. However, at a deposition, your attorney will not be able to coach you. You will have to respond directly to the questions of the other attorney.
When to Hire a Car Accident Attorney (and When Not to)
One of the most important decisions you will make at the beginning of your recovery is whether or not to hire a car accident attorney.
When Not to Hire a Car Accident Attorney
If no one is hurt in the car accident, you won’t need a lawyer to bring a bodily injury claim.
For example, say you were in a parking lot going very slowly and another car bumped into you as it pulled out from a parking space. This kind of collision can cause injuries, but in this case it was very minor and no one was hurt. There might be damage to the car, but the passengers and drivers are completely fine. Here, you would only have a property damage claim, not an injury claim. Typically, if you only have a property damage claim, you should be able to handle it by yourself with the insurance companies. Car accident lawyers usually only help with a property damage claim if there is also a bodily injury liability claim. Usually, it doesn’t make sense to hire a lawyer just for a property damage claim.
Sometimes a car accident causes injuries but they’re so minor that it doesn’t make sense to hire an injury lawyer. For example, maybe you felt sore for a few days or a week after the accident, but then you felt completely fine after that. Whiplash type injuries can be quite serious and lead to lasting pain, but sometimes they resolve in a matter of days or weeks. If your injury heals within a few weeks and you haven’t spent much money on medical care, then you may be better off settling your claim with the insurance company by yourself. Also, your No-Fault PIP coverage will have paid for most of your out-of-pocket expenses for this kind of injury.
Sometimes you won’t know how serious an injury is until days or weeks later. It’s usually best to at least consult with a lawyer early on so that you protect your rights. In general, you will definitely want to hire a car accident lawyer if you have serious injuries or injuries that lead to prolonged or permanent loss of function or pain and suffering. If you’re not sure whether your injury will lead to permanent impairment, but you are losing significant amounts of work or having to go for treatment several times, then you should probably hire a lawyer. Even in the borderline cases, it is nice to know you have an attorney in your corner fighting to make sure you are compensated for your out-of-pocket expenses resulting from the car accident.
Remember, if you’re injured, always seek prompt medical attention. One of the worst mistakes you can make early in your case is not seeking medical attention for your injuries. Not only do you need the treatment to get better, but you need to document your injuries by seeking care. If you don’t get your injuries documented, you will recover much less compensation.
When You Should Hire a Car Accident Lawyer
Now let’s cover those situations in which you probably should hire a car accident attorney to help you manage your claim.
If you’ve been in an accident that involves serious injuries like broken bones, overnight hospitalizations, wrongful death, or that includes any significant economic damages from medical treatment and lost work, then you should immediately consult a car accident lawyer. The more serious your injuries are, the more likely the insurance company will be to make a fair settlement when you have a good car accident attorney working by your side.
Significant out-of-pocket expenses for your medical care or lost wages
Every case is different, but if, after PIP has paid some of your bills, you still have more than $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses due to the injury, you might want to hire a car accident lawyer.
Should I Get a Lawyer for an Accident that Was My Fault?
Fault is an important consideration in whether to hire a lawyer. That’s because Florida has a comparative fault law. Under that law, a car accident victim can only recover damages for the percentage of fault that the other driver was responsible for. The way this works is that we start with the idea that there is a total of 100% of fault in an accident. Then we decide what percentage of fault everyone that was involved in the accident was responsible for. For example, if someone ran a red light and hit you when you were obeying the traffic laws, then they are probably 100% at fault. Alternatively, if they ran a stop sign and you were speeding through the intersection, then you might both be found to be 50% at fault. In Florida, you can recover money from an at-fault driver for your injuries even if you shared in some of the fault. The amount you can recover is equal to their percentage of fault.
If the accident was 100% your fault and the other party is injured, then you won’t need a car accident lawyer. That’s because you won’t be able to recover any money for your injuries in a bodily injury liability claim if you were solely at fault. The other driver will probably seek to recover money from you. If you have car insurance, your insurer will pay to have a defense attorney represent you in this situation.
