As an Orlando personal injury and auto accident attorney, I believe it is very important that new clients have proper expectations about the range of possible outcomes in their cases. Unfortunately, billboards touting high dollar value verdicts have done nothing to help consumers understand what really happens, and what they should fairly expect, following an auto or other accident involving insurance coverage or a corporate defendant.
The Extent Of Your Injuries May Be Unknown
Sometimes catastrophic or serious damages are obvious, such as those leading to immediate paralysis, brain injury, extensive burn injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, perhaps broken bones or severe lacerations, or even death. However, sometimes the injuries are not yet known to be serious or even permanent. After an auto accident, many people have what feels like mild to moderate neck & back injuries, “whiplash,” concussions, headaches or other mild to moderate aches and pains. But they have no idea just how serious those injuries might be. They may appear just fine, not have severe pain, and not think their case will be worth very much. Yet they may later learn that they have a herniated disc, or some other serious neck, back, brain or spinal cord injury. They may have visited a doctor or ER, but not had an MRI performed. So even their medical providers do not yet know that they actually have a serious or permanent injury. Many doctors like to wait at least a few weeks before performing an MRI, EMG or other more expensive testing. Without those tests, doctors have great difficulty diagnosing many injuries.
Will You Take $300-$600?
Sometimes I take cases that aren’t worth much at all. By not much, I mean very little. They might be worth nothing more than a few hundred dollars, maximum, as a net recovery to the client. (They may also be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands, even if the client doesn’t think they are seriously injured right after the accident. But often there is no way of knowing until the client has received extensive medical testing and treatment.)
Because of the many unknowns, I try to set proper expectations during the initial client consultation. Having proper expectations avoids later disappointment and frustration, for both myself and my clients. Then I continue to clarify the likely outcome based on injury status throughout the representation. For example, here is a sample written message that I might send to a client who has told me that his injuries were completely resolved with relatively little treatment (in short, to a client who is just as good now as he was before an auto accident):
I want to explain how injury claims & insurance payments work under the law. The insurance company is not legally required to pay you anything for pain and suffering when you have no permanent injury. That means they are only required to pay your medical bills, and your medical providers are entitled to be reimbursed from that payment. So the money in your pocket will only be a few hundred dollars maximum. We can sometimes get a little more by negotiating with medical providers regarding the amount they will accept for medical bills. But that is never a guarantee and still the amount to you would be low because your medical expenses aren’t that high.
Additionally, you will have to sign a release to receive that payment for your medical expenses, forever releasing any claims you have from this accident. If your injuries start hurting later, there will be no way to get additional recovery.
For those reasons, I would like you to notice and make sure that you have no remaining pain whatsoever. If you have not had an MRI of any and all affected body parts, you may want to seek those (just to make sure nothing shows on the films). Further, if you have any pain remaining at all, for example, when doing things like sleeping, walking, or doing repetitive tasks for an extended period, then you should continue to treat.
Does This Mean I Do Not Fight?
Just today I visited a few other personal injury websites and could find nothing other than discussion of the upside of injury cases. I believe overly rosy language is unfair to injury victims. The truth is that attorneys have very little leverage with insurance companies when the cases involve no permanent injury. Of course I do everything within my power to increase the insurance payment and decrease the medical payout. But, again, my real leverage comes from my ability to file a lawsuit on behalf of my clients. If a case does not justify a lawsuit, then the value is not nearly the same. That all being said, you still need an attorney unless you are SURE your injuries are minor (and many people who later discover their injuries are permanent had no idea in the beginning). With temporary or minor injuries, I have no idea whether I would do any better than you in getting a fair settlement. And the difference, if any, would be hundreds not thousands of dollars.
Serious Or Permanent Injuries Are Completely Different
Of course, I would never send that type of message to those with even mild to moderate but permanent injuries OR clients who have serious or catastrophic injuries. In those cases, unless the insurance company tendered the full policy limits immediately (or a very high offer), both of which are rare, we would plan to file a lawsuit and be prepared for a longer battle. Also, for those clients who are seriously or permanently injured, there are other important expectations that must be managed.
Serious Injury Client Expectations
First, they need to have an accurate understanding of how much time will likely be needed to resolve their case. Personal injury lawsuits involving high damage amounts and high policy limits take a lot of time because insurance companies (and other corporate defendants) fight harder when they have more money to lose. So high value lawsuits can take anywhere from 1.5 to several years. We try to push them along as quickly as we can without sacrificing the value of the case. (High volume firms might move more quickly, but beware of them.) Moving too quickly absolutely is not in an injury victim’s best interest.
Your Action (Or Inaction) WILL Impact The Value Of Your Case
Second, injured clients must understand the vital importance of quickly starting and continuing doctor-recommended treatment without gaps. In most cases, without extensive treatment, their case is worth almost nothing to nothing (barring those rare injuries that are permanent, perhaps even catastrophic, but have limited available ongoing treatment options). So they must understand their important role in their own case value. Injury victims are their attorneys’ best allies in fighting lawsuits. They need to continue treatment, not cause gaps in treatment, follow their doctor’s and lawyer’s instructions.
Your Credibility Means Everything If You Have A Serious Or Permanent Personal Injury Case (Requiring Litigation)
Third, injury victims need to know that their credibility is critical and easy for defense attorneys to attack. So they must always be honest about everything, most importantly their symptoms, limitations, prior medical history, work restrictions, wage loss (or absence of wage loss) and abilities. Defense attorneys check victim statements against many different sources, including witness testimony, social media (like your Facebook account), medical records, and surveillance video in many cases. You must be VERY accurate when speaking with your lawyer & medical providers. Never think you can trick either your own lawyer or a defense attorney. That will never happen & you could lose an otherwise valuable case by thinking you know how to make it even more valuable (by saying something that isn’t true OR stretching the truth). Sometimes injury victims say something that is not accurate without any intent to lie (for example, when they forget, or just use the wrong words). But you just have to remember that lawsuits involve opponents trying with all of their might to undermine the value of your case, and do your best to follow your attorneys careful instructions, particularly before your deposition or trial testimony. (Beware of any personal injury attorney who does not thoroughly prep you before a deposition.)
Settlements And Verdicts Are Different Animals
Fourth, they need to understand that a settlement amount will never be the same as the best case scenario verdict. Both sides must compromise to reach a settlement, which means that the insurance company or other defendant pays more than they think they should, and the injured person must accept less than they think they could get from a jury at trial on their best day. But extensive preparation for any mediation gives you the best chance of convincing the defendant that you will shine on your day in court.
We Have To Pay Your Doctors, Hospitals & Other Medical Providers
Fifth, they need to understand that part of what we fight to recover must go toward their past and future medical expenses. Medical providers or insurance companies who or which have already provided treatment are entitled to reimbursement. This often cuts down considerably on the client’s ultimate (net) recovery, meaning cash in the client’s pocket, although sometimes providers will negotiate these to a lower amount than they initially charged. Assuming there are no problems proving liability, causation, or damages, more serious injuries generally lead to more cash money in the client’s pocket.
An Insurance Company, Even Your Own, Is Not Your Friend
Sixth, injury victims need to understand why they should never deal with an insurance company directly and, if they haven’t already hired a law firm, then they need to understand how settlement mill firms operate.
There are probably many other issues that I haven’t mentioned, but hopefully this gives you some better idea of what to expect during any personal injury or accident lawsuit.
What Do You Think?
For consumers, does this article change your opinion of how injury cases are handled? For attorneys, are there other client expectations that you try to manage in your own practice?