Meeting with an Attorney
After you decide to pursue an injury case, the first thing you should do is schedule a consultation with a competent personal injury attorney. It is very important that you consult with an attorney who specializes in personal injuries. Just as you would never go to a cardiologist for a broken bone, you would not get the best results from consulting a divorce lawyer about a car wreck injury. Many people prefer to start with lawyers recommended by friends or family who have used those lawyers before. Almost all personal injury lawyers offer free consultations -- in fact, you should avoid any injury lawyer who asks for high fees just to speak with you. At a consultation, you would tell the lawyer about your situation, showing the lawyer all supporting documentation including any accident or incident report and medical records. The lawyer should give you a professional opinion on how he or she sees the case with the information provided by you.
Evaluating the Attorney
When you meet with a lawyer, you can and should ask about the lawyer’s experience with your legal problem, past results, client communication policies and anything else you want to know. Many times, the information you have for the attorney is incomplete. This is normal. It takes time and investigation for a lawyer to obtain all the facts he or she needs to fully evaluate your case. For instance, the attorney needs to know if there is insurance available to pay damages on your claim and if so, how much? What are the long term effects of any injury you may have suffered? How might this injury specifically impact your particular activities given your job, exercise routine, hobbies, age and station in life? Beware of attorneys who promise you any specific results at an initial consultation. Typically, there is not enough information for an attorney to draw conclusions, and the attorney does not know the other party’s side of the story yet.
The Personal Injury Attorney Fee Contract
Once you have agreed to hire a lawyer, you should be presented with a client contract that specifies (among other things) the lawyer’s fee. Personal injury lawyers are generally paid on a contingency basis, which means they never ask to be paid at the beginning of the case. Instead, they are paid at the very end, from a percentage of the money you are awarded. This removes the high financial barriers erected by some other types of lawyers, allowing people of all incomes and backgrounds to have access to legal representation -- and thus, access to justice. The exact percentage of the payment depends on the case and when it ends, but varies between 25% and 45%. Typically, however, the fee will be 33% or the recovery before suit is filed and 40% after suit is filed. You have every right to ask questions and make sure you understand this contract before you sign it.
Investigating Your Case--The Attorney Earns his Fee
After you hire an injury attorney, he or she should take over day-to-day interactions with insurance companies, the people who injured you and anyone else involved in the case. Your attorney should keep you up to date, but his or her job is to negotiate on your behalf so that you can focus on getting the treatment you need and returning as much as possible to your life. In fact, insurance companies are not allowed to contact you directly once they know you have a lawyer. Your attorney should be gathering information on your case in order to understand your injuries, costs and damages. You will probably be asked for medical records, police reports and other paperwork, so try to save these documents. Gathering the facts may take some time, especially if the extent of your injuries is not yet clear.
How Much is My Claim Worth?
At this stage, your attorney’s goal is probably to settle your case -- that is, negotiate for a financial payment that fairly compensates you for your injuries. The vast majority of injury lawsuits settle long before they reach trial. Even if you have been dealing with a difficult insurance company, bringing in an injury lawyer might make a difference, because it implies that you are not afraid to go to court if you have to. Once your attorney forms an opinion as to what your case is worth, he or she will probably engage in several rounds of negotiation with the insurer. After each one, the attorney should present the insurance company’s offer, along with a recommendation on whether to take it. While the attorney’s recommendation is probably based on substantial experience with settlement talks, the decision is ultimately up to you.
Filing Suit in Court
If you cannot reach a fair settlement in pre-trial negotiations, your attorney will likely file a lawsuit. This does not mean he or she has stopped settlement negotiations, but now, there should be a deadline -- a court date. Once there is an active lawsuit, both sides will do another round of information-gathering, called discovery. During discovery, both sides are compelled to turn over information asked for by the other side. This can be difficult for some clients, because the other side may ask personal questions they would rather not answer in public. You may also be asked to give a deposition, which involves giving testimony under oath, though not in a courtroom. Your injury lawyer will prepare you for this and protect you from inappropriate or unlawful questions.
Discovery and Trial
During discovery, your injury attorney should be building a case to prepare for the possibility of going to trial. However, he or she is likely also still negotiating for a fair settlement. If settlement negotiations still fail, your case probably will end up in trial. At trial, each side presents the case it has been preparing -- first your side, since you would be the plaintiff, and then the defense side. You may or may not have to testify, depending on both sides’ judgment and your own preferences. The jury (or the judge, if you choose a bench trial with no jury) will listen and then retire to the jury room to decide the case. It can choose to award you exactly what you asked for, more, less or nothing at all.
Post Trial or Settlement
Even if a jury brought back a verdict in your favor, your case is not necessarily over. For one thing, the defense could choose to appeal -- ask a higher court to reconsider the jury’s verdict. It is more likely, however, that it will just take some time to clear up the loose ends in the case. In many cases, an organization that gave you medical treatment and must be paid has a legal claim to your settlement money, called a lien. Your injury lawyer, who should hold the money in a special escrow account, must make sure all of these liens are paid and other obligations are met before he or she can release the remainder to you. Once that has happened, your lawyer will simply write you a check, and congratulations -- the case is through! From start to finish, a case generally takes six months to two years, although some settle sooner and others have been known to drag on for years.
Finding the right representation is extremely important. Money is the only remedy the law allows for an injured victim, and a Plaintiff has only one opportunity to prepare his or her case in the optimal manner to maximize recovery. There are many attorneys that know the law. Make sure that you find one that also possesses the intangible qualities that you find important. Rapport is key. You are going to be working with this professional for perhaps years, sharing many of the most intimate details of your life. You have every right to fire your attorney if you are dissatisfied, but the dismissed attorney may also have the right to a contractual percentage of your claim, regardless of whether you have to pay the successor attorney a contingency fee as well. Choose well.