If you were drunk or acting with willful disregard for others on the road, then you might be charged with a crime. This type of case requires a defense attorney, not a car accident lawyer. You may also be sued in civil court by your injured victims. Both cases require a defense attorney. Those attorneys do not take their cases on a contingency fee.
What to Do if You’re Partially at Fault
If you’re only partially at fault in the accident, you probably need a lawyer. A lawyer has the skills to make an argument for how much or how little fault you were responsible for. This will affect your final compensation.
For example, maybe you were speeding when someone turned out in front of you. You collided. The insurance company will try to argue that your speeding caused the accident. A good car accident attorney will argue that your speeding only contributed a bit to the accident, but that the other driver was mainly responsible for the accident because they turned out in front of you. Your settlement may be somewhat less due to your contributory negligence, but you should still make a good recovery.
Here’s another example. Imagine you were jaywalking across a road and a car hit you, causing serious injuries to your leg. The insurer will claim that you were at fault for jaywalking and not yielding the right-of-way to the cars. But your lawyer may be able to argue that the car was also at fault, because the driver had time to see you and take evasive moves or slow down. They might still be responsible for paying some of your medical bills and wages.
Should I Get a Lawyer for an Accident that Wasn’t My Fault?
The answer is almost always “yes”, as long as you suffered injury. And prior to getting a lawyer, there are numerous things you yourself can do to maximize your case, especially if you’re not sure exactly what to do after an accident that’s not your fault.
If you have serious injuries from your car accident, then you definitely need a lawyer to represent you.
Example 1 – You felt some soreness in your back for a few days, but then it went away. This would be a situation where the injuries are not serious enough to warrant hiring a lawyer.
Example 2 – You experienced a headache and some soreness in your neck after the wreck. The headache went away the next day, but your neck pain lingered for several weeks. You saw your physician and did a few sessions of physical therapy. Your neck pain resolved after a few months. This is a borderline case and it really depends on how much money you had to spend on your treatments. Since you don’t have a permanent injury, you won’t get any pain and suffering damages. However, if you had to pay more than about $2,000 out-of-pocket for your treatments or lost wages, then a lawyer might be able to help you get compensation for that loss.
Example 3 – You were hit hard and your airbags deployed. You have serious back pain that won’t go away. You’ve tried a variety of physical therapy and chiropractic treatments and they haven’t helped much. Your doctor sent you to an orthopedic surgeon who is recommending surgery for a herniated disc. This is a serious injury and you definitely should hire a car accident lawyer to help you get the compensation you deserve.
You Suffered Damages, either Economic or Non-Economic
Property damage is damage to your vehicle. It’s called an “economic” damage because it’s fairly easy to put a dollar figure on it, unlike pain and suffering, which is hard to quantify in money. Your property damage claim is separate from your bodily injury claim. It goes to a separate insurance adjuster and it seeks recovery from a separate part of the insurance policy. Many car accident lawyers will help you with your property damage claim if you also have a bodily injury claim. They will usually only charge you their fee on the injury part of the claim. If you don’t have any physical injury, you should be able to handle the property damage claim on your own. You will probably not want a lawyer to just handle a property damage claim for you because you would probably get more compensation if you did it yourself.
Bodily-injury claims are the main thing you hire a car accident attorney to help you with. These are claims on the Bodily Injury Liability (BI) portion of the at-fault driver’s insurance policy. If the at-fault driver has minimal or no BI coverage, you make the claim on your own Uninsured Motorist (UM) policy, if you have one. A bodily injury claim will seek to compensate you for both economic and non-economic damages. In general, economic damages are for things that are easy to quantify in dollar amounts. Non-economic damages are for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
These are the out-of-pocket expenses that your incurred due to the car accident. This includes money that your insurance companies or other providers paid on your behalf.
