Insurance companies, by their own admission, try to settle injury claims as quickly and as economically as possible. They have little interest in protracting litigation because it costs them money. When you've been in an accident and sustained damages or injuries, the insurance company of the person at fault will likely contact you and offer to settle the claim immediately or in a very short period of time.
The complex language of insurance policies and the hardball tactics used by some claims adjusters can often leave you feeling that you are not getting all to which you are entitled. If you've been injured in an accident, here's a look at whether hiring a personal injury lawyer can help you.
Insurance companies focus on dollars, not victims
Never take the first offer if you've been seriously injured.
If you are offered a dollar amount from an insurance company, what should you do? Steve Meckler, a personal injury attorney in Elyria, Ohio, says that if you've been seriously injured, never take the first offer. "It's unlikely the company will ever provide you with their best offer first," he says.
The insurance company may say they're offering you a fair settlement, but "why would they be fair to you, a person they don't represent?" Meckler asks. "Insurance companies are in the business of making a profit. The company doesn't arm their claims adjusters with a shield of justice and righteousness."
John Kovacs, another Ohio-based lawyer who handles personal injury cases, agrees. "Everything in life is negotiable," Kovacs says. "The insurance company wants to see how serious you are. The first-line claims adjuster is not going to give you the limit of what he's allowed to give. [Companies] don't hand out gold stars for that sort of behavior."
Moreover, you need to be informed about the litigation process in order to make a good decision about whether or not to take an insurance company's offer.
After an accident, you may want to seek legal advice, but you may not necessarily have to rush to retain an attorney. You probably don't need to retain counsel when the accident was a simple fender bender and you were not injured. "Just settle the case for property damage, get your medical bills paid, if you have any, and let it go," Kovacs says.
Seeking legal advice under those conditions is a waste of your time, both Kovacs and Meckler say. Many times, accident injuries are not severe enough to warrant the outright rejection of a company's first offer. "I often tell people [in fender benders] to take the money from the insurance companies. Most times it's a good offer," says Meckler.
There are cases in which hiring an attorney may be the next logical step. If there's a dispute about who's at fault in the accident, Kovacs recommends that you at least have an initial visit with an attorney. And anyone who is seriously injured in an accident should seek legal counsel. Kovacs points out that serious injuries are not always evident right away, so even if you receive emergency care, you should have a follow-up visit with your regular doctor.
"You are starting behind the eight ball because an experienced claims adjuster has dealt with 100 cases like yours."
"Insurance companies have investigators, house counsel, and millions of dollars. And you, as an injured person, are already starting behind the eight ball because [an experienced claims] adjuster has dealt with 100 cases like yours already," says Kovacs.
When involved in an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist, you should always retain counsel. Many of these motorists don't want to pay, and you may have only a limited time to file suit against an underinsured motorist. Certain insurance policy language states that if you wish to arbitrate with an uninsured motorist, you and the uninsured must reach an agreement within 60 days after the day of the accident. Kovacs recommends you hire a lawyer immediately after the accident, and to make sure the attorney you hire understands insurance law and policy language.
Two questions to ask yourself before retaining counsel are: "What settlement will I be happy with?" and "Am I going to do better or worse with an attorney?" The first question is easy to answer. The second is unforeseeable. "There's no way to tell if you'll do better or worse," Meckler says. The case's jurisdiction [meaning the laws where your case is based], your individual circumstances, and your willingness to settle are all factors that make the outcome of a case tough to predict.
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What to know
People don't know the process or the value of cases.
Another factor that can make the litigation process difficult is your own inexperience with legal processes. "Most claimants ask for either too much or too little," Meckler says. "People just don't know the process and they don't know the value of cases," which makes a resolution tougher.
Kovacs advises injury victims to find out how many personal injury cases a lawyer has handled in the past before hiring him or her. "Don't be shy [about asking]," he says. "You're not going to see an orthopedic surgeon to have heart-bypass surgery. Get an attorney who has some experience."
Claimants also don't often know to seek and document medical treatment right away after an accident. If you don't and your injuries are still with you six months later, claims of long-term injury are hard to prove because you don't have a doctor's documentation to back you up.
Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency basis and don't charge a fee for an initial consultation. However, expect to give up — at the very least — 25 percent of your settlement to your attorney.
Most lawyers take one-third of the settlement agreement, but if you go to trial, expect your attorney's cut to reach 40 percent. Some lawyers even take as much as 50 percent of the settlement after a trial.
In rare cases, lawyers will charge an hourly rate, but Kovacs and Meckler say 99 percent of the time attorneys will take one-third of the settlement. The fees attorneys can take may seem exorbitant, but they are within the limits of the law. Most states have authorized personal injury lawyers to take up to 40 percent of a settlement they negotiate.
How long till I get my money?
If you do go to trial, "Lord help us all."
Many severe auto accident cases that Meckler handles last about nine months; but that includes only injury-recovery time and arbitration, not the trial process. The injury-recovery process is the most time-consuming, but most important, lasting six months on average. "There's no reason the [settlement] can't be resolved within 90 days after that, unless you have to file a lawsuit," Meckler says.
Kovacs says that the general time frame for an injury settlement is about nine months. If you decide to file a lawsuit, but the suit is settled before it goes to trial, expect a resolution about 13 months after the accident. If you go to trial, "Lord help us all," says Kovacs about the snail's pace of litigation.
In medium-sized jurisdictions with populations of around 250,000, two-and-a-half years is not an unheard-of trial length. In larger jurisdictions, such as Cleveland, New York, or Miami, a verdict issued three or four years from the date of the accident is common.
Last updated Feb. 21, 2001