How To Pick The Best Car Accident Lawyer

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Most car crashes are not “accidents.” An accident is an unavoidable and completely unintentional event. People accidentally leave the lights on. Driver error, mostly aggressive driving or operator impairment, causes about 98 percent of the car wrecks in the United States. These drivers know it’s dangerous to speed or drive drunk. But they do it anyway.

Responsibility is at the core of a negligence case. Every component of this case is designed around this concept. We all make mistakes, and we must all face the consequences of our mistakes. People who leave the lights on must pay higher utility bills. People who negligently cause collisions must pay damages.

How An Attorney Can Help With Your Car Accident Claim?

Evaluate Liability

Determining the type of error, and legal responsibility for the wreck, usually determines the amount of compensation available in a car crash case.

Not all driver error is negligence, or a lack of care. If Brenda was speeding 5mph over the limit when she struck another vehicle, most people, including most jurors, wouldn’t say that Brenda was negligent. If Brenda was speeding 20mph over the limit, that’s probably a lack of care.

Brenda’s duty of care varies in different states, and in different situations. Most drivers have a duty of reasonable care in most situations. They must be well rested, sober, and otherwise at their best before they get behind the wheel. Then, as my grandfather used to say, they must look out for th’ other fella as the drive.

Some commercial drivers, like truck drivers and Uber drivers, have a higher duty of care in some states. A higher duty of care makes it easier to prove a lack of care.

Additionally, there is a difference between fault and liability. Emergency responders and insurance adjusters use facts that are immediately available at the scene to determine fault. An attorney uses all the facts, as well as any applicable legal doctrines, to determine liability. A final liability determination, like the final score in a baseball game, is the only thing that counts.

What Does a Car Accident Lawyer Do?

Determining the Car Accident Claim Settlement Value

Once an attorney evaluates a case, an attorney collects evidence to establish the settlement value. A legal claim’s settlement value is like a new car’s sticker price. Both figures are the starting point for price negotiations.

Evidence is the most critical component of a settlement value. Usually, evidence in a car crash claim includes medical bills, witness statements, and the police accident report. This evidence, by itself, may not be enough to obtain maximum compensation.

Medical bills are a good example. These documents clearly establish what doctors did and how much these interventions cost.

Most states require victim/plaintiffs to prove the medical charges were reasonable. Furthermore, many medical bills only contain cold, clinical information. They don’t show what the victim was going through, physically or emotionally, at the time. Finally, prior medical bills don’t predict future medical expenses.

Attorneys often partner with independent doctors in these areas. Doctors testify that the expenses were reasonable, explain these procedures to jurors, and predict possible future medical costs.

Medical bills are usually the largest component of economic damages in a vehicle collision matter. These bills usually exceed $100,000 in a catastrophic (disabling or life-threatening) injury claim. Property damage is a close second. Economic losses also include lost wages, or lost work productivity.

To determine the full settlement value, which includes emotional distress and other noneconomic losses, most lawyers multiply the economic losses by two, three, or four, mostly depending on the facts of the case.  Use AskLegally’s Accident Settlement Calculator to get an estimate of what your case could be worth.

How Does a car Accident Claim Work?

If all legal issues in a case are crystal-clear, insurance companies have a duty to make reasonable settlement offers within a few weeks, at least in most states. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t the case, so insurance companies drag their feet.

If a lawyer must file legal paperwork, insurance company lawyers typically file procedural motions to block the plaintiff’s claim. As long as lawyers diligently evaluate cases and collect evidence, these motions almost always fail.

During the next phase of a car crash case, both sides put all their cards face up on the table, in terms of their claims and defenses. We outlined the basic elements of a plaintiff’s case above (duty, breach, cause, and damages). Comparative fault is one of the most common defenses in car crash claims.

This legal doctrine essentially shifts blame from the tortfeasor (negligent driver) to the victim. Let’s go back to Brenda. If she was speeding 25mph over the limit when she hit Jerry, who changed lanes illegally, they are arguably both at fault.

After they listen to the evidence, jurors must divide fault on a percentage basis, such as 50-50 or 60-40.