Medical bills are one of the main components of your claim. If you were injured, you probably incurred large amounts of medical bills. Your No-Fault PIP coverage should have paid 80% of the first $10,000 in medical bills, but you will still have unpaid bills.
Future medical bills and lost wages
Your lost wages are another major part of your economic damages. Your injury probably caused you to miss work. Even if you had saved up vacation days, this is still a loss of income. PIP may have paid some of this, but you should be compensated for the rest of your lost wages in your settlement. If your injury has a permanent aspect to it, then you will probably need more medical care in the future. You also may miss more work in the future or even have to change jobs. Your settlement should estimate the value of these future losses and compensate you for them.
Property damage is the name for economic damages to your vehicle. Your vehicle should be repaired to the level it was in before the accident or you should be reimbursed for fair market value. You may also have a diminished value claim.
Out-of-Pocket Expenses Caused by the Accident
If your injuries force you to hire people to do services that you used to do yourself, like housework or yardwork, you should be compensated for this. Also, your travel expenses to medical treatments should be compensated.
When you have permanent injuries, Florida law says you should be compensated for these “non-economic” damages.
Pain and suffering
This is the main category of non-economic damages in injury claims. In Florida, you can only be compensated for pain and suffering damages if you have a permanent injury, scar, or disability caused by the car accident. So, for example, if you heal 100% from your injury over six months, then you won’t be compensated for all the pain you had during that six months. However, if after six months, or a year, or whenever your settlement is reached, you still have lingering pain or a diminished function, you should be compensated for all the pain and suffering you experienced and for all the pain and suffering your injury will cause you to experience in the future. In order to prove that you have a permanent injury to an insurance company or jury you will need to have a doctor conclude that you have a permanent injury. Sometimes this is called a “permanent impairment.” Some doctors are better at putting this in their notes than others. The permanent injury does not have to be a severe one. For example, your doctor might conclude that you have a 6% impairment to some function. That would be enough to seek pain and suffering damages.
Loss of Enjoyment of Life
This category of damages is separate from, but related to pain and suffering damages. Again, it requires a permanent injury. This type of damages should be compensated if you can prove that your injury has caused you to no longer be able to enjoy activities that you enjoyed prior to the injury. Examples of these activities might be dancing, sports, or travel.
Loss of Consortium
Your spouse has probably lost your support in some way if you have a permanent injury. Loss of consortium is the name for a kind of non-economic damages that may be awarded to your spouse. If your injury has diminished your ability to help your spouse, then he or she might be able to recover damages for that loss.
Some kinds of behavior are so bad that they “shock the conscience.” Behavior of that kind on the part of the at-fault party will give you a claim for punitive damages. Gross negligence is a kind of negligence that is much more severe than common carelessness. It requires proof that the person was consciously or voluntarily disregarding their standard duties of traffic behavior. There are a variety of actions that can prove the other party was grossly negligent. Some examples are:
Defective products or 3rd party liability
Claims against auto manufacturers or sellers can be another source of compensation for your damages. Sometimes auto accidents are caused by or made worse by defective car parts. This would be a defective product or product liability issue. Third parties other than the at-fault drivers may also be held responsible for your injuries in certain situations. For example, you may have been in a wreck because the road or signage weren’t designed or marked properly. You would then have a claim against the government and contractors responsible for those errors. Some common examples of these types of problems are:
Airbags not released
Defective traffic lights and signs
Badly designed highway on or off-ramps
Defective highway guardrails
How to Choose a Car Accident Lawyer: What to look for When Hiring
There are a lot of car accident lawyers to choose from. How do you know which one is right for you? It’s best to be informed about the critical services a car accident attorney needs to provide. Not all law firms are the same. Choose a lawyer who is upfront with you about how he’ll handle your case.
