You or a family member have been injured in an accident and you are considering talking to a lawyer. What should you expect from this process?
Of course every case is unique, but here are a few typical steps or "stages" in the personal injury claim process:
1. You need to decide which lawyer or lawyers to talk to. Do you go with a billboard firm, a TV advertiser, or someone else? There is no "right" answer to this question. Your best bet is to obtain recommendations from friends or co-workers, or do some online research. Large firms who spend a lot of money on advertising also have big advertising budgets they need to worry about. While every firm is different, some larger firms will also assign you to a paralegal or young associate. Do some research before you set up your first meeting. Some clients want the "brand recognition" of the firms they see on billboards, while others feel more comfortable speaking to a lawyer who handles each of his cases personally and individually. As a small firm lawyer myself, I am biased and believe that most clients are happier when they hire local attorneys who handle their cases personally and who do not see the practice of law as a big business enterprise.
2. Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation. So once you've chosen a lawyer to speak to, you will call or email him/her and schedule an appointment to meet with the lawyer, talk to him or her over the phone, or exchange emails about your case. The lawyer will ask you a series of questions to determine some basic things such as: what happened and was your injury the result of someone else's negligence or misconduct? Is there insurance or other funds available for recovery? What are the extent of your injuries? You should "interview" the lawyer at the same time. What is his experience? Will he be handling your case, or someone else? Does he actually go to trial, or does he only handle cases that settle out of court? Ask for specifics! A lot of lawyers will tell you they are big time trial lawyers, but in fact they rarely take cases to trial and have little real-world courtroom experience.
3. If the lawyer tells you that you have a case that can be pursued, and you are happy with the lawyer and want to hire him, you will generally be asked to sign a contingency fee contract. Such contracts provide that the lawyer will be paid out of any recovery, as opposed to charging you by the hour. There is no "standard" contingency fee rate. Talk to the lawyer you've chosen about options. Some smaller firms will negotiate the fee depending on the nature of your case. A lot of lawyers will charge 1/3 to 40% of any recovery, or more.
4. Once you've signed on the dotted line, the lawyer will obtain your medical records (sometimes you can be involved in this process and it will save you money in the long-run), and otherwise investigate the claim. He will obtain a copy of the police report if there is one. He may interview witnesses. He will monitor your medical status. Once the lawyer feels he or she has the information needed to evaluate the claim, he will make recommendations to you concerning the "value" of the case. This is based on a variety of factors, and is covered in a separate article here: How Much is My Personal Injury Case Worth? (click the link for more information).
5. A typical next step is that the lawyer may suggest that you send a settlement "demand" to the other side, basically giving the at-fault party a chance to resolve the case for a set sum of money without being sued. At this point, negotiation may take place, where both sides try to reach a middle ground figure that is fair to all concerned. If the at fault party knows he will likely lose at trial, he is likely to want to negotiate a resolution of your case. But insurance companies often get involved at this point, and they may decide to fight your case for business reasons. There are also situations, especially in complex cases involving serious injuries, where pre-lawsuit settlement talks are very unlikely to yield any productive results, and the lawyer will recommend that you file suit and then consider settlement talks later.
6. If the case cannot be settled to your satisfaction without a lawsuit or if the lawyer is convinced that settlement discussions would not be fruitful, your next step is to file a lawsuit. Some of the stages in the lawsuit/litigation process are discussed in a separate article here: What Should I Expect if My Lawyer Has Filed a Personal Injury Lawsuit (coming soon!)?
A common question at this point is -- how long will this whole process take? That depends on a lot of factors. First, it depends on your medical condition. If you sustained serious injuries, your lawyer is not going to be able to evaluate the "settlement value" of your case right away. You may need surgery or surgeries, or you may have long-term disabilities that will not be clear until you further along in your treatment. Second, it depends on how much investigation is required to put your case together. Some cases are relatively straight-forward, others require months or investigation including retention of experts. Third, it depends on the attitude of the party you are considering suing. If there is an insurance company involved, the adjuster may move quickly to try to resolve your claim, or drag out the process for weeks or months, asking for additional information to evaluate the claim. Your lawyer should be able to give you guidance in your individual case concerning what information he needs to evaluate your claim, and what to expect from the other side. While you may be anxious to obtain recovery, understand that your lawyer does not want to jump the gun and try to resolve your case without having all of the information he or she needs to determine it's full value or potential, and that some factors are beyond his control.
Chris Roberts is a lawyer with 23 years of experience handling personal injury, product defect, and complex commercial litigation. He is available for a free consultation. You can contact Chris and schedule a free consultation by emailing him at this link: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call his office at 727.286.3537.