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 time.
The complex language of insurance policies and the hardball tactics used by some claims adjusters can often leave you feeling that you’re not getting all to which you are entitled. And, if you’ve been injured in an accident, there may come a time when you conclude you need more ammunition to fight your cause — in other words, a lawyer. Here’s how to decide if hiring a personal injury lawyer makes sense for you.
Insurance companies focus on dollars, not victims
If an insurance company offers you a dollar amount, what should you do? Steve Meckler, a personal injury lawyer in Elyria, Ohio, says that if you’ve been seriously injured (broken bone, internal injuries or worse), 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 it’s 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.”
“Everything in life is negotiable,” says John Kovacs, another Ohio lawyer who handles personal injury cases. “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 understand the litigation process to make a good decision about whether to take an insurance company’s offer.
When not to hire a lawyer
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 weren’t 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, even if there are minor injuries.
When to find counsel
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 if you’ve been seriously injured in an accident, go 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.
“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.
If you’re involved in an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist, you should always retain counsel, probably as soon as you can after the accident. Many uninsured motorists don’t want to pay, and you may have only a limited time to sue one of these drivers. Some insurance policies have language that state 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 that you make sure the attorney you hire understands insurance law and policy language.
Two questions to ask before hiring a lawyer are:
“What settlement will I be happy with?”
“Am I going to do better or worse with an attorney?”
The first question is easy to answer; the second is much harder. “There’s no way to tell if you’ll do better or worse,” Meckler says. The case’s jurisdiction (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.
What to know about the process
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.” Result: Getting a resolution is tougher.
Kovacs advises that, before hiring a lawyer, find out how many personal injury cases a lawyer has handled. “Don’t be shy (about asking),” he says.
Claimants also don’t often know to seek and document all 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. You need a doctor’s documentation to back you up.
A third: the lawyer’s cut of the settlement
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% 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%. Some lawyers even take as much as 50% of the settlement after a trial.
In rare cases, lawyers will charge an hourly rate. The fees attorneys can take may seem exorbitant, but they are within the limits of law. Most states have authorized personal injury lawyers to take up to 40% of a settlement they negotiate.
How long until I get my money?
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.
Let’s say you decide to sue. It may be 13 months after the accident before you see a realistic settlement. If you go to trial, “Lord help us all,” says Kovacs. Trial reduces final disposition to a snail’s pace.
In medium-sized jurisdictions with populations of around 250,000, it may take 2½ years before a trial is completed. In larger cities, such as Cleveland, New York, or Miami, a verdict issued three or four years from the date of the accident is common.