Transparency About What Fees to Expect
Most car accident lawyers offer a free consultation. This consultation may be by phone or in their office. They may have you talk with their staff or the lawyer may speak with you directly. The free consultation is an important first step. The lawyer will determine if you have a case that he will be able to take. And you get the chance to decide if they’re the right law firm for you.
Once you’ve chosen the lawyer who you want to take your case, you will sign a contract of representation. The contract will spell out all fees and costs in detail. Most car accident lawyers work on contingency. “Contingency” means that your lawyer will only be paid as a percentage of the money you recover, either as a settlement or jury award. Thus, the lawyer’s fees are “contingent” on you getting money for your case. Once you agree to a settlement or win a jury verdict, the money will be deposited in your attorney’s trust account. The lawyer will then deduct his fees and costs from this amount, as spelled out in the contingency fee agreement. The lawyer will then have to pay any medical liens required by law from your settlement. Then you will receive the remainder. Attorney’s fees in contingency fee agreements are governed by state bar associations. The Florida Bar Association sets a limit on the percentage that a lawyer can charge. Most Florida car accident lawyers use those percentage amounts. Costs are another item deducted from your settlement. Costs are for money your lawyer spends out-of-pocket on your behalf in your case. These include the costs of hiring and interviewing experts, the cost of copies of documents and printing, and the costs of traveling to depositions and court.
The usual percentage contingency fee that your Florida lawyer will charge for a case that settles prior to suit is 33.3%. This is the amount allowed by the Florida Bar Association. If you recover over $1 million dollars, the money over $1 million will have a lower percentage fee.
The usual percentage contingency fee that your Florida lawyer will charge for a case that goes to trial is 40%. Again, this is the maximum fee allowed by the Florida Bar Association. If you win more than $1 million in your trial, a lower percentage fee applies to the money in excess of the $1 million.
You want a lawyer who is clear and responsive in explaining how they will represent you, not just about their fees. There aren’t many Florida car accident lawyers who offer fees lower than those set out by the Florida bar. So, you usually shouldn’t be searching for a lower fee lawyer. Instead, you should look to choose a lawyer who you think will represent you in the manner that you think is best.
One thing you should look for is a lawyer who will explain the process for making your claim. Law firms vary quite a bit in how they communicate with their clients. They also vary in terms of how active an actual attorney is in handling your case. Some big firms will have junior associates or non-attorney staff handling most of your case. Maybe you’re comfortable with that. Or maybe you would prefer a smaller firm where you know the lead attorney is handling your case.
You also want a lawyer who will consistently keep you up to date on the status of your case. One of the reasons you’re hiring a lawyer is that you don’t know how an injury claim proceeds or how long it takes. You don’t want to be left in the dark, wondering if they’re working on your case. You should know upfront how often the law firm will be updating you about your case. You should also be able to speak with your attorney during your case about any concerns or questions you have.
Willingness to Set a Settlement Goal and Fight for it
You should choose an attorney who clearly understands the value of your case. Now, as we mentioned before, this doesn’t mean your lawyer can tell you the value of your claim at the beginning of your case. There is usually too little information at that time to set a value on your claim. A lawyer also can never ethically promise you a certain amount. However, as your case progresses and all the information is in hand, including the extent of your injuries, your percentage of fault, and the insurance money available, then your attorney should be able to come up with a clear value for your claim.
So, your lawyer shouldn’t be vague about what an appropriate settlement value might be based on your circumstances. Your lawyer needs to seek a settlement with the insurance company from a position of strength. That means building a strongly documented case for a certain settlement value. Of course, the insurer may not be willing to negotiate to that amount. But the lawyer needs to be setting the parameters of the negotiation.
You want a lawyer who takes your needs into consideration and works with you to get you what you want. You have the power to decide what kind of settlement you want. But you should be reasonable about the value of your case.
Do you want the money fast so you can move on? That might mean you have to accept a lower settlement amount, but it might be important for you to get some money fast.
