Not every person needs or would benefit from hiring an attorney for every accident case, particularly smaller cases.
What is a small accident case? There are no hard and fast rules, but usually a small case involves an accident with no damage, or little damage, to the vehicle and where the treatment and/or injuries last no more than a few months. In a small case, the medical bills usually don’t exceed a few thousand dollars and the injuries are not usually considered permanent.
These are cases that can often be settled or resolved yourself without the assistance of an attorney. Many lawyers tell prospective clients that it may not be cost effective to use an attorney for a smaller case because a larger portion of the recovery may go to paying attorney fees and you may be left with very little afterwards. In small cases, you may have just as good a chance at recovering a settlement near or equal to one that the attorney can get for you.
If you feel comfortable gathering evidence and records to support your claim and negotiating with the insurance adjustor, then you may not need the assistance of an attorney.
Consider the following two things when deciding whether to represent yourself:
- How bad are the injuries? If you suffered minor injuries that aren’t life-altering, the insurance company may not put up much of a fight. But be aware that as the damages increase, the insurance adjuster will try and minimize the amount.
- Who was at fault? If it’s obvious that the other party in your claim was at fault — and you have evidence, police reports or witness statements to prove it — you may find it easy to prove fault and collect a satisfactory injury claim. But if the case isn’t cut-and-dry, you may find it difficult to prove all the facts, especially if the other side hires a lawyer to contest.
Critical First Steps
Before you begin calculating your damages or draft a demand letter, it’s imperative that you take care of these things:
- Take pictures/video of the property damage, accident scene, and injuries
- Obtain a copy of the police report
- Seek medical treatment ASAP
- Use your personal injury protection (PIP) policy to pay initial bills, then use your health insurance
- Get copies of all your medical records and bills
- Be aware of the statute of limitations in your state
Know Who You’re Dealing With
Did you know that the day you were injured, you essentially entered a war zone with the insurance industry? You need to be aware that the insurance claims adjustor will utilize any means necessary to pay out as little as possible, even on legitimate claims.
The claims adjustor accomplishes this in several ways:
- Delaying the process
- Requesting unnecessary information
- Disputing the medical treatment
- “Nickel and diming” the medical charges
- Telling you not to hire an attorney
- Misrepresenting insurance policy benefits
- Acting as your friend
- Making false promises
Common Mistakes Made
Over the years, attorney Chris Davis of the Seattle-based Davis Law Group, P.S., has compiled a list of common mistakes that derail accident cases. These mistakes are based on his extensive experience handling accident claims, as well as his discussions with judges and jurors following trials. Some of the most common mistakes are as follows:
- Waiting several weeks or months to receive medical treatment
- Failing to obtain information about the other driver or failing to call police from the scene
- Giving too much information to the insurance company after the accident
- Hiding previous injuries from the insurance company
- Making damaging statements about the case to medical provider
- Failing to keep up with medical treatment or "gaps" in treatment
- Misrepresenting activity level during the physical recovery process
The total injuries and losses that you incur during a personal injury incident are defined as “damages.” In general, there are two types of damages: economic and non-economic.
These are specific monetary costs associated with an injury that can be easily proved using documentation.
Medical bills: If you underwent treatment, had a hospital stay, or now have physical therapy, the defendant must pay the costs. The medical portion of damages includes everything that you received during treatment, as well as any future treatment.
Lost wages: This is the amount of money you lost in the past, present, and future as a result of your injuries. This includes the actual hospital stay, as well as missed work due to doctor’s visits and physical therapy.
For example, let’s say you make $60,000 a year and have been injured in a minor accident. Take your yearly salary and divide it by 2,080 (number of weekday work hours in a year), then multiply by the number of hours you missed due to your injuries. So if you missed four days of work, your calculation would be: ($60,000 / 2,080) x (8 hrs x 4 days) = $923.08 (your total lost wages).
If you are paid by the hour, take the amount of your hourly wage and multiply it by the number of hours you missed due to the accident.
These are costs associated with an injury that cannot be easily proven, and must be estimated using different, more subjective, variables.
Pain and suffering damages can be highly subjective. How much pain did you experience during and after the accident? Two people that sustain the exact same injury may go through drastically different amounts of pain.
Everyone is different. But the courts have determined many different factors related to pain and suffering:
- Recovery time needed
- Location and severity of the scarring
- Severity of the injury
- Consideration for ongoing consequences
- Socio-economic or political factors
- Your personality/believability in front of a jury
Sending The Demand Letter
This is when your claim becomes serious for the insurance company. While many people are eager to send out a demand letter soon after their injury, it’s best to send the demand letter only after you’ve taken a thorough look at the impact the injury and what it’s done to all aspects of your life.
In the demand letter, you’ll tell the insurance company:
- Exactly how and why the insurance company or defendant is liable for your injuries
- The full extent of your injuries and resulting medical treatment
- What financial losses you incurred as a result of the accident/injuries
- Any and all losses you’ve suffered, including medical bills, missed work, and pain and suffering
Tips for your demand letter:
- Type your letter
- Include all the facts
- Be polite
- Ask for exactly what you want
- Keep copies
- Use certified mail
Click here for an in-depth look at what goes into a demand letter + a sample demand.
Negotiating A Settlement
If you’ve ever been in a negotiation, no matter how small, you probably realize the first offer from the other side won’t be that great. On the flip side, it’s OK to demand too much yourself at first. This gives you room to negotiate.
If the insurance company’s counter offer is satisfactory, you’re allowed to accept it, sign a release and close the claim. If you don’t accept, you can continue to negotiate with the adjuster until you arrive at a number you’ll accept. Remember, you’re looking for a fair settlement — not out to win the lottery. While you may receive more in front of a judge or jury, out-of-court settlements are quicker and easier, and you’ll avoid court fees and litigation costs.
For more on dealing with insurance adjusters, you may want to check out the following articles: