If you were injured or suffered property damage in a car accident, you might be wondering exactly how an attorney can help you -- or whether it's a good idea to try to deal with the insurance company and settle the claim on your own. While much depends on the specifics and the complexity of your case, in general a lawyer can:
- communicate with the other driver’s insurer
- obtain the necessary evidence with respect to liability
- organize your medical records and bills
- communicate with your health care providers to obtain missing records
- work with your doctors to make sure they provide the medical information you need so that you can prove damages in your claim
- organize and present the evidence in order to prove liability and damages
- negotiate with lien holders on your claim (such as health, disability, or workers’ compensation insurers) to potentially reduce the amount of those liens, and
- negotiate a satisfactory settlement with the insurance adjuster or defense attorney.
Let’s look at a couple of these things in-depth.
Communicating with the Other Driver’s Insurer
In any personal injury case, your lawyer will open up a line of communication with the insurance adjuster for the other party (or parties) involved. The adjuster has the pocketbook, and so it is critical for a plaintiff’s lawyer to have good communications and a good relationship with the adjuster.
Obtaining Necessary Evidence of Liability
A good lawyer can help obtain all of the evidence that you will need to prove liability in a car accident claim. Although you may have already taken photographs of the accident scene, your lawyer will probably go back to the scene him/herself to see what it looks like. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, actually seeing the scene can be worth a thousand pictures.
The lawyer will make sure to get all of the accident reports in the case and will often speak with the investigating police officers and witnesses. A good lawyer will leave no stone unturned when it comes to obtaining evidence of liability. Learn more about Proving Fault for a Car Accident.
Obtaining Necessary Evidence of Damages
This is where a good lawyer can be essential to your case, especially when you've suffered significant injuries in connection with a car accident.
It is critical to obtain all documentation related to your injuries, but it isn't always easy to get your hands on those records and bills from health care providers. Although the records are technically yours, and you have an absolute right to them, sending medical records to patients and lawyers is just not a health care provider’s first priority.
Small doctors’ offices may not have the staffing or the time to respond to medical record requests on a timely basis. Large hospitals may have specific procedures that must be followed in order to respond to medical record requests. If you don’t follow their procedures (which they often don’t publicize very well), they simply won’t respond to your request.
Then, when the health care provider does respond to the request, the records may be incomplete. Any lawyer’s secretary or paralegal will tell you that they often have to request the same records more than once and that they have to follow up endlessly with the provider’s office.
Finally, it may turn out that the doctor did not use the “magic words” as to causation, prognosis, and disability in his or her notes. In order to successfully prosecute any type of personal injury claim, you must be able to prove, through medical evidence,
- exactly what your injury, disability, or physical limitation is, and
- that it was caused by the defendant’s negligence.
Doctors often don’t mention causation and extent of the injury or disability in their medical records. If this happens in your case, your lawyer will write the doctor and ask for a special letter in which the doctor gives his/her opinion that the accident caused your injury or disability and that, as a result of the accident, you will be hindered or disabled for a specific period of time.
Negotiating With Lien Holders
If you received benefits from a health, disability, or workers’ compensation insurer, that insurer will have a lien on your claim. A lien means that the lien holder gets paid before you do, out of any settlement or judgment you receive. A good lawyer will work with the lien holder to try to get the lien holder to reduce its lien. This is important work. Every dollar less that the lien holder takes is one more dollar that goes into your pocket.
Negotiating the Settlement
Finally, the lawyer will negotiate your settlement. This is hard work. Negotiation is a very specific skill. A personal injury lawyer is always going to be far better at settling a car accident case than a layperson would be. A good lawyer knows how much the case is worth and knows how to work the case and conduct the negotiations so as to get top dollar from the insurer.
When Can I Handle a Car Accident Claim Myself?
Most people don’t need lawyers for very small cases. If they are comfortable gathering the evidence and documents themselves and negotiating the settlement, then it is probably in their best interests to do that. Then, they save the 1/3 contingent fee that most personal injury lawyers take.
The question is, what is a small case? And where is the line between a small case that you can handle yourself and a larger case for which you absolutely should hire a lawyer? As a general rule, if your medical bills total more than around $3,000, or if you were out of work for more than a week or so, you should probably hire a lawyer.