Maybe you want to be sure you get a fair settlement, but you’re unwilling to go to trial to possibly get even more money. In this case, your lawyer will do their best to negotiate with the insurance company and get you a fair settlement.
Do you want to go for the full value of your claim? This is often possible to achieve through a settlement, especially if your damages exceed the insurance limits available. However, sometimes the insurance companies dig in their heels and refuse to pay full value. Then your only option is to go to trial and have a jury of your peers value your case. Remember, trials are risky. A jury might see things from your perspective and give you a big award. Or they might see things from another perspective and give you a small award or nothing at all.
You want a lawyer with proven experience handling car accident cases. Auto accident cases are a specialized area of the law, and you’re best served by an attorney who specializes in these types of cases. You wouldn’t want to hire an attorney who has many different practice areas or one who specializes in something other than auto injuries.
Your lawyer should have experience negotiating favorable settlements. Your best result is a fair settlement rather than the trouble of going to trial. You want a lawyer who can communicate to you what a fair settlement is in your case and who is experienced at negotiating such settlements with the insurance companies.
You want a lawyer with experience taking on national insurance companies, major corporations, and state and local governments. If your case involves a basic auto claim, then your attorney should have experience negotiating settlements and suing auto insurance companies. If you have a product liability claim, you will want an attorney with the resources and experience to bring a defective product case against a vehicle manufacturer or government entity.
Positive online reviews are a good indicator of how your attorney will treat you and your case. Make sure the reviews you look at are for the actual person handling your case if you are hiring a large firm.
Rankings from Avvo and other lawyer review sites can be helpful. However, these sites use proprietary ranking systems that may not really identify the best lawyer for you. Some of these sites also give higher rankings to lawyers who pay to advertise with them.
No complaints on the Better Business Bureau profile for a law firm is good. Some attorneys have BBB accounts that allow you to look them up and see if there are any complaints. If there are bad complaints, you might think twice about hiring them.
National insurance companies and large corporations have virtually unlimited resources to make their case and minimize their payout to you. You need to choose a law firm with the resources to properly build up your case. This is basically the “costs” part of your case. It is the out-of-pocket expenses a lawyer fronts you to develop the evidence of your case. This consideration is especially important if you have a catastrophic injury case or a medical malpractice case. Those types of cases can cost a lot of money in trial preparation and the hiring of experts. Most average car accident cases don’t require large amounts of money in costs unless they go to trial.
It’s important you work with an attorney with the financial resources to both investigate and present your claim in the most favorable terms possible. Again, different cases will require different amounts of money to properly develop. Some big firms advertise that you should hire them because they have so much money. Are they really spending that money on your case? Do you really want them to? No. All costs that are spent on your case will come out of your settlement or verdict in the end. Also, most car accident cases don’t require large expenditures of money for costs. You certainly want a law firm that has the resources to build up your case. But most legitimate car accident attorneys have those resources. What’s important is that the lawyer has the resources for your type of case and spends them wisely. That’s what maximizes your compensation in the end.
Examples of cases that require large expenditures of money are product liability claims, medical malpractice claims, and cases that go to trial.
If you have a case with only moderate or minor injuries that goes to trial, your lawyer should keep the costs down and not hire too many experts. This is because the verdict you get may not be large enough to pay for all the upfront costs.
Don’t underestimate the importance of getting along with your car accident attorney. You will be dealing with them regularly, and it’s important that you get along.
After speaking or meeting a lawyer ask yourself, do you feel comfortable working with them? Are you comfortable telling them confidential information about your case?
Do you find it easy to communicate with the attorney, and does he promptly answer your questions? You will need an attorney who can communicate with you in a direct and honest way, without using jargon or legalese that you may not be familiar with.
Remember, if anything feels off in your initial conversations, then things may not proceed well. So, make sure to find an attorney you believe you will enjoy working with.
