If You’ve Been Hurt In A Car Wreck, You Need More Than Just An Attorney: You Need A GUIDE.
We’ve seen it a thousand times, you are hurt, worried and confused. You didn’t ask for this. You’ve been in an accident that wasn’t your fault and now you have injuries, pain, hospital bills, doctor bills, and insurance representatives calling you.
You may be getting a low-ball offer from the guilty party’s insurance company. You may be starting to get debt collection letters from the hospital. The hospital may even be trying to claim a lien. Where do you turn? You need more than just an attorney: you need a guide.
Here at Johnstone Carroll, our personal injury attorneys helped many, many people navigate after a car wreck. We’ve put together this information as a guide to help you through the complex process so that you can stop worrying and get back to living. With the information on this page, we will help you answer questions like these:
- How Do I Help Preserve Key Evidence After an Accident?
Because getting the best result depends on having strong evidence, you want to make sure that you fully document the accident and the injury. Take pictures of the vehicles involved in the accident scene or have someone else do so if you are unable. If you have someone with you, ask them to get the names of witnesses. While the investigating officers often do this, sometimes they don’t.
Also, make sure to get the name of the insurance company of the other driver. Make sure that you know where your vehicle is taken as well as the other vehicle. The police report will be available after a few days and should contain the names of any witnesses, the people involved in the wreck, the types of cars, the insurance companies, and the towing companies that took the cars. Automobiles contain black boxes that hold crash data. It is important to know where the black boxes are. In addition, keep in mind that if the vehicles are repaired, the black box data will be overridden.
If you were seriously injured, you obviously won’t be able to do any of these things yourself. If you can, have a loved one or friend take care of these items. If you decide to retain a lawyer, they should begin gathering this information immediately.
- How Do I Deal with the Insurance Company?
Automobile insurance policies require that claims be reported to them as soon as possible and you should look at your policy for its specific requirements. As result, the safest course of action is for you to report the accident to your insurer even if you are not at fault. Your insurer may have to step in if the other party’s insurance company denies fault or if the damage or injuries exceed the amount of the other persons insurance. Under your insurance policy, you will have a duty to cooperate with your insurance company. As result, if your insurer asks you to give a recorded statement, you should do so.
If you don’t hear from the other party’s insurance company within the next few days, you should make sure that you report the claim to the insurance company. However, you do not have to speak to them if you are not comfortable doing so and it may be wise to see a lawyer before answering ANY questions or giving a recorded statement.
If you do choose to talk to the other insurance company, be careful to make sure that your answers are correct. For instance, be careful about telling the insurance company that you are “okay” unless you know for a fact that you are. Many injuries can take a few days to manifest themselves and the insurance company might try to use the statement against you later on. A better answer would be to tell them that you will get back with them about your condition after seeing your doctor. In summary, be careful and completely honest.
Some insurance companies will try to make lowball settlement offers immediately after an automobile accident. Be very careful about accepting such an offer. Immediately after an accident, you likely will not know the full extent of your injuries and will not have received all of your medical bills. In addition, if you have private health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid they will need to be reimbursed for amounts that they have paid for your care. As result, taking a lowball settlement offer can leave you uncompensated after the payment of medical bills and reimbursement for amounts paid by others.
You should also be careful about signing any paperwork from the other insurance company. For instance, you will not want to sign any type of release unless you are absolutely sure that you are not going to seek any further compensation.
If the other driver does not have enough insurance, or even worse, does not have insurance at all, you will need to file a claim for uninsured or underinsured motorist benefits on your insurance policy. You should do this as soon as you have any reason to believe that this coverage may be necessary. In order to know this, you will need to know the amount of your potential injuries as well as the amount of insurance that the other driver has. You can find out the amount of the other driver’s insurance by asking the cost for a copy of the declarations page from the insurance policy in effect on the date of the accident.
If you do file a claim for uninsured or underinsured motorist benefits, you will need to tell your insurance company about any offer for settlement that you get from the other driver’s insurance company. Under Alabama law, your insurance company has a right to either give you permission to accept a settlement or to advance the same amount to you and leave the claims against the other driver pending. If you have an uninsured or underinsured motorist claim, you likely will want to retain counsel.