Most states are modified comparative fault states. If the tortfeasor is at least 50 or 51 percent responsible for the crash, the tortfeasor, or rather the tortfeasor’s insurance company, must pay a proportionate share of damages. Different rules apply in some other states.

Legal defenses, like contributory negligence, could lower a claim’s settlement value, just like high mileage on a used car lowers its asking price.

Other claims involve non-legal issues. Insurance company lawyers often challenge the amount of damages. If Jerry waited a few days to see a doctor, an insurance company lawyer might later argue that Jerry’s injuries weren’t that severe, and therefore he isn’t entitled to much money.

Resolving the Case

Almost all car wreck cases involve liability and/or damage issues. But, almost no car wreck cases go to trial. Instead, over 95 percent of civil claims, including injury claims, settle out of court.

The informal settlement negotiations that started before an attorney filed legal paperwork often bear fruit. Many insurance defense lawyers charge over $1,000 an hour. That tab adds up quickly. So, many insurance companies settle cases to cut their losses.

For one reason or another, other insurance companies are more stubborn. Such claims usually settle during mediation.

A third-party mediator supervises a settlement negotiation session, to ensure both sides negotiate in good faith. “Take it or leave it” is not a good faith settlement offer or counter-offer. Instead, both sides must be willing to compromise.

Mostly because of the duty to negotiate in good faith, and also because neither side wants to roll the dice at a trial, mediation is about 90 percent successful.

How To Settle A Car Accident Claim Without A Lawyer

So you want to know how to get money from a car accident without a lawyer?  Back in the day, the odds of you getting paid without an attorney were high.  In the 1980s, the plaintiff winning percentage was over 70 percent. Today, for reasons that are unclear, the plaintiff winning percentage has plummeted to less than 30 percent . If experienced lawyers have a hard time winning cases nowadays, quite frankly, schoolteachers and dental assistants have practically no chance at all.

During the heyday of litigation, as far as victim/plaintiffs were concerned, a plaintiff could make a few mistakes, even a few serious mistakes, and still win. Today, there’s very little margin for error. An attorney is no guarantee of success. But this partnership puts victims in a much better position to get money from a car accident than if they tried to do so without a lawyer.

A DIY Guide

Procedural and other rules are so complex that I won’t even try to get into them. Additionally, many key rules are unwritten. However, there’s a place where rules usually don’t matter.

All states have small claims courts, Justice of the Peace courts, or similar forums. In some areas, these courts hear cases that involve up to $20,000 in damages. Moreover, the normal rules of evidence and procedure don’t apply in small claims courts. These forums are a little like Judge Judy without the TV cameras. The judge hears each side of the story and makes a decision on the spot.

Generally, these “judges” don’t have to be lawyers. In 1990, an 18-year-old high school student won a JP election in Plano, Texas. Judge John Payton went on to serve for more than twenty years.

Because JPs often have little or no legal experience, they usually care little or nothing about comparative fault and other common insurance company legal defenses. That’s the upside. The downside is the relatively low jurisdictional amount. $20k probably won’t cover all economic damages, even in a relatively low-speed accident. This amount definitely won’t cover all noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Finding The Best Car Accident Attorney

So, if you don’t mind settling for less, you can get money from a car accident without a lawyer. If you want maximum compensation, you need an attorney. Good injury lawyers don’t grow on trees. To find the best one, look for the following qualities:

Experience

Law school teaches students how to think like lawyers. Practice experience teaches them how to act like lawyers. Furthermore, if an attorney has trial experience, you know s/he doesn’t always look for the easy way out.

Accessibility

Physical accessibility is often key. People who have been seriously hurt in collisions shouldn’t have to drive to the other side of town to see their lawyers. On a related note, your attorney, and not a non-lawyer paralegal, should quickly respond to your questions.

Dedication

Injury law is a special brand of law. Attorneys who lack dedication often lose interest in these cases and will do almost anything to avoid trial. So, beware of the attorney who handles a few cases on the side.

As you search for a lawyer, look hard but look fast. Injury victims have a limited amount of time to act. Book a free consultation with a lawyer using AskLegally.  Or check out our accident settlement calculator to see what your case might be worth.

