When to Represent Yourself in a Car Accident Claim

Handling your own claim comes with risks, but you can effectively represent yourself in some cases.

Updated by , J.D. | Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney
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  • Some car accident claims—especially claims involving serious injuries—require the knowledge and skills of an attorney. If your claim involves a lot of money, long-term injuries, or complex legal rules that you don't understand, you should hire a car accident lawyer.

    But if your car accident claim is fairly straightforward, you can get fair compensation without a lawyer. In this article, we'll offer some guidance on:

    • when you can handle your own car accident claim, and
    • when you might need a lawyer.

    When You Can Handle Your Own Car Accident Claim

    The American legal system is complex and dominated by lawyers who either get paid a high hourly wage or take a big cut of their clients' settlements and court awards. But most car accident cases don't end up in court. Most car accident cases settle through the insurance claim process.

    You can often handle your own insurance claim if you're willing to learn some basic information about the process, do some leg work, and stay organized. In fact, you might be able to get the same amount of compensation and a faster resolution by handling your claim yourself instead of hiring a lawyer and paying attorneys' fees. Here are a few key factors to consider before you decide whether to represent yourself in a car accident claim.

    You're Willing to Learn

    You have to be willing to represent yourself, or at least be willing to invest the time and effort necessary to learn how the process works. Handling your claim will take some time and effort.

    You can probably learn enough to negotiate a simple car accident settlement by reading books like How to Win a Personal Injury Claim by Joseph Matthews, and by reading articles on reliable legal websites, like Nolo.com and AllLaw.com.

    If your case ends up in mediation or small claims court, you'll need more time to get up to speed on procedural rules and prepare your case. If you have to go to regular court (often called "superior court"), count on spending much more time educating yourself. When you represent yourself in court, you're expected to understand the laws, rules, and procedures that apply to your case. The judge won't cut you slack because you aren't a lawyer.

    If you don't feel comfortable handling your own claim for whatever reason—you're too busy, you don't like dealing with insurance adjusters, you hate paperwork—read no further. Don't represent yourself. Contact a car accident lawyer and put your case in experienced hands.

    Accident Fault Isn't Contested

    Your claim will be much easier to handle on your own if the driver who caused the accident admits legal responsibility ("liability").

    The person who is at fault for an accident typically pays for accident-related losses, like medical bills, lost income, property damage, and pain and suffering. If you don't have to prove fault for the accident, you can focus on gathering evidence of the losses you have suffered (your damages) and negotiate fair compensation for those losses.

    But if the other driver denies fault and won't agree to pay you anything, you should probably contact a lawyer and get an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of your case.

    You Can Write a Demand Letter

    Negotiating most insurance claims involves exchanging a few phone calls and letters with an insurance adjuster. Adjusters typically have no more legal experience or training than you do. You can lay out your best argument for how the other driver's carelessness (negligence) caused your injuries and property damage in a demand letter. An effective demand letter is often the key to getting a satisfactory injury settlement after a car accident.

    You Have No Other Choice

    Sometimes you just don't have an option beyond self-representation. Maybe your claim is so small that no lawyer wants to represent you, or maybe your liability argument is so iffy that you can't get a lawyer to handle it on a contingency fee basis. If the alternative is dropping your claim, but you're convinced that you're right and you've got evidence to support your view, then by all means represent yourself.

    Think of representing yourself this way: If you started a new job tomorrow, you could probably learn to do some of the key things within a day or so, provided you make the effort to learn. But you probably won't learn the most complicated tasks within a few weeks or even a few months. The same is true of trying to learn how to handle an injury claim. You can learn much of it in a reasonable period of time, and you can handle many of the claim resolution activities yourself. But you can't learn to be a trial lawyer overnight. Do what you can for yourself and ask for help when you need it.

    When You Might Need Help From a Car Accident Lawyer

    Some cases require professional help. Hiring a good lawyer can be a worthwhile investment when your injuries are serious, when you're getting the runaround from an insurance company, or when your car accident case goes to trial.

    Your Injuries Are Long-Term or Permanently Disabling

    Don't represent yourself in a high-stakes case. If you try to handle your own $1 million claim and you lose, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's not a winning court strategy. The bigger your claim, the more you'll benefit from the help of a trained expert.

    If your car accident injuries include a broken bone, herniated disc, or pretty much anything more serious than a soft tissue injury (sprain, strain), you should strongly consider hiring a lawyer.

    Negotiations With the Insurance Company Stall or Fail

    In some cases, no matter how well prepared you are and no matter the strength of your claim, the insurance company will refuse to make you a reasonable offer. If you aren't willing to settle for less than your claim is worth, you might need to hire a lawyer. Sometimes a lawyer—and the credible threat of a car accident lawsuit—is enough to bring an adjuster to the negotiating table. The compensation a lawyer might be able to get for you, even considering the lawyer's fee, is often better than settling for too low of an offer.

    You're Going to Trial

    In most cases, you can probably handle your own insurance settlement negotiations, mediation, and small claims court appearances. But if you file a civil lawsuit in regular court, you might be getting in over your head. Lawyers spend years studying the law and rules of court before they step into a courtroom. If the person you're suing has a lawyer, you probably need one too.

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