Another type of coverage that your policy may contain is medical payments coverage. Medical payments coverage also called “Medpay” will cover your medical expenses resulting from an accident up to the limit, often $5,000, but you can purchase more. This coverage can be extremely helpful in paying down the medical debts that occur after a serious accident.
- Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you are in a car accident, when should you hire a lawyer? If the accident is your fault, the answer is simple. Report your claim to your automobile insurance company and they will hire a lawyer for you. Do this as soon as possible. If you believe that the other driver is at fault, then there are some other factors involved to consider.
If you were not injured and only suffered damage to your car, you typically can resolve the claim with the other driver’s insurance company yourself. In cases where repairs are required, you will want to get estimates from three reputable garages as soon as you can and provide them to the insurance company. The other insurance company should provide you with a rental, but typically will try to provide it for as little time as possible. As a result, act as quickly as you can. You may also be able to recover the diminished value that your car suffered as a result of the accident, but you will need some proof of this diminished value like a statement from a car dealership or a report from a diminished value expert.
If your car has been totaled, then you will want to gather information on comparable cars from services such as Edmunds.Com, Kelly Blue Book and NADA. You can also find similar cars for sale online and use these as “comparables.” You can also hire companies that will help you by providing an appraisal.
Injury claims are more complicated. You can resolve a minor injury claim yourself, but need to make sure that you take into account any amounts that have been paid by your insurance or Medicare that you will have to reimburse, any medical bills that you have already paid, and any future medical bills. You will also want to make sure that your injury is not more serious than you initially believe. For this reason, it is usually not a good idea to agree to really quick settlements with the insurance company.
If your injury is serious and the other party is at fault, then you should see a lawyer due to the complicated medical, insurance, and proof problems that are involved. While you will have to pay an attorney’s fee, the fee probably will be justified by a higher settlement and by not having to worry about repaying health care providers, insurance companies, and Medicare.
- How Do I Hire a Lawyer?
Your choice of an attorney can have a serious impact on your case and you want to make sure that you hire an attorney that will take the time and care to give your case the attention it deserves. While lawyer billboards line our highways and promise big recoveries, you need to dig a little deeper and ask the following questions:
- Is the lawyer rated by a trusted rating service like Martindale.com? Martindale Hubbell, now known as Martindale.com, has been rating lawyers for over a hundred years. The highest rating on Martindale is AV which means that the lawyer is very competent and ethical. The ratings on Martindale come from other lawyers.
- Did the lawyer go to an accredited law school?
- Is the lawyer licensed in the state in which the accident occurred?
- Does the lawyer receive positive reviews from former clients?
- Does the lawyer’s website provide valuable information or does it just promote how great the lawyer is?
- If the lawyer advertises on a billboard, will they be handling your case and how many cases have they tried?
- Does the lawyer take the time to make you feel comfortable and help you understand the process?
- Are you treated like a person and not just a number?
Take the time to make sure that you pick the right attorney because you could be living with the consequences of your decision for a long time.
- How Do I Know if I Have a Case?
Generally, to have a case against another driver for an accident, you must show that the other driver was at fault and that this caused damages. One way of doing this is by showing that the driver was negligent. Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care or to put it another way, not being reasonably careful. Every driver owes every other driver a duty to exercise ordinary care to not harm other people on the roads. In addition, every driver has a duty to look out for where other people are on the road.
Some actions are nearly always negligent. For instance, rear-ending another driver who is stopped at a light is nearly always negligent. Furthermore, Alabama has safety laws called Rules of the Road and a violation of these will usually be negligent. These include: (1) no texting while driving, (2) following too closely, (3) failing to yield the right of way at an intersection, (4) failure to yield the right of way when pulling out onto a public highway from a drive, (5) running a stoplight or stop sign, and (6) traveling at an unreasonable speed.
Another type of claim is a wantonness claim. To show wantonness, you must prove that the other driver “consciously act[ed] or fail[ed] to act with reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others, and (he/she) [was] aware that harm [would] likely or probably result.” Wantonness requires more than just carelessness or inattentiveness, it requires that the other driver consciously understood that they were doing something dangerous. As a result, wantonness is hard to prove, but might occur when a driver engages in a behavior known to be dangerous, such as driving while drunk, driving while texting, taking a curve too fast on a wet road, speeding in an area with construction and poor visibility, failing to yield at an intersection while speeding, or going too fast on a wet road.