Why Do I Need an Auto Accident Lawyer?

The biggest reason to consult an auto accident attorney is that, in most cases, there’s no such thing as a car “accident.” Driver error causes over 98 percent of the car crashes in the United States. Sometimes, this error is a one-off, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time thing. Much more often than not, this error is negligence, or a lack of care.

Nevertheless, for some reason, many car crash victims don’t even ask lawyers to review their cases. If you’re one of these people, hopefully one of the reasons listed below will resonate with you. It’s too bad that car crash victims need lawyers to force insurance companies to do the right thing. But that’s the world we live in.

  • The Insurance Company Has Lawyers Pay To Less

Usually within hours of a crash, the insurance company has a team of lawyers who look for ways to reduce or deny compensation. These high-price lawyers often charge more than $1,000 an hour. Insurance companies, which earn more than $1 trillion a year, can easily foot these legal bills.

  • Accident-Related Bills are Staggering

Speaking of expensive accident-related costs, the medical bills in a catastrophic injury case usually exceed $100,000. Most health insurance companies refuse to pay these bills, citing liability issues. Unless an attorney holds a tortfeasor (negligent driver) responsible for the crash, the victim could be left holding the financial bag.

  • Attorneys are Good Negotiators

It would be nice if the civil litigation process was like a Judge Judy episode. Alas, that’s not the way it is. The civil litigation process is long and complex. Furthermore, most judges have very little patience for people who don’t know the written and unwritten procedural rules. Only the best accident lawyer can guide victims through this minefield.

  • Accident-Related Conditions are Hard to Diagnose and Treat

Whiplash is a good example of this issue. The neck is very flexible. In most cases, that’s a good thing. If you were in a wreck, that’s a bad thing. Even a relatively low-speed collision could cause this serious, and often permanent, head-neck injury. Most diagnostic tests, like X-rays, don’t detect this soft tissue injury. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, this injury gets progressively worse in a hurry.

  • Accident Lawyers Don’t Charge Upfront Fees

Don’t let that $1,000 an hour figure scare you. Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. Instead of charging an hourly rate, the attorney takes a small percentage of the settlement.

  • Lawyers Connect Victims with Doctors

Roughly this same contingency fee arrangement applies to car crash doctors. Most lawyers have professional relationships with physicians who know how to diagnose, and treat, injury-related conditions. So, victims get help from top-notch doctors without paying anything upfront.

  •  Insurance Attorneys are Good Negotiators

Insurance companies don’t pay their lawyers upwards of $1,000 an hour to roll over and play dead. Instead, these lawyers are tough negotiators who know how the system works. Victims need an equally strong advocate in their corner, or else they’ll probably end up settling for less.

Five Things Insurance Companies Do to Lower Your Accident Settlement

In general, insurance companies spend money, usually on lawyers and investigators, to lower accident settlements. These companies have plenty of money. This industry earns over $1 trillion a year. A few specific techniques insurance companies use are outlined below.

Even the largest private law firm in the country cannot possibly match these financial resources. But Goliath was a lot bigger than David, and David took him out. In the same way, personal injury attorneys have right on their side. That makes a big difference.

1. Quick, Low-Ball Settlement Offers

Frequently, insurance adjusters show up in hospital rooms with settlement forms, even if the victims are barely conscious enough to sign their names. Adjusters know what to say in these situations as well. They act compassionately, even though they probably didn’t know the victim’s name a half hour previously.

People who are lying in hospital beds just want it to end. Adjusters cash in on this attitude, quite literally. Victims may think they’re putting the accident behind them, but in reality, the quick, low-ball offer just makes them financially responsible for bills they probably cannot possibly pay.

2. Contest Key Accident Issues

Liability, or legal responsibility for the injury, and damages, or the amount of compensation the victim should receive, are the two biggest issues in most injury cases.

Only a plumber should fix your sink and only a mechanic should fix your car. Likewise, only a lawyer should determine liability in an injury case. Never take an insurance adjuster’s word for it.

