Just to cut to the chase: No, you cannot. While many accident victims wonder whether or not to hire an attorney for their personal injury claim, and you have the right to handle your claim yourself, as a practical matter, you probably don’t have the education or experience to secure the compensation you deserve. Even lawyers hire other lawyers to tackle their claims. So, if you’re not an attorney, think carefully before you commit to the decision to serve as your own legal counsel.
Insurance companies settle with injured claimants every day. Major insurers have their own claim departments and legal teams. Some contract with independent investigators. They may seem happy to work with you from day one. But you must be cautious. When an insurer doesn’t have to deal with a legal professional, they may deny liability or try to settle your claim for the least amount possible. That’s how they make money.
Insurance companies have many resources you will likely lack if you bring a claim on your own. In the early days following your accident, the liability insurer often completes their investigation of the incident. The insurer assesses the liability issues, evaluates your injuries, and establishes their projected settlement amount (their reserve). While you won’t have the same resources as an insurance company, you must treat your claim handling process just as seriously as they do.
This can be a tall order, especially if you are recovering from serious injuries. The best idea is to seek out guidance from a personal injury attorney, and possibly to have them represent you in your claim. This piece covers the critical aspects of a personal injury case you need to keep in mind, whether you bring a claim on your own or have an attorney represent you.
Decide How You Will Deal With Insurers
A lot happens between the date of your injury and the date you initiate settlement negotiations with an insurance company. While you’re at home recovering, insurance company investigators are out digging up as much information about the case as they can. They want to know, not just about your accident, but about you.
If your accident occurred months ago, you’ve probably already dealt with the liability insurance company. If your accident occurred more recently, you must decide how you will handle their representative and anyone else who wants information from you.
You get to choose how you respond to these situations.
- Meetings: You decide if you want to meet with the insurance investigator. Still, they might approach you soon after the accident, even in your hospital room, without asking. When you return home from the hospital, they might knock on your door without making an appointment. Keep in mind, you don’t have to speak with them, and you can tell them you don’t want to talk until you have an attorney.
- Cooperation: Even if you meet with an insurance company representative, you can simply find out what they want and tell them “no.” No matter how nicely a liability investigator treats you, you must remember that they’re working on behalf of the person who caused your injury. They want to know your version of the accident, but they will be looking for facts that might help them defend their insured against you. You want to be careful about how much you cooperate.
- Recorded Statements: You generally shouldn’t have to give a recorded statement. Insurance companies take recorded statements to use against claimants. If you don’t allow a recorded statement, they’ll decide whether and what to offer as a settlement based on their investigation and any relevant facts you’re willing to share.
- Medical Release: If you feel uncomfortable about signing a medical release, you should ask for a copy, review it and only then decide if you want to sign. The liability insurer wants your medical records to evaluate your injury, but they want more than the bills and records in your possession. They may want to explore your whole medical history, looking for pre-existing conditions they can point to as a scapegoat for liability.
- Settlement Negotiations: When you’re ready and prepared to settle your case, don’t wait for the insurer to initiate negotiations. Some companies won’t discuss settlement unless you ask. If you never ask, they sometimes close their files and wait for your statute of limitations to expire. Call them when you’re ready to talk, but don’t wait too long. Again, it is best to have an attorney throughout the whole claims process. But it is especially beneficial to have legal representation during settlement negotiations.
Your Claim-Handling Process Begins Immediately After Your Accident
Many people handle their own injury claims. And many don’t realize until it is too late that claim handling begins immediately after an accident occurs. Even if you later choose to consult with an attorney, you must take immediate steps to preserve the evidence in your case and protect your legal rights.
Never admit fault!
Whether it’s due to anger, pain, or embarrassment, injured people sometimes say things after an injury that they probably shouldn’t say. They apologize or sometimes suggest that a fall, crash, or other incident could have been their fault. Assume that someone will hear whatever you say after an accident. Even if you don’t believe you were admitting that you were ultimately at fault, someone may use your words to argue you were.
You might forget what you said, but others may not. A police officer may add your words of regret to a formal report. The defendant may have overheard your statements and they may end up in your insurance claim file. Whatever you say after an accident, it can come back to haunt you during the insurance investigation, settlement negotiations, depositions, mediations, or during a trial.
If you’re long past the point of controlling your post-accident conversation, remember to remain discrete from this point forward.
Talk only when necessary
After an accident, speak only when necessary. It’s one of the best things you can do to protect your rights. If a police officer asks questions, answer only the questions asked. Provide known facts only. If a property owner requests a statement about your fall, ask for a form to complete at home and return later. Don’t volunteer information to anyone.
- Before you share your conclusions about fault, negligence, or liability, consider these tips.
- You might not know or understand all of the legal issues
- The other parties involved may know that they are at fault
- Suggesting you are at fault in any way may diminish or destroy your chances of bringing a successful claim
- If you have questions about liability, do personal research or consult an attorney, rather than asking a defendant or their insurer
If you hire an attorney, you can leave the talking to them.
Seek immediate medical attention
Whether you’re involved in a vehicle crash, a fall, or some other serious accident, seek medical attention immediately. You won’t always feel immediate pain from an injury. If you have a traumatic brain injury, organ damage, or some other injury without visible wounds, you might not feel it until hours or even days later. But, the longer you wait to get medical attention, the worse these injuries can become. An insurance company may try to use your delay in seeking medical treatment as a means of pinning blame on you for the severity of your injuries.
