Unintentional injuries are one of the most common causes of death and disability across the United States. An unexpected injury can be a jarring experience. It can change life as you know it in the blink of an eye. If your injuries are because of someone else’s actions, you may search for answers. Why did this happen? What can I do? What comes next? These questions and your feelings are normal responses to difficult circumstances that follow an unexpected injury.
The more information you have, the better equipped you are to make decisions about your future following an injury. If your injuries resulted from someone else’s negligence, you may have a case for monetary damages, or legal compensation. To recover this compensation, though, you need to take action, and that may include filing a lawsuit in court.
A personal injury attorney can help you if you have to take your case to court to recover compensation. However, all parties to a case generally want to avoid the tedious, long process of a lawsuit and will try to settle. Whether an attorney recommends taking your case through the court system depends on all the unique features of your accident injury case.
The basics of a personal injury case
We all incur injuries at one point or another. Minor injuries are normal and happen all the time. In such cases, we bandage the injury (or go to the doctor), fix whatever caused the injury, and go about our day. There’s a difference between this kind of normal, uneventful injury and injuries that fall under personal injury law.
When it comes to personal injury cases, generally you must consider three factors:
- Were you injured? This is basic. Did you suffer a significant, actual injury, either physical or emotional? If there were no injuries, there is no case.
- Did someone else cause your injuries? When you open a personal injury case, it is a request for costs from the person who caused your injuries. The at-fault party may be a person, corporation, or governmental institution. You can generally hold a person liable to pay you damages if you can prove their actions or failure to act caused your injuries. Even if the other party is only partially at fault, they may hold financial liability for your injuries. In some cases, more than one person or entity may hold financial responsibility.
- Did your injuries cause you actual harm? You may recover compensation in a personal injury case by tallying up your actual expenses and valuing other impacts from an injury. These may include the cost you experience missing time from work while recovering from your injury and the medical bills for that recovery. They may also include compensation for the pain and suffering you’ve experienced because of your accident injuries.
If you can answer yes to all three questions, you may have a personal injury case and should talk to a personal injury attorney.
Common cases personal injury attorney handle include:
- Car and truck accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Boat accidents
- Slip and fall accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Medical malpractice injuries
- Catastrophic injuries
- Wrongful death
Do I need a lawyer for my personal injury case?
If you talk to any insurance company, they will tell you that you don’t need a lawyer for a personal injury case. Of course, the insurance company has an interest in fighting against your case, so you should automatically be skeptical of such advice. You should understand right away when bringing a personal injury claim that insurance companies are in the business of making money, so they will do anything to deny or minimize your claim.
While the law does not require you to have a lawyer to bring a personal injury claim, there are many advantages to even just consulting an attorney about your case. And, if you go on to have a lawyer represent you, you’ll have someone in your corner who knows the law and knows the tactics the insurance company may use to try to limit your claim.
Some of the things you can expect your attorney to take care of include:
- Collecting and organizing evidence
- Talking to the insurance company
- Analyzing your expenses and impacts to estimate the value of your case
- Consulting with expert witnesses
- Reviewing and offering advice on any settlement offers
- Preparing for court and representing you in all proceedings
Do personal injury attorneys go to court?
The overwhelming majority of personal injury cases settle out of court. Trials cost time and money for all parties, so in most cases, it makes the most sense for the parties to agree outside of court. That said, there are some cases where it will make sense to take your case through the court system. This is why you must make sure your attorney has trial experience before you bring them your case.
One of the biggest reasons personal injury cases go to court is that the insurance company’s offer is too low. By the time you reach settlement negotiations with the insurance company, you and your attorney should have a good understanding of what you think your case is worth. After a few rounds of back and forth with the insurance company, you should have a pretty good idea if their valuation of the case is anywhere close to the number you need. If the insurance company is unwilling to come close to what you need, you may have to take your case to court to get the compensation you deserve.
Even if you do decide to file your case in court, you can still settle with the other party at any point until the court renders a final decision.
Four benefits of settling out of court
During a personal injury case, the ultimate decision of whether to proceed through court is yours. Your attorney can advise you to settle, but you can nonetheless decide to file in court. And the insurance company can’t stop you from filing in court.
