According to the National Safety Council, around 4.8 million people incur injuries in traffic accidents that require medical treatment each year in the U.S. The total annual cost of motor vehicle accident injuries in the nation is estimated at $473.2 billion. Because human error is the most common contributing factor in car accidents, this means there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have incurred significant impacts and expenses as the result of someone else’s negligence.
Every state in the nation has laws about the right of car accident victims to seek compensation for the monetary and psychological costs of their injuries through filing a claim against the at-fault party’s auto liability insurance or even through filing a lawsuit in court. Here is a look at the car accident claims process.
Hiring an Attorney
There are many online pages where you can read instructions about what to do after you’ve been in an accident, such as exchanging insurance information with all other drivers involved, collecting the contact information of witnesses and the investigating officer, and seeking prompt medical attention for your injuries. However, many people injured in an accident find themselves asking after they’ve done all these things: Now what?
What happens next is that you attend a free case evaluation with an experienced personal injury attorney who is licensed to practice law in your state. While no one is required to hire an attorney to seek compensation through the personal injury claims process, having an attorney’s experience, guidance, and professional services is crucial to obtaining the compensation you need.
Personal injury lawyers typically obtain about seven years of education to prepare for their profession, including four years of undergraduate studies to earn a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field and another three years in law school to earn their Juris Doctor degree. They then take and pass the bar exam and gain real-life experience assisting personal injury claimants as they seek compensation. The education and experience help them develop a deep understanding of the law and the type of compensation that claimants need after suffering significant injuries.
Even if you went to law school and have experience as a personal injury lawyer, the claims process will likely present difficult, if not overwhelming, complexities.
Even lawyers hire other lawyers to take their cases.
There is a lot of legwork to be done in gathering documentation, and an attorney has a legal team to assist with that. Beyond simply going through the steps listed below, your attorney is also a great source of guidance and information. It is important to remember that while your attorney can assist you with the process, they can’t make decisions for you. All of the important decisions to make, such as accepting a settlement offer or filing a lawsuit, are yours.
Can You Afford an Attorney?
In a word: Yes. Personal injury attorneys use a contingent fee billing method to ensure that anyone who needs assistance can afford it. The contingent fee means that payment for your attorney’s services is contingent upon receiving compensation for your claim. Your attorney is not paid for their services if you lose the case.
When you hire an experienced car accident lawyer to help you with your claim, they will ask you to enter into a contingent fee agreement with them. This legally binding agreement outlines the services they will provide for you and designates a percentage of the compensation you receive as payment for their work.
The legal team can begin working immediately on your claim without waiting for a retainer. They can continue working without worrying about billing you by the hour or ensuring you’re current on your payments. You will not be billed.
After your claim, your attorney will receive compensation from your settlement agreement or court award. They will place these funds in a trust. If medical liens have been placed on the award by healthcare providers or insurers, your attorney will settle those claims. They will also withdraw the agreed-upon percentage from the trust as their payment. They will meet with you to finalize the case and will turn the funds over to you at this time.
Investigating Your Accident
Often, when a serious car accident occurs, several accidents take place. Law enforcement will investigate the accident to determine if it resulted from a traffic offense or crime. The at-fault party’s insurer will investigate the accident to determine whether their insured is liable for the injuries. Your attorney will also investigate the accident, but this investigation will be solely for your interests. They will be looking to determine all sources of liability and the associated insurance resources held by liable parties that can provide your compensation.
Establishing a Value to Your Claim
Car accident claimants often think their claim is only worth the value of medical expenses and property damage they experienced.
While a personal injury claim can recover compensation for both of these expenses, other you can seek other expenses through your claim, such as:
- Income loss. If your injury required you to miss days, weeks, or even months from work, you could seek compensation for the lost earnings and benefits represented by those missed days.
- Lost earning capacity. Suppose your injury resulted in permanent injuries, and you can no longer earn in the same capacity as you did before the accident. In that case, you can seek compensation for the loss of future income that you likely would have earned if you had not sustained the injury.