An Attorney Who is Hands-On With Your case
You want to avoid signing with an experienced lawyer who plans to simply hand the case off to a junior attorney in the firm. Sometimes a junior attorney will do a good job with your case, other times they won’t. Sometimes cases will be passed around as these junior attorneys move to other jobs. Wouldn’t you rather work with a lead attorney whose reputation is on the line in your case?
You want an attorney who has the time and resources to be heavily involved in your case. No case is too small for the person whose case it is. Ask the law firm to be upfront before you sign the contract. Who will be handling your case?
Willingness to Provide References
If an attorney can connect you with a few past clients who are willing to speak to you about the firm, it can be helpful.
These are past clients who can share their experience working with the firm, and whether the claim was ultimately resolved to their satisfaction.
Online reviews can take the place of this though. Many satisfied clients are willing to leave a review, but it can be an imposition to ask them to talk with future clients. Most people want to move on after their case is finished.
Be Wary of Law Firms that are Settlement Mills
“Settlement Mill” is the name for high volume personal injury law firms that advertise heavily and settle cases for pennies on the dollar. Not all firms that advertise a lot on TV and radio are settlement mills. But you should be wary of the firms that are on TV all the time because that’s one signature trait of a settlement mill.
Settlement mills operate by spending a lot of money on advertising to bring in lots of cases. Then they have non-attorney staff like case managers or paralegals handle most of the case work. If you hire a settlement mill you might only speak to an attorney once, when they call up to get your approval for a settlement. Instead, the settlement mills have lower-paid non-attorney staff handling your claim. These staff have dozens if not hundred of cases on their plate at any given time. Do you think you’ll get topnotch representation if your claim is lost in that shuffle?
Hiring a settlement mill limits your ability to maximize your settlement because their business model is high churn and turnover. They bring in cases through ads, not through referrals or word of mouth. Then they try to settle the case for a profit – their profit. They are willing to settle cases at less than full value, at pennies on the dollar, because they have so many cases and because they are paying non-attorney support staff wages to work up the case. They don’t worry about not getting you full value, because they know their TV ads will always bring in new, unsuspecting clients.
Insurance companies know which firms are settlement mills. They know that the firm will accept pennies on the dollar settlements and rarely file a lawsuit. This leads to all the firm’s clients getting less money, because the firm has a reputation for rolling over easily in negotiations.
Make sure you know upfront which attorney will work your case and how involved he or she will be in it. How much of the work will be done by support staff? How often will you get to speak with your attorney? If the firm won’t tell you and is evasive about these questions, then you are probably talking to a settlement mill. At that point you should seek another law firm.
Comfort with Going to Trial
Though rare, it can happen that your case requires going to trial. This happens when the insurance company decides it won’t willingly pay full or fair value for your claim. Even then, you might be willing to accept less than fair value to settle and move on. But if not, your attorney should be willing to file a lawsuit and fight for your right to fair compensation.
There aren’t any types of cases that are more likely to go to trial than others. It’s a case-by-case determination. Ultimately, you’re the one who gets to decide whether to settle for the offered amount or file suit. You want a law firm who will give you the right advice as to the pros and cons of settling your case. There are risks associated with trial, mainly the risk that you will get nothing or less than a fair value from the jury. For example, if you were partially at fault the jury might have trouble awarding you much money. Or, if your injuries are vague or less than believable you might not get a full verdict. Finally, some jurors just might not be willing to give adequate pain and suffering damages, even though the law says they should.
You want a lawyer with experience in trial. That way, if the insurance company won’t negotiate fairly, you’re already in position to move on to a lawsuit. Another option is to have a lawyer who is good at settling cases and is willing to bring on a trial counsel partner if your case is filed as a lawsuit. Some lawyers focus more on the settlement aspects of injury cases and other lawyers focus more on trials. If your lawyer brings in another attorney to help with trial, this shouldn’t affect your fee. The first lawyer will have an arrangement with the second lawyer so that they split up the overall fee between themselves. Make sure you’re comfortable with the trial lawyer brought into the case and that you understand why it is being done.