Conduct a mini-investigation before you leave the accident scene
If you can, while you’re waiting for an ambulance or police officer to arrive at the scene of an accident, do what you can to document the scene. The closer you are to the accident, the better the evidence. If you have an auto accident, the scene often changes between the time you dial 911 and the officer’s arrival, perhaps because you or another driver moves their car to the side of the road.
- The following are some ways you can document the accident.
- All Accidents: Use your phone to take pictures of the area. Record witness contact information on your phone.
- Premises Accidents: Take photos of the spot where the accident occurred. Pay particular attention to maintenance issues or defects that might have caused your accident. If you sustained injuries in a fall, take pictures of the tops and bottoms of your shoes. The claim investigator might suggest that your shoes somehow caused your fall.
- Vehicle Accidents: Capture photos of the road surface, skid marks, signs, and traffic control devices. Get photos of all vehicles involved: the position of the vehicles in relation to one another, the license plates, and the damage. Get the other driver’s license number and insurance card.
- Product Liability: Don’t let anyone take a product that injured you. If they ask later, never give the product to the insurance company, the manufacturer, or anyone other than your legal representative. You can’t prove a product liability claim without the product. If you give it to someone else, you lose control of the evidence.
Follow Your Doctor’s Orders
Whether you follow a treatment plan can make or break your claim. Even if you don’t like going to the doctor, do it anyway, and keep your follow-up appointments. When the insurance company evaluates your claim, you lose credibility if your medical history shows you ignored your doctor’s orders to take a prescription or to attend follow-up therapies.
Keep a Journal of Your Ongoing Recovery
As your injuries begin to heal, you will likely forget details about the early days when the pain was unbearable. You won’t remember all the tasks you couldn’t do or how your injuries affected your family. That’s why it’s important to document your injuries from the very beginning. Keep a journal of each day’s pain, challenges, and progress. Write down anything you believe will help you explain your difficult recovery. You will use this information when you negotiate your claim.
Prepare to Settle Your Claim
If you haven’t heard from the insurance company in months, they might not intend to reach out to you about a settlement. While some insurers will ask you to send them your information when you’re ready to settle, others won’t. You shouldn’t wait for a signal from the insurance company before you prepare your case for your settlement negotiations.
Once you feel prepared, contact them or have your attorney reach out about scheduling a settlement conference.
- Understand the liability issues: While you might know that the other person caused your injuries, you need facts, laws, and cases to support your position. If the insurer tossed out legal terminology during the investigation, document those terms. Do the research so you will understand what they’re talking about. Learn how to present your case in layman’s terms. Or, have an experienced personal injury attorney take care of this.
- Review your medical information: Accumulate your medical bills, understand your diagnosis/prognosis. Find out what your doctor has to say about your future activities and the expenses and impacts you can expect.
- Review your journal. It reminds you of the issues you will discuss during your negotiations.
- Understand your damages: There are two main kinds of damages that personal injury claims generally may recover: Economic Damages—the cost of medical bills, medications, lost income, and other out-of-pocket costs; General damages—payment for pain and suffering, scars, limitations, emotional distress, disabilities, and other impacts that do not come with a price tag.
Take Action Before Your Statute of Limitations Expires
You must keep track of your statute of limitations. The statute of limitations dictates how long you have to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file before your statute of limitations expires, you lose your right to collect compensation. An attorney can quickly find out what statute of limitations applies in your case, so that you can timely handle your claim.
Types of Personal Injuries
Personal injuries occur when a sudden and unexpected event causes injuries. It sometimes feels like you were in the right place at the wrong time. Circumstances you encounter every day cause personal injuries.
When you’re injured on someone else’s property, the owner may have neglected to properly maintain the public areas and can be held liable for your injuries. An unresolved maintenance issue is often an accident waiting to happen. Each year, falls cause injuries ranging from minor bruises to severe brain trauma. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that adults aged 65+ and children are particularly vulnerable to fall-related injuries or death.
There are millions of vehicle accidents in the United States every year, due to myriad causes, from driver distraction to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Commercial Vehicle Accidents
Large trucks don’t cause accidents as frequently as private passenger vehicles. However, because they weigh over 10,000 pounds, a crash with a large truck often causes more severe property damage and injuries.
Manufacturers regularly put defective products on the market. Even when a product causes injury or death, they rarely recall it until the Consumer Product Safety Commission forces the issue. Under many states’ product liability laws, product designers, manufacturers, and sellers bear strict liability for the injuries their defective products cause.
If you sustain an injury in your workplace, your employer will likely be responsible for paying a certain portion of your medical bills and lost wages through a workers’ compensation policy. In many states, workers’ compensation replaces the possibility of bringing a personal injury claim. However, you might still have grounds for a personal injury case, such as if someone intentionally caused your injury or a product defect did.
Do You Need an Attorney to Handle Your Personal Injury Claim?
Even this general snapshot of personal injury cases shows that bringing a claim is complex. A personal injury attorney can use their experience to deal with everything regarding your claim, from investigation to settlement. They intervene on your behalf to deal with insurance companies and their legal representatives while you concentrate on healing. Personal injury attorneys typically offer free consultations. Contact an attorney before you decide whether to handle your claim on your own.