That said, you might want to settle out of court because:
- Juries are unpredictable: If you choose to take your case to court, a jury or a judge will decide the outcome. You might think you have a strong case. Your attorney might think you have a strong case. But if the court sees things differently, you might get less than what the insurance company originally offered.
- Trials take longer: When you choose to take your case to trial, your schedule is in the hands of the court. If you’re lucky, you may get a relatively quick turnaround. However, it is not unusual for trials to take a long time.
- Trials cost more: Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis. That means they take their fee from a certain percentage of your final money award. When you choose to take your case to court, the terms of your agreement with your attorney may increase the percentage they take, to cover the cost and time it takes to prepare for and represent you in court. In addition, you will incur extra court costs, such as costs for expert witnesses.
- You may endure less stress: There’s no getting around it—no matter how prepared you are or what the outcome is, trials are stressful. You may have to testify and answer questions from the insurance company’s attorney and you have no control of the outcome.
How do I know if the insurance company’s offer is enough?
The factor that will likely determine whether your case goes to court is the insurance company’s settlement offer. You can typically assume the insurance company’s first offer will be much lower than their final offer. But how do you know if their final offer is enough? At the end of the day, it comes down to what you feel is sufficient to cover your expenses as impacts.
Each case is different, and there is no guarantee as to what damages you may recover, but common damages include:
- Medical bills: According to healthcare.gov, the average cost of a 3-day stay at a hospital is $3,000. The cost to fix a broken leg? $7,500. A serious injury can require extensive medical treatment or long hospital stays. This can quickly become prohibitively expensive. When another person’s negligence causes your injuries, you can fight for them to pay your resulting medical bills. For disabling injuries, you may have a right to future medical costs.
- Lost income: A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found approximately 75 percent of private-sector workers get paid time off. Of these, the average amount of PTO is eight days. Eight days is often not enough to get treatment and recover from a serious injury. And, even so, you shouldn’t have to use your vacation time to recover from any injury. A personal injury suit can help you recover wages from the first day you miss work until the day you return to work. If your injuries are so severe that you cannot return to your previous position, you may request future lost wages.
- Pain and suffering: Most serious injuries don’t just heal and go away on their own. Accident injuries often cause great pain, frustration, and emotional distress. A personal injury case can take these costs into account. Common damages cover anxiety, depression, PTSD, pain, disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment. Pain and suffering is a non-economic cost you can determine by considering the overall effect of your injuries on your quality of life.
- Wrongful death: Sadly, serious accidents may result in death. There is no way to put a dollar amount on someone’s life. The purpose of a wrongful death claim is to account for the expenses and impacts the victim’s family incurs from their loved one’s death. These costs may include funeral and burial costs, outstanding medical bills, and lost wages or loss of services. The victim’s family may also recover pain and suffering costs related to loss of companionship, loss of guidance, and mental pain and suffering.
Once you and your attorney review your damages, you should have a fairly rough estimate of a range of compensation you are willing to accept. The range may change as your medical condition develops. This is why you need to continually evaluate your needs and what you hope to get from your case. Never accept an offer or sign anything from the insurance company without talking to a lawyer.
How long do I have to decide whether or not to take my personal injury case to court?
While you don’t have to accept a settlement offer from an insurance company that you’re not comfortable with, you do need to decide whether to accept or to go to court promptly. Every state time-bars personal injury cases, meaning you must file them within a certain deadline. Some state laws provide two years, others five years, others somewhere in between, with exceptions. You might not know exactly how much time you have to file, so talk to a lawyer to make sure you don’t lose your chance to recover compensation for your injuries.
Why should you talk to an experienced personal injury attorney?
The decisions you make immediately following a serious injury can dictate your future. Unfortunately, you cannot rely on the insurance company to be fair and offer you a settlement commensurate with the actual costs of your injuries.
Personal injury attorneys work for the client and push back on low settlement offers. If you need to go to court to get what you deserve, a personal injury attorney can help with that too, and help put together the strongest case possible to get a court award for damages.
If someone else’s negligence injured you or someone you love, the law may entitle you to financial compensation. Don’t try to navigate this process on your own. To learn more about your legal rights and the steps you should take, contact an experienced personal injury attorney.