Pennsylvania recently saw 128,420 car accidents, resulting in 78,219 injuries. Of those accidents, slightly more than 11,000 took place in Philadelphia County. One common question that we’re asked by potential clients who have been injured in a Philadelphia car accident is: “How much can I expect from a car accident settlement?” In truth, the answer depends on a lot of factors, and there is no “average” settlement. If you’ve been injured in a car accident, an experienced car accident attorney can help you establish the value of your case based on the specific details of the expenses you incurred and the impact that those expenses have had on your life. Read on for more information about the factors that influence the value of your claim.
Factor #1: The Insurance Wildcard
The value of an accident claim depends on what type of insurance policy each driver involved in the accident has, as well as the maximum limits of each policy. All drivers who register their vehicles in Pennsylvania are required to have minimum policies that include:
- $15,000 for the injury or death of one person in the accident
- $30,000 for the injury or death of more than one person in the accident
- $5,000 for damage to the other driver’s vehicle
Pennsylvania is one of only a few states in the nation that has a no-fault insurance system. However, unlike other states—such as Florida and New York—Pennsylvania drivers have the option to choose from a full tort insurance option or a limited tort policy. Here is a look at each:
- Full tort: This is a traditional liability option that provides a driver with the ability to sue for both economic and non-economic damages, regardless of the severity of the injuries.
- Limited tort: This policy allows drivers to save money on their premiums. However, in exchange, they waive their rights to recover certain damages, such as pain and suffering, unless their injuries are deemed serious. Injured individuals are still able to sue the other driver or file a third-party claim against his or her insurance policy for economic damages, such as medical expenses and property damage. Pennsylvania law considers a serious injury one that results in death, serious impairment of a bodily function, or permanent, serious disfigurement. There are also other exceptions to the limitations placed on non-economic damages, including if the accident was caused by a driver who was driving while impaired.
Other ways that your insurance may impact your settlement, either positively or negatively, include:
- The at-fault driver had no insurance or did not have a policy large enough to cover your injuries, and you didn’t have uninsured/ under-insured motorist coverage on your policy. (Negative impact)
- You were uninsured or under-insured and caused the accident (Negative impact)
- Your accident involved more than one liable party, and each has an insurance policy that you can use to recover compensation for your injuries. (Positive impact)
- You or the driver had more than the minimum amount of insurance required, and you have medical benefits as part of your policy intended to help pay for expenses. (Positive impact)
Factor #2: Proving Liability
Proving liability is the foundation for a successful car accident settlement. While your medical benefits insurance will cover some of your expenses, regardless of fault, your attorney’s ability to negotiate a settlement on your behalf through a third-party insurance claim, or to successfully litigate your case so that you obtain a favorable verdict, lies in showing that the other driver caused the accident that resulted in your injuries. While there are other types of acts that give rise to the potential of liability—including willful acts—in personal injury claims, most cases involve negligence. Negligence is proven by establishing the following elements:
- The at-fault party owed you the duty of care in operating his or her motor vehicle in a safe and lawful manner.
- The at-fault party breached this duty of care. For example, perhaps the driver was distracted at the time the accident occurred or was driving while drowsy.
- This breach resulted in the accident that caused you to incur damages, such as medical expenses and missed work.
One factor that may decrease the amount of your settlement is if the other driver can show that you were also at fault for the accident. One example of this might be if the other driver rear-ended your car because he or she was following too closely, but you were driving with a defective tail light, which caused the other driver to be unaware that you had slowed down until it was too late for him or her to avoid the accident.
Factor #3: Your Medical Expenses, Now and in the Future
It is not unusual, particularly in cases where there is clear liability on the other driver’s part, for the other driver’s insurance carrier to offer you a quick, small settlement before the full extent of your injuries has come to light. The problem with this is just that: no one knows shortly after a serious injury occurs how damaging it will be, how much further treatment will be required in the future, or whether there will be additional complications that arise due to your injury. If you accept a quick initial settlement, you won’t be able to go back and ask for more money in the future if you discover that your injuries are more severe than you realized, and you could potentially lose out on thousands of dollars that you need for ongoing medical care as a result of your injuries.
A skilled car accident attorney will rely on the guidance of medical experts who understand injuries similar to the one you sustained to estimate the costs of any future medical treatments that you may require. Medical expenses that you can claim for your settlement include the cost of ambulance transport, emergency department services, surgical services, hospitalization, medications given to you in the hospital and prescribed for you after you return home, diagnostic testing and lab work, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and follow-up treatments.