Claimants can also seek compensation for the psychological impacts of their injury, such as physical pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. The cost of these impacts is determined by considering factors such as the severity of your injury, the presence of permanent disabilities that will impact your ability to accomplish daily tasks independently, and the amount of insurance money available to compensate for the claim.
Attorneys will usually wait until the claimant has reached maximum medical improvement before establishing the claim’s value. Maximum medical improvement is the point in your recovery when your physician determines that you have made all meaningful progress, even if treatments continue. This is a good time to value the claim because there is a clearer picture of the medical expenses involved in treating the injury and the permanent deficits that will likely impair the claimant’s ability to work.
Filing the Claim with the At-Fault Party’s Insurance Provider
Once a value has been established for the claim, your attorney will submit a demand to the at-fault party’s insurance provider for the full value. The insurance provider will assign a claims adjuster to evaluate the claim, interview the parties involved, and determine whether the insured was liable for the accident. If the insured is liable, the claims adjuster will also determine how much compensation to pay the claimant.
The claims adjuster can respond to the demand in one of three ways. They can accept the claim as submitted and pay its full value. They can also deny the claim but must provide written notification of the denial to you or your attorney, explaining its reason. They can also offer to settle the claim out of court for less than its established value.
Negotiating a Settlement
Most personal injury claims resolve through settlement before a trial begins. The initial settlement offered by the claims adjuster will likely be far lower than the claim’s value. Your attorney will negotiate with the adjuster to convince them to increase their offer to a level that would fairly compensate you for your injury.
Your attorney will communicate with the insurance provider to avoid devaluing your claim by common insurance company tactics and work on settlement negotiations. When a new settlement amount is offered, your attorney will discuss the amount with you. If you determine that the amount offered fairly compensates you for the expenses and impacts of your injury, your attorney can relay that information to the adjuster. They can also relay counter-offers and other aspects of the agreement that you want to be included.
Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit
Suppose the at-fault party’s insurance provider fails to compensate your claim. In that case, you can file it as a personal injury lawsuit, which asks a judge or jury to hear the case and decide whether the defendant is liable for your injuries and how much compensation is owed to you.
The lawsuit must be filed within the statute of limitations for your state, which is a legal deadline for filing certain types of claims. Most claimants in New York have three years from the date of their injury to file their car accident claim in court, while claimants in New Jersey and Connecticut generally have two years to file theirs.
Failure to file the claim within the statute of limitations will almost always result in losing the right to seek compensation through court. While most claims will settle out of court before the trial date arrives, if you no longer have the right to sue if the claim is not resolved, the at-fault party’s insurance provider will likely not resolve it. Your attorney will manage the timing of your claim to ensure that the right to have your claim heard and decided by the court remains in play.
Gathering the Evidence and Witness Testimony Needed to Prove the Claim
Once the claim is filed, your attorney will continue working on settlement negotiations. A settlement agreement can be made at any time during the process as long as the court has not yet decided on the matter.
However, at this point, your case enters what is known as the discovery phase, when each side of the claim can obtain evidence held by the other side, depose witnesses, and file motions in court. Your legal team will prepare the case to be heard by a judge or jury.
Insurance companies prefer settlements to litigation because litigation is expensive and time-consuming and does not allow them to control the outcome like a settlement does. While many lawyers will seek a quick and easy settlement for claims, it is important that you have an attorney who isn’t only comfortable with negotiating a settlement but is also confident in their abilities in court.
It should be noted that if the defendant in your case appeals the court verdict, your attorney will remain on board with your case and will prepare it for the appeals process.
Collecting Your Compensation
After your claim, the proceeds of your settlement or court award will be sent directly to your attorney. The money will be placed in a trust. If medical liens have been placed on the award by health insurers or healthcare providers as a legal claim for payment of their services, your attorney will settle them on your behalf. They will also withdraw the award percentage designated as their payment from the trust.
The attorney will meet with you to sign documents finalizing the case, and the remaining compensation will be provided to you at this time.