Prior medical bills and other economic losses, such as lost wages, are relatively easy to determine. Almost everyone can use a calculator. Future economic losses are much different. It’s difficult to determine how much more work the victim will miss and what future medical procedures will be necessary, if any. Insurance adjusters and lawyers only use the lowest possible figure. Anyone who has ever filed an insurance claim knows how that goes.

3. Comparative Fault

This legal doctrine, which is also called contributory negligence, may be the most common insurance company defense in personal injury matters. Essentially, an insurance company lawyer tried to shift blame for an accident from the tortfeasor (negligent actor) to the victim. Car crash victims drove recklessly, fall victims didn’t watch where they were going, and so on.
This defense is common because it’s usually effective. A tragedy like a dog bite or swimming pool drowning usually has multiple causes.

Contributory negligence laws vary in different states. Most jurisdictions are modified comparative fault states. If tortfeasors were at least 50 or 51 percent responsible for the injury, victims are entitled to a proportionate share of damages.

4. Sudden Emergency

These last two headings will be brief. These legal doctrines don’t come up very much. A sudden emergency is a completely unexpected situation, like a tire blow-out or hood fly-up, that makes a car crash or other injury unavoidable. This doctrine doesn’t apply to everyday hazards, like stalled cars or jaywalking pedestrians.

5. Last Clear Chance

Wrong-way wrecks often involve the last clear chance doctrine. All drivers have a duty of care at all times. If Fred has a chance to avoid a head-on crash with Barney, Fred could be liable for the wreck, even though he did nothing wrong and Barney was driving on the wrong side of the road.

When Is It Too Late To Get A Lawyer For A Car Accident?

The personal injury claim statute of limitations varies in different states. Generally, it’s two years. The countdown clock may or may not start ticking down immediately after the injury. Legally, victims have two years from the time they know the full extent of their injuries, and they connect those injuries with a tortfeasor’s (negligent party’s) conduct or misconduct, to file claims. This technicality, which is known as the discovery rule, usually has a significant impact in disease claims. More on that below.

Statutes of limitations go back to the earliest Roman and Greek legal systems. An SOL protects victims and tortfeasors alike. These laws encourage victims to strike while the iron is hot and file claims at the earliest available opportunity. Delay hurts the party with the burden of proof, which in this case is the victim.The SOL also protects tortfeasors. People who make mistakes should pay for them, but they shouldn’t have to look over their shoulders perpetually because of them.

Incidentally, this “delay hurts the party with the burden of proof” concept is why many criminal defense lawyers delay cases as long as possible.

Injury Claims

Most dog bite, fall, car crash, and other injuries are immediately apparent. Additionally, in most cases, the victim knows who caused the crash. Note that we used the word “most” in both those sentences.

Car crash and other injuries are usually hard to diagnose. Usually, adrenaline masks initial pain. Therefore, many victims don’t immediately realize the full extent of their injuries. Two years sounds like a long time. However, any delay creates time pressure. As a result, most attorneys must file legal paperwork, not to delay the process, but to protect the victim’s legal rights.

Compensation in a personal injury claim usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Disease Claims

Cancer and other disease claims usually stem from toxic exposure, dangerous products, or defective products. These cases are much more complex than other injury claims. The discovery rule, which was mentioned above, is just the beginning. However, that’s the part we’ll examine in this post.

Assume that, in 1992, Timmy was exposed to asbestos at school. Many asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, have at least a fifty-year latency period. If a doctor says Timmy has mesothelioma in 2042, he still has two years to file a legal claim, even though the SOL passed decades ago.

Now assume Timmy takes Drug X for six months in 2022. Five years later, the company adds a possible cancer warning to the Drug X label. However, Timmy isn’t taking those meds anymore, so he doesn’t see the warning. Fifteen years after that, in 2042, Timmy’s doctor says he has cancer. Once again, he still has two years to file a claim, even though the injury occurred a long time ago, and the company admitted responsibility almost as long ago.

If you think you might need some legal advice, book a free lawyer consultation with an experienced lawyer through AskLegally.com.

How Long Does A Car Accident Settlement Take?

The only honest answer to this question is “longer than you think.” Before meaningful settlement negotiations begin, a lawyer must set a claim’s settlement value . This figure is like a new car’s sticker price. Both numbers are the starting point for purchase price negotiations, or in the case of a personal injury claim, out-of-court settlement negotiations. The settlement value Texas two-step is discussed below.