Questions to ask a Car Accident Lawyer Before Hiring Them
These are some of the main questions you can ask a prospective lawyer before you hire them.
What is their experience with car accident cases?
You want a lawyer who has experience in car accident settlements and trials.
How many cases is the attorney currently representing?
A lawyer should be willing to tell you how many cases they currently have in their workload. The reason you want to know this is because if they have too many cases your case might get lost in the shuffle. And it may not get the attention it deserves. For you, your case is the only case. For an attorney with dozens or over a hundred cases, your case could easily be forgotten about or not pursued fully. Consider hiring a lawyer or firm who is selective with what cases they take and doesn’t let their attorneys take too many cases at a time.
What aspects of my case will you be handling?
You should be given a clear understanding upfront about which aspects of your case will be handled by the attorney and which will be handled by case managers and paralegals. Case managers and paralegals are important members of a team, but wouldn’t you rather know that an attorney is handling the crucial aspects of your case?
What is a typical settlement range for someone in my situation?
This may take time to determine. Your injuries, the insurance policies, and your level of fault all have to be determined before it’s reasonable to speculate about settlement value. However, once that information is known, your attorney should be able to guide you as to what is a reasonable settlement range for your case.
What is your fee structure?
An attorney should be crystal clear about their fee and cost structure. In fact, it’s required by law in Florida that your attorney gives you a written contract including a statement of client’s rights. If you have any questions or concerns about the contract, ask the lawyer to explain them before you sign. After you sign the contract you have three days before it becomes effective under the law.
What out of pocket expenses am I responsible for?
Attorneys handle this differently. In some cases, an attorney might ask you to front costs to pursue your case. Other attorneys will front all your costs and then deduct them from your settlement at the end. Make sure you are clear as to which method your attorney is following.
Why are you a car accident lawyer?
This question can be helpful for you to understand why your lawyer chose to specialize in automobile accident cases. It’s best to see where your lawyer is coming from in order to make sure you are compatible. This is a question that might give you some insight into your lawyer and their firm.
Remember, Timing is Important for Maximizing Your Claim
Now that you understand what a car accident attorney does and when to hire one, it’s important to remember that you must act quickly if you want to maximize your settlement. Some people are hesitant to hire or even contact an injury lawyer, preferring to wait and see if they get better. Some people can’t decide which lawyer to call. They see lots of TV ads for lawyers, but maybe they’re not comfortable with law firms that are on TV all the time. These are understandable reactions. Car accident injuries lead to very stressful times in your life. But it’s best not to delay in at least getting a free consultation.
If you delay seeking legal help, your case might be seriously compromised in the meantime. With each passing day it will get more difficult to collect evidence and interview witnesses. You might not know what to do. A good lawyer will know what kind of investigation needs to be done at the beginning of your case. If you let weeks or months go by, the evidence could be lost. Witnesses memories will fade with time.
Before you get representation from a lawyer, insurers will be hard at work minimizing your claim. They will call you up and act like they’re your friend and have your best interests in mind. Actually, they’lll be trying to get you to say or do something that makes it hard for you to get a fair settlement later on. Don’t fall into their trap. Speak with or hire a car accident attorney as soon as possible to protect yourself.
One big part of what a lawyer and law firm can do for you is to handle all the busy work involved in making an insurance claim. The sooner you hire a good law firm, the sooner you’ll be able to rest assured that your case is being well documented and pursued. You won’t be as stressed out as when you try to do it all by yourself.
Working with the Kem Law Firm
If you’ve been injured in a Florida car accident contact Eric Kem, Gainesville car accident lawyer at the Kem Law firm for help. Eric Kem does not run a high-volume practice. He will give you and your case the personal attention that it requires. He won’t have paralegals or support staff handling the important parts of your case. He will do those himself. If your case needs to go to trial he will take it to trial, possibly with the help of an additional attorney who specializes in civil trials.