Yet another type of claim that can sometimes be asserted in a car wreck case is negligent entrustment. Negligent entrustment occurs when someone allows another person to use a vehicle when they know or should know that the person they are allowing to use the car is incompetent. A person is incompetent if they are irresponsible or likely to use the vehicle dangerously. For example, if an employer allows its employee to drive a company car even though the company knows the driver has had several DUIs, the employer could be held liable for negligent entrustment.
Generally, you will have two years from the date of the wreck to bring these types of claims. However, sometimes you may have less time. For instance, claims against municipalities and counties have six month and one-year deadlines. Because time limits can depend on a number of factors, you should consult with a lawyer to determine any applicable legal deadlines.
If the other driver was uninsured or fled the scene, you may be able to bring a claim against your insurer if you have uninsured motorist benefits. With a claim for uninsured motorist benefits, you will still need to show that the other car was liable and the extent of your damages. You will have six years to bring a claim for these benefits.
- What Types of Things Can I Be Compensated For?
Here are a few of the types of compensation that you may be entitled to receive and some things you can do to document them.
Medical Bills That You Or Your Insurance Company Pay Or Become Responsible For
Make sure to keep the names of all hospitals, doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other health care providers that you see because of your car wreck. Also, make sure to save all receipts and records showing the amount of money that you have paid out of pocket. You can also obtain prescription lists from pharmacies that you use. If a lawyer takes your case, they should order copies of your medical records and medical billing, as well as documents from insurers and Medicare showing what they have paid.
Future Medical Expenses And Other Expenses Of Care
To document future medical expenses, your attorney likely will seek testimony from your doctor about the need for future care and the expense of such care. Also, if your injuries are serious, he or she may employ a life care planner to develop an estimate of the amount of money needed to provide future medical care and expenses.
Pain and Suffering from the Wreck
In order to document the amount of pain you experience following a car wreck, you can keep a journal and every day write down how you feel at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, being as specific as possible. Also, have others take photographs and videos showing your struggles as you fight to get back to health or adapt to your new situation. Your lawyer likely will also talk to your doctors about the amount of pain experienced by you or other patients with similar conditions.
Lost Wages Or Income
Here, you will want to gather any document that shows income that you were making before the accident but have lost after the accident. If you are paid wages or a salary by an employer, gather your W-2s and pay stubs. These can be used to calculate the monetary value of time lost. You can recover this type of damages, even if you use paid sick or vacation time during your recovery. If you are self-employed or an independent contractor, gather together printouts from Quickbooks, Quicken, or other accounting software, excel spreadsheets, ledgers, or any other documents showing income that you were making in the months before the car wreck.
Future Lost Wages Or Income
For this element of damages, you will want to gather several years worth of your past income so that you can estimate what you likely will lose. You also will need medical testimony and possibly the testimony from a vocational rehabilitation expert establishing the length of time that you will not be able to work. Your attorney might employ an economist to help with this calculation.
Damage To Your Ability To Earn A Living (Impairment Of Earning Capacity)
Doctors and vocational rehabilitation experts can be helpful in showing that your ability to earn money in the future has been damaged. Orthopedic surgeons, physical medicine and rehabilitation medicine doctors, and neurosurgeons often will provide temporary and permanent impairment ratings. In addition, vocational rehabilitation experts can perform an analysis of the work you were able to perform before the wreck, your level of impairment, and the jobs that you will be able to perform in the future to put a dollar figure on your loss of earning capacity.
Loss of Enjoyment of Life
To show loss of enjoyment of life, you will want to think about all of the pleasant activities that you could do before the accident but cannot do now. Gather together old photographs and videos showing you doing these activities. Also, think about people that are close to you that can talk about these type of activities. For example, if you can no longer sit or kneel on the ground with your grandkids, find old pictures or videos showing you doing it before the accident. Find ways to show how important these activities were to you and your family and the impact of not being able to do them on you.
The Damage to Your Car, Loss of Use and Rental Value
For these types of damages, gather together one or more estimates on the damage to your car, including any estimate done by the insurance company. If your car has lost market value because of the wreck, you might be able to get an estimate of this amount from a dealership or a car appraiser. In addition, if you have had to rent a car, save any documents showing the amount of the rental. If you could not afford to rent a car, find out how much if would have cost to rent a car like yours for the time period necessary to make any repairs.
- If I File a Lawsuit, What Can I Expect?