Usually, the settlement value starts with the economic losses in a case, mostly medical bills. Then, depending on the evidence in the case, the strength of insurance company defenses, and a few other factors, most attorneys multiply this figure by two, three, or four to determine pain and suffering and other noneconomic losses.

Most lawyers try to settle most claims because, in most cases, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This aphorism basically means that a certain good thing is preferable to a possible great thing. If insurance company lawyers are willing to give victims most of what they want, it’s not a good idea to risk that good thing in the hopes of getting something better at trial. These proceedings, especially jury trials, are simply too unpredictable.

Out-of-court settlements benefit victim/plaintiffs in other ways as well. For example, in many cases, an agreed settlement cuts the litigation time at least in half. Everyone wants to end personal injury cases as soon as possible.

Collecting Evidence

Medical bills, the police accident report, and witness statements are usually the key bits of evidence in personal injury claims. Of these three, only the police report is available straightaway. In many cases, the police report is also the weakest of the three, as far as victim/plaintiffs are concerned.

Police reports are often incomplete or inaccurate. A first responder is not an accident reconstruction engineer. These individuals must do the best they can with the limited evidence available at the scene. Furthermore, if the victim was killed or seriously injured, only the tortfeasor (negligent party) gave a statement to officers. Tortfeasors rarely lie. But like the rest of us, they remember things selectively.

Initial medical records, like ER records, rarely indicate the amount of future medical expenses. If a lawyer doesn’t have evidence of these charges, the victim will probably be financially responsible for them. Additionally, most witnesses don’t voluntarily come forward at the accident scene. A lawyer, or a private investigator, must locate these individuals later.

Responding to Defenses

Building a case takes time. Solidifying that case, which means anticipating insurance company defenses, takes even more time.

Many defenses only apply in certain situations. If a well-prepared lawyer blocks these defenses, they don’t reduce the settlement value.

The sudden emergency defense in a pedestrian injury claim is a good example. Tortfeasors aren’t responsible for damages if they reasonably react to a sudden emergency. Insurance company lawyers often argue that a pedestrian who “darts out into traffic” is a sudden emergency. However, in most states and in most cases, that’s not true.

FAQ

What To Do After A Car Accident

Over five million car crashes occur every year in the United States. That works out to over 14,000 per day . Granted, a lot of these wrecks are low-speed collisions which appear to cause little or no damage. However, appearances can be deceiving. If you’ve been to a body shop lately, you know how expensive repairs can be, even if they don’t look bad. Furthermore, even low-speed collisions often cause whiplash and other serious head injuries. A minor shake could cause a serious injury.

Mostly because they sustain disorienting head injuries, many car crash victims aren’t thinking clearly after accidents. So, many victims unintentionally do, or don’t do, things that hurt their claims later. That’s understandable. I often say and do the wrong things, head injury or not. Victims who stick to a basic do/don’t list have a much better chance of obtaining maximum compensation for their serious injuries.

What’s at Stake

This compensation usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Victims need this compensation to pay medical bills, property damage bills, and other accident-related expenses. Furthermore, many victims miss several weeks, or more likely several months, of work.

Even if a third party, like a health insurance company, pays most or all of these expenses, a tortfeasor (negligent driver) should pay for these losses. If health insurance companies pay, we all pay, in the form of higher insurance premiums. That ain’t right.

On a related note, victims deserve this compensation, so they can move forward with life. Quite frankly, these victims need money to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Things to Do

If possible, victims should take pictures of damage, get the names and contact information for witnesses, make a note of nearby surveillance cameras, and otherwise collect evidence. These things often aren’t possible. Seriously injured victims are in no position to do any of these things.

However, all victims can see doctors, even if they don’t “feel” injured. Adrenaline usually masks pain. So, victims don’t know how badly they’re hurt until doctors evaluate them. This doctor probably shouldn’t be a family doctor. Many car crash injuries, like whiplash, are difficult to diagnose.

If you don’t know where to go, an attorney can refer you to a well-qualified doctor. Usually, this doctor charges nothing upfront.

