DO YOU NEED A LAWYER?
As a lawyer, my first (perhaps greedy) instinct when asked by a potential client whether they need a lawyer is “of course.” However, this might be a little harsh, as I believe that sometimes people can safely settle some very small claims on their own. I think that a good rule of thumb for deciding whether to hire a lawyer is that if you have to go to a doctor more than a couple of times, or if your doctor has prescribed physical therapy or chiropractic care, or if your medical bills exceed a couple thousand dollars, or you feel that you are permanently or seriously hurt, then you should definitely consult a lawyer and probably should hire one. On the other hand, if you have an accident, you go to the doctor once or twice, you have some pain at first but it all goes away fairly quickly, and your doctors are confident that you will not likely have any future problems, then you may not need a lawyer IF you can get the insurance company to pay you for your bills and give you something reasonable left over for your pain and trouble. If you are unable to reach a reasonable settlement, hire a lawyer. Even if you choose not to hire a lawyer to represent you in your claim, because of the different laws of different states, particularly regarding time limitations for filing suits, you should at least contact a lawyer and discuss your claim, no matter how small you think it is. Who knows, maybe you will find out that your claim is more complicated than you thought and that you really should have a lawyer represent you.
One of the most important things to remember about settling a claim for personal injuries is that you must not settle your claim too soon (of course,it is VERY IMPORTANT that you do not settle your claim too late either by waiting until after the time limit in your state). Many people do not realize that once you settle your claim and sign a release from an insurance company, your claim is over and CANNOT be reopened. In other words, if the insurance company offers you a cash settlement a few days after the accident, you accept it, and then find out you are going to need many costly surgeries that will not nearly be covered by the settlement- TOO BAD. In some states, by law, an insurance company cannot ask a claimant to sign a release within a certain period of time after the accident, and if they do, the agreement may be cancelled by the claimant. Check with an attorney or the insurance commissioner of your state to see if there is a waiting period in your state. However, if the insurance company has complied with laws and regulations regarding valid settlements and releases, once you settle, you cannot change your mind or re-open the claim or file a lawsuit unless you can prove that the insurance company committed an act of fraud that caused you to settle and sign the release. That is why it is very important not to settle a claim until you are absolutely convinced (as well as you can be with your doctor’s advice) that you know what your injuries are and what care, if any, you will need in the future. If your doctor says that you need to take some time to heal and then come back to see if you have any long term problems, do not blow off his or her advice and settle your claim until the doctor has released you (again, though, I cannot stress enough that you need to make sure you do not miss your legal deadline to file a lawsuit (at least talk to a lawyer about this).
You should also be aware that insurance adjusters can be a lot like car salespeople. Have you ever been to a car dealership, found a car you liked, and the salesperson tried to get you to buy it right away because “there were some people looking at it earlier in the day and they are coming back in a couple of hours to buy it,” or “I don’t know if the price we’re offering will be available after today.” As you probably know, this is usually bunk. There is not likely anybody coming back to buy the car in two hours and the price will probably still be good tomorrow. Similarly, insurance adjusters will sometimes try to use sales techniques to try to get you to settle quickly. You cannot blame them. The quicker they settle your claim, the more likely it is that you will not hire a lawyer, or that they will get you to sign away your rights before you find out that you need back surgery. Either way, they save their employer lots of money. So, if the adjuster tells you that their settlement offer is only available for one week or that you will get less money if you hire a lawyer, or that it is not in your best interest to wait until your doctor releases you from care, DO NOT believe them. Insurance companies are generally required to make fair settlement offers when an accident is the fault of their insured. That requirement applies whether you settle today or six months from now (assuming the time limit in your state has not expired). In fact, if the adjuster’s tactics are to the point that you feel intimidated, you should contact a lawyer, or perhaps contact your state’s insurance commissioner to make a complaint. It makes sense that the adjuster would prefer that you not hire a lawyer, but if they actually tell you that you should not hire a lawyer, chances are it is a sign that you probably should hire a lawyer, because they may not be a very scrupulous adjuster. These tips are warnings about potential unscrupulous adjusters. However, you should by no means think that all adjusters are unscrupulous. In fact, just like there are many good car salespeople, there are many adjusters, perhaps even a majority, who play by the rules and act reasonably toward claimants. However, you have to be prepared in case the one you are assigned is not.
Keep in mind that you may usually go ahead and settle your property damage claim, separately from your injury claim, within a few days or weeks after the accident. This includes settlement for the repairs to your car (or for the car’s value if it is totaled), rental car fees, as well as damages to any property that was in the car. In most states, the amounts of money that an insurance company must pay you for a damaged or totaled car are specifically regulated by law. Therefore, it is less likely that you will be treated unfairly in a property damage settlement as compared to a bodily injury/pain and suffering settlement where fair settlements are more difficult to calculate. Nevertheless, if you have ANY doubts about your property damage claim, it does not hurt to consult a local attorney to get his or her opinion as to whether you are being treated fairly (when a client hires me to handle their personal injury claim, I usually have them handle their own property damage claim but if the insurance company gives them a hard time, I normally handle it for them with little or no extra charge depending on the amount of time I spend on it - I never charge them my one-third percentage fee on the property damage portion of the claim). Also, make sure that anything you are asked to sign only refers to property damage and not injuries, pain and suffering, and the like (if there is any language at all that you do not understand, have a lawyer look at it). I have never seen an insurance adjuster try to pull a fast one in this way, but that does not mean it never happens, so be careful. Often, the insurance company will issue a check for property damage and not even bother with having you sign anything because property damage settlements are usually fairly straightforward.
If you have any doubts about any issue, whether it relates to injuries, property damage, or any other aspect, call a lawyer. It is rare that a personal injury lawyer charges for an initial phone consultation or an initial in-person consultation. To be certain, you can always take the easy step of calling and asking in advance whether there is a consultation fee.