Handling Your Own Accident Case
By John G. Stompoly

Most people involved in an auto accident are not out to win the lottery. All they want is to have their car fixed, their bills paid and something for what they went through.

That sounds reasonable, but the road to money in your pocket goes necessarily through the other driver’s insurance company. Sometimes that's a pretty easy commute and sometimes it is not. Sometimes you can travel it by yourself and sometimes you need some help. So how can you tell whether you need to hire a lawyer?

The best way is to sit down and talk to a lawyer before you do anything. It sounds odd to say that you should talk to a lawyer to figure out if you need one, but the fact is that every case is different and no single article can tell you every issue that is going to come up in your own case. Without a doubt, there are some cases where you should not proceed without counsel. On the other hand, people solve problems all the time without lawyers by doing their homework and using a little common sense. In some auto accidents, that may be all it takes to get it resolved. How do you know if your case is one of them?

Every negligence lawsuit has to answer three main questions:

  1. Did somebody do something wrong? This is the issue of negligence. If you've done nothing wrong, you don't expect to pay someone's damages just because they're injured. Similarly, just because you're injured doesn't necessarily mean the other driver did something wrong. But sometimes people do mess up and there is no question that someone else is liable. If that's your case, you have answered the first question "yes" and you can proceed to the next question which is: So what? That question may sound flippant, but it's actually pretty important. Stated more formally, the question is:
  2. Were you injured as a result of somebody doing something wrong? This is the issue of causation. When another driver runs a red light (negligence) and hits you, you can collect for damage to your car, but can only collect for personal injury if a doctor says you were injured because of the accident.  You cannot blame the other driver for health problems you had before the accident, although you do have a claim if those conditions were made worse by the accident.  If your injuries were caused by the accident, the answer to the second question is “yes” and you can proceed to the third question which is:
  3. What is your claim worth? This is the issue of damages and probably the most problematic thing for people to figure out.  There is no “blue book” for the value of injuries. Beware of the insurance adjuster who tells you the "market price" for a broken arm is X dollars.

    The damages in a case are the sum total of a number of different elements:

a.      The nature and extent of the physical and psychological injuries you suffered because of the accident. Even a minor accident occasionally causes someone to suffer a psychological injury such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Be sure you report all of your symptoms to the treating doctor even if you do not think those symptoms were caused by the accident. Try to make sure the doctor or her nurse documents all of your complaints.  If your injury is not noted in the doctor’s records, you will not be compensated for that injury.

b.      The reasonable charge or reasonable value of the medical care you received as a result of the accident. Get bills from all the providers who treated you (Don't forget the ambulance). Remember, you need the full charge or value of the services. You may have only paid the deductible, but that’s not what the services cost. Get the full bill from the provider's business office.

c.   All other reasonable expenses you incurred as a result of the accident that you would not have incurred had the accident never happened.  Did you fill the prescription? Did the doctor tell you to buy a bandage wrap? Ice packs? Heating pad? Did you have to pay anyone to do something you would have done yourself if the accident hadn't happened such as housecleaning or yardwork?  If so, keep the receipts.  All of those are expenditures you wouldn’t have made but for the accident.  They are part of your claim.

d.   Any time you lost as a result of the accident, even if you did not lose wages. Have your employer provide a statement on the company letterhead, saying you work for the company, how much you're paid and how much time you lost because of the accident.  You are entitled to the gross (not take home) dollar amount of the lost time even if you did not lose money because, for example, you used sick leave or vacation.

e.      The amount necessary to fairly compensate you for the pain, suffering and aggravation you had to endure as a result of the injuries you sustained in the accident. This is one of the toughest for people to figure out and rightfully so.  How do you determine the value of pain?  Are there things you couldn’t do as well after the accident that you could do before?  How long were you unable to do them?  How often did you do them before the accident?  Did activities of daily living hurt?  How long?  Did you have to give up certain activities altogether?  This is going to require some pretty serious thought.

Once you have your documents in hand, you're ready to make a demand. A demand is a letter to the insurance company which tells them what happened to you, explains how your life has been affected by the accident and tells them what amount of money you believe will compensate you for your injuries. When the company receives the demand, it will read it and look over the documents you have attached. If you and the company agree on the amount they will pay and the amount you will accept, you have settled the case. The company will send you two documents-a check and a release. A release is an agreement that you must sign saying that you will not ask the company for any more money for this accident. Ever. When you sign the release and get the check, the claim is settled.

All cases should be so easy. The truth is that not all of them are. But if you have (1) an accident with clear liability, that is, everyone agrees the other driver was at fault, (2) a straightforward injury (not involving surgery or the need for future treatment), (3) a willingness to do some homework in tracking down medical records and such, and (4) a willingness to negotiate with the insurance company, you may be able to handle the case without hiring a lawyer.

There's one more requirement: Patience. Many people who decide to handle their own case come back to a lawyer because they are tired of (a) not having their calls returned, or (b) being put on hold, or (c) running around gathering records, or (d) being passed from one adjuster to another, or (e) not being believed, etc. For many people, the aggravation alone is reason enough to have someone else do it.

If you don’t know how much money to demand or if you get an offer and don’t know whether you should accept, call me.  I will tell you how much you should demand and how much you should accept.  No charge.

If I think your case is worth more than the insurance company has offered, I will represent you and only take a fee based on the amount I receive over the amount you were offered.  You have nothing to lose.

Now, since we're not in the business of turning away business, let me also say I almost always get more for the client, even after my fee is deducted, than she can get on her own.  Further, there are some cases where you should definitely have a lawyer. For example:

No single page - not even a single web site - can cover all the issues that may arise in an accident claim. For example, we haven't even discussed the Statutes of Limitations. They're different depending on the circumstances of your case. We want you to know your options. If you have any questions at all about what to do or which option is right for you, talk to me.  It’s free.    

And remember: When I agree to handle your case, if I get nothing for you, I get nothing.  Not only no fee, no reimbursement for money I spent to investigate and develop your case.

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