Speaking of an attorney, victims should contact lawyers ASAP. We all know how hard it is to win a game if you must play from behind. So, the sooner you reach out to a lawyer, the better.

Book a free lawyer consultation through AskLegally.

Things to Avoid

In general, don’t say anything to anyone if you can avoid it. That includes posting items on social media.

Specifically, don’t give a statement to the other driver’s insurance company. Telephone adjusters might come across as affable types, like Jake from State Farm. However, these individuals are trained to pry incriminating statements from victims. That’s one reason these conversations are recorded “for quality and training purposes.”

Additionally, don’t say “I’m sorry” to the other driver. We usually apologize to express sympathy. But a lawyer knows how to twist a friendly apology into a liability admission. Don’t give an insurance company lawyer that chance.

What Should I Do After a Car Accident That Wasn’t My Fault?

Before we get to the substance of this post, we should talk about the difference between fault and liability in a car wreck, which is a little like the difference between a halftime score and a final score. Fault is a preliminary determination based solely on the evidence immediately available at the scene. Liability is a final determination based on all evidence, not just the facts at the scene, as well as any applicable legal doctrines.

Just like only the final score matters in a football game, the liability determination is the only one that matters in a car wreck claim.

Usually, a fault determination triggers an insurance company’s legal obligation to defend a policyholder in court. This obligation includes hiring a lawyer and paying all other litigation costs. Policyholders have legal obligations as well. Some of the major obligations, which vary slightly in different states, are outlined below.

Stop and Render Aid

Typically, it’s a misdemeanor to leave the scene of a non-injury accident and a felony to leave the scene of an injury accident. Both drivers have this legal obligation. It doesn’t matter whose fault the accident was.

Usually, both drivers must stop at the scene, or as near to the scene as possible, call for help if someone is hurt, help victims if possible, wait for emergency responders to arrive, and cooperate with them.

A brief word about helping victims. Most states have Good Samaritan laws, but they only go so far. Assume Amy t-bones Lisa, whose vehicle catches fire. If Amy tries to pull Lisa out of the car and fails, Amy usually isn’t legally responsible. However, if Amy starts to help Lisa and quits, Amy could be on the hook.

Contact Your Insurance Company

Most insurance companies require most policyholders to immediately report possible losses, including car crashes.

Watch what you say during these conversations. TV commercials imply that adjusters are affable types, like Flo from Progressive and her various sidekicks. However, companies train telephone adjusters to extract damaging information from policyholders. Other adjusters later use this information to deny claims.

Seek Medical Treatment

For medical and legal reasons, all crash victims should always see doctors as quickly as possible, and they should never refuse EMS treatment or hospitalization at the scene.

In the wake of a crash, adrenaline masks pain. Therefore, many people “feel” okay. Don’t let feelings fool you. Only a fully-qualified doctor can tell how badly a person is hurt. Furthermore, if drivers refuse treatment, a lawyer may later argue that the driver’s injuries weren’t very severe. Injury severity could affect the aforementioned fault vs. liability determination.

Have an Independent Lawyer Evaluate Your Case

As mentioned, reporting a claim usually triggers a duty to defend the policyholder in court. Also as mentioned, insurance companies always deny claims if possible. Quite simply, insurance companies lose money when they pay claims. If the company denied coverage, a driver could be financially responsible for attorneys’ fees, damages, and a host of other expenses.

Therefore, to be on the safe side, always ask a private lawyer to look at your case. In most cases, these initial consultations are free. A lawyer reviews not only the facts of the crash, but also your policy details. So, drivers are prepared for what comes next, even if they weren’t technically at fault for the wreck.

 

 

Picture of Bret Thurman

Bret Thurman

Bret is a former lawyer and full-time writer who knows how to simplify complex topics. He received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. For over twenty years, he handled a wide variety of cases, including criminal defense, personal injury, family law, and consumer bankruptcy.

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We’re a team of current and former lawyers, researchers, and entrepreneurs. We use our experience to share important information in an easy-to-understand way. Then, we connect you with the best lawyers to help with your unique situation. Armed with vital info, you can feel confident in your case.

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