Some issues that can hurt your settlement potential when it comes to showing medical expenses include:
- Refusing medical treatment at the scene or delaying medical treatment. After a serious accident, have a medical exam even if you don’t “feel” hurt. The most important reason for this, of course, is for your own safety, as many injuries present with delayed symptoms. The other reason is that the longer you go without obtaining medical treatment, the easier it will be for an insurance company to claim that you did not sustain your injury in the accident.
- Pre-existing injuries are also often argued by the defense in personal injury cases. Discuss any pre-existing injuries to the same area of your body as your current injury with your attorney so that he or she can prepare for that argument.
Factor #4: Your Ability to Work
Another component of a car accident settlement or a car accident lawsuit is the amount of work that you miss due to being too injured to work, as well as missed work time due to injury-related medical appointments. Courts and insurance companies will also consider the severity of your injury and the potential for permanent disability. If you’re able to return to work but not in the same position as you held before the accident, how will this hurt your earning capacity? What if you’re permanently disabled and unable to work at all? These are questions your accident attorney, in consultation with your doctors and other medical experts, will explore when establishing a value for your case.
Lost wages are one of the easier components of a car accident to prove if you’re employed by someone else and receive a regular paycheck for the work you do. If you are self-employed or your income is derived at least in part by commissions, a bit more legwork will be involved, but income is still rather easily shown through your tax returns from the previous year and calendars showing missed work appointments, missed business opportunities at conferences and meetings, and other such documentation.
Factor #5: Property Damage
If your car sustains damage in an accident caused by someone else, that individual’s required property damage policy will pay toward the cost of repairing or replacing your car. Depending on your own insurance coverage and that of the other liable parties, you may have other sources that will help you recover these costs, as well.
Factor #6: Other Out-of-Pocket Expenses
Recovering after a car accident is a process that is rife with expenses. You can claim expenses in settlement negotiations, including:
- The cost of renting a car until yours is repaired or replaced
- The cost of transportation to and from medical appointments
- The cost of modifications to your home to provide accessibility if you are confined to a wheelchair as a result of your injuries. Some examples of home modifications include widened doors, lowered countertops, wheelchair ramps, and stairlifts.
- The cost of prosthetic limbs
- The cost of hiring someone to perform household chores that you are no longer able to perform
To claim these expenses, you must retain copies of all bills and be able to demonstrate the need for the expenses based on the details of your injuries and your situation.
Factor #7: The Impact on Your Life
As previously discussed, injured individuals can claim non-economic damages in lawsuits if they have full tort coverage, and in some cases, even if they have limited tort coverage. These are damages that affect your emotional well being, your relationships with others, and your ability to enjoy the hobbies and activities that you participated in before the accident. It is difficult to put a dollar amount to these expenses, though they are often the most damaging parts of your injury. Non-economic damages include:
- Pain and suffering
- Embarrassment and humiliation
- Loss of the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life
In Pennsylvania, the judge or jury in a personal injury lawsuit determines how much to award plaintiffs for non-economic damages based on how old they were at the time of the injuries, the severity of the injuries, and the profoundness of the impacts. However, these damages, and the likelihood of a large sum of money being awarded if the case goes to court, are powerful bargaining tools for your attorney when it comes to negotiating a settlement in your case.
Factor #8: What If the Insurance Company Refuses to Offer a Fair Settlement?
The vast majority of personal injury cases settle before a lawsuit is ever filed. However, there are times when the insurance company simply refuses to get serious about negotiations or to provide a settlement offer that fairly represents the damages you’re claiming. If that happens in your case, your attorney will discuss with you the legal options, including litigation or the willingness to accept a lower settlement than what you were initially seeking. This is never a decision that your attorney will make on your behalf. However, he or she will be able to discuss with you the pros and cons of each option so that you can make the decision that best serves you and your recovery. Some considerations that should be a part of this discussion include:
- How strong is your case? Did you share liability? Is the other party’s liability easily proven?
- Are your injuries visible and permanent? Judges and juries typically award higher verdicts in cases where the injuries are visible and where they cause obvious psychological and lifestyle impacts.
Factor #9: How Patient Are You?
Negotiating a settlement in a car accident case is often a complex and drawn-out process. It is a difficult process for someone to go through while continuing to recover and to incur expenses involved in that recovery. Remember that the more patient you are through this process, the higher the settlement that you will likely receive.
For more information about car accident settlements and how it might apply to your situation, contact a car accident lawyer today.