Once you hire an attorney, the attorney likely will do some preliminary investigation. The attorney should send a letter of representation to the other party’s insurance company and possibly yours, if underinsured motorist coverage or uninsured motorist coverage is involved. The attorney should also notify entities that have paid medical bills like Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Medicare and begin the process of making sure they are paid any amounts they are due if you reach a settlement or win a trial.
Sometimes, the attorney will begin the process by making a demand letter directly to the other driver’s insurance company. This demand should take into account all available damages. As a result, before sending a demand letter, your attorney likely will request and obtain sufficient information, such as medical records, to determine the extent of your injuries and to assist in making an appropriate settlement demand.
If the insurance company responds to this demand, the parties may negotiate back and forth and may resolve the case before the filing of a lawsuit. Because car wrecks often involve clear liability, they settle more easily than many other types of lawsuits. If medical records can be obtained quickly and a demand package put together, car wrecks can settle in as little as a few months. On the other hand, if the insurer does not cooperate or more complicated issues are involved, like ongoing injuries, the case may not reach a prompt settlement.
Sometimes, your attorney will commence a lawsuit directly without trying to negotiate with the insurance company beforehand. This determination depends upon the insurance company involved, the attorney’s strategy, the lawyers that likely will be representing the other driver (who will be hired by their insurance company), and the amount of time remaining before the statute of limitations runs. Of course, even if a lawsuit is filed, a settlement may still occur.
If you do have to file a lawsuit, your attorney will initiate the lawsuit by filing a document called a Complaint. This document will set out the basic facts of the accident, will detail your legal claims (like negligence and wantonness), and will ask for damages. Typically, this will be filed in the Circuit Court of Alabama and will be accompanied by the payment of a filing fee. If the complaint is brought against an out-of-state company or individual and involves more than $75,000, it may need to be filed in federal court.
After the Complaint is filed, the defendant typically will file an Answer. Then the parties will engage in a process called discovery in which each requests the other side to provide information. Some types of discovery include depositions, requests for production of documents, and interrogatories. Interrogatories are written questions required to be answered in writing and under oath. Requests for Production are requests that the other side produces certain documents, for example, cell phone records, vehicle maintenance records, the car’s black box, and pictures. Depositions are in-person examinations in which a lawyer questions a party or witness under oath. The parties may also take the depositions of doctors that treated you or of experts like medical experts or accident reconstructionists.
After discovery, if there has not been a settlement, the case likely will proceed to trial.
How Do You Charge?
Lawyers charge a fee for their services. In car wreck cases, this fee is usually a contingency fee. A contingency fee is a fee that is contingent on whether the attorney recovers money for you or not. In other words, the attorney takes a fee if they obtain a settlement or win a jury verdict. In car wreck cases that our firm takes, at the time of this writing, we charge 25% of the amount of the recovery if the case settles before bringing a lawsuit, 33 1/3% if it settles after we file a lawsuit and 40% if we have to go to trial.
In addition to the fee, car accident and personal injury attorneys typically advance the expenses relating to getting the case ready. Like the fee, you do not have to pay these back unless there is a recovery. Expenses include amounts that the attorney has to pay for things like filing fees, depositions, experts, and copies. If there is a recovery, these amounts will be reimbursed out of the recovery.
Under Rule 1.5 of the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct, any contingency fee agreement must be in writing and set out the details of the arrangement. At the conclusion of a contingency fee case, a lawyer must provide a written statement explaining the outcome of the case. In addition, if there is a recovery the lawyer must provide a written statement showing the fee and all expenses.
We also have prepared other downloadable resources, which you can find below. In addition, we currently are working on a free book entitled “Getting Your Life Back After a Car Wreck.” Of course, feel free to reach out by e-mail or phone with any questions.
The Johnstone Carroll Promise
- We will treat you with compassion, dignity, and integrity from your first contact with us.
- We will honestly evaluate your case.
- Unlike the billboard lawyers, we will treat you like a person, not a number.
- We will worry for you and help you get back to living your life.
- We will push your case aggressively.
- We will seek full compensation for you.
- We will consider your needs and wants in pursuing your case.
- We will be thoroughly prepared.
- We will outwork the other side.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT OUR LAW FIRM FOR A FREE CONSULTATION WITH AN ATTORNEY OR VISIT OUR FREE RESOURCES SECTION!