If you have ever been in an accident, you know it happens rapidly and without warning. Suddenly, your car has spun out of control. Or you fell down some slippery stairs and found yourself on the ground.
Unfortunately, the fact that these accidents happen all the time does not make it easier to deal with when the victim is you or someone you love. No matter the accident, you are coping with visits to the doctor and hospital, calls from insurance adjusters, and legal paperwork before you know it.
Approximately 200,955 people died from intentional injuries in one recent year, and accidents or unintentional injuries were the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Your accident may have resulted from an intentional act or negligence on someone else's part. The accident may seem uncomplicated to you, and you believe that you will receive fair compensation for your injuries. However, that is not always the case.
Perhaps you are unsure whether you should use a personal injury lawyer or handle the matter yourself. Legally, you do not have to be represented by a lawyer. However, legal representation offers many benefits that may affect the outcome of your case.
What is personal injury law?
Personal injury law requires those responsible for an accident to compensate victims for the damages they caused. Therefore, a personal injury lawyer provides legal services to the injured person to help them recover compensation for their losses.
Many types of cases fall within the category of personal injury law, including:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Bicycle accidents;
- Pedestrian accidents;
- Boat accidents;
- Bus accidents;
- Train accidents
- Rideshare accidents
- Medical malpractice, including incorrect diagnosis or failure to diagnose, surgical, anesthesia, and emergency room errors, and birth injuries
- Slip and fall accidents
- Workplace accidents
- Defective product accidents, such as dangerous consumer products
- Premises liability
- Animal bite accidents.
Common types of injuries
Accident victims sustain a wide variety of injuries, depending on the type of accident or event and the situation where they occurred. Injuries can be short-term and very treatable, or they can be catastrophic and affect a person's ability to perform the activities of daily living.
Personal injury cases may include the following types of injuries:
- Neck, back, and spinal cord injuries
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Organ damage
- Nerve damage
- Scars and disfigurement
- Broken bones
- Contusions and bruises
How can you resolve your claim?
If someone else's negligence or intentional wrongdoing injured you, you can file a personal injury claim to seek compensation. Claims have two fundamental issues - liability and damages. Who is liable for the injuries you sustained, and what is the nature and extent of your damages?
Your claim might require formal proceedings, such as a trial, or be concluded informally by negotiation and settlement. In some circumstances, the parties attempt to resolve the dispute by alternative dispute resolution procedures like mediation and arbitration.
The difference between trial and settlement
In theory, any personal injury claim can go to trial through the court system. But in reality, most claims resolve through negotiating a settlement with an insurance company. There are pros and cons to each option. There are no guaranteed results with a trial, and it is more expensive than settling a claim, but it may result in greater compensation.
A settlement is usually less stressful than court proceedings and also is private. A settlement is generally faster. It can take years for a lawsuit to progress through the court system, so if time is a factor, you may wish to consider negotiating a settlement.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, a pre-trial settlement resolves 95 percent of all cases. However, settlements are not always possible, or they may not be the best option for a particular case. Your attorney can help you determine which route will best serve your needs.
What does a personal injury lawyer do?
If you are considering a personal injury lawsuit, you might consider the lawyer who wrote your will or defended an acquaintance in a criminal matter. However, personal injury claims can be highly technical and require a lawyer with specialized knowledge.
Therefore, work with a lawyer with in-depth knowledge in this area of the law. In addition, each case is unique, and even a case that may appear simple may be very complex. Therefore, it is best to have representation from the beginning, to avoid mistakes or delays in the case. A personal injury lawyer's work may include:
Identifying parties that may be responsible
There may be one apparent at-fault party in an accident. However, it is essential to identify all of the responsible parties. For example, in a motorcycle accident, liable parties may include a negligent driver, the motorcycle manufacturer responsible for a malfunctioning vehicle, a repair shop that failed to repair a motorcycle property, and those responsible for the design and maintenance of the roadway, such as a governmental entity.
In addition, medical malpractice and product liability claims require detailed knowledge of specific subjects. A thorough investigation can shed light on all possible factors that led to the accident.
Evidence is the basis for a solid and persuasive case. A personal injury firm has the skills and resources to gather all the relevant evidence to support the injured person's claim. Evidence typically includes medical records, police reports, locating witnesses, and examining the accident scene.
Some types of accidents involve specialized evidence. For example, it is crucial to send preservation letters after a truck accident, which requires the trucking company to retain records related to the crash. There is technical evidence from an electronic onboard recording device in some cases. Finally, the lawyer may use expert testimony to explain the long-term consequences of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Preparing and filing legal documents
Filing a lawsuit requires a great deal of paperwork. It begins with a complaint, which the lawyer must file within the statutory time limits and in the appropriate court. The complaint sets forth the facts of the case and how much compensation the injured person is requesting. After filing the document with the court, the lawyer serves the complaint to the defendant, who then has a certain amount of time to respond.
Discovery is a pre-trial process in a lawsuit through which each party can obtain evidence and information held by the other. There are several types of discovery. During interrogatories, for example, one party submits a set of questions to the other. The opposing party has a limited time to respond to the questions. Requests for production ask for documents relevant to the personal injury case, such as medical records or documents detailing lost income.
A request for admission means that one party asks the opposing party to admit certain facts, and if they accept those facts, the lawyer will introduce this admission as fact during a trial. This saves the time and expense of convincing the court of a fact that nobody disputes. Finally, a deposition is a process in which a witness gives sworn testimony outside of court. This process takes place in the presence of a court reporter, who will produce a transcript of the deposition.
The discovery process allows your personal injury attorney to obtain the critical evidence to develop trial strategies and support your claim in court. Both sides use this opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the case, which may lead to a settlement.
Negotiating with opposing parties
Typically, a personal injury lawyer prepares each case as though they expect it to go to trial. As part of the process, your lawyer will carefully review all of the insurance policy details to determine what compensation may be available from that source. The lawyer handles all communications with the insurance company and keeps the injured person advised throughout the legal process. In the end, the victim decides whether to accept a settlement offer, continue to negotiate, or ultimately go to trial.
Representing clients at trial
If the case goes to trial, all of the investigation and evidence will help your lawyer prove the facts of your case. In addition, there are often pre-trial motions in which your lawyer asks the judge to rule on a particular legal issue. There are two types of pre-trial motions in civil cases. Dispositive motions can resolve a case, while non-dispositive motions resolve specific legal issues or problems in the case.
- Selecting a jury
- Presenting opening statements
- Examining and cross-examining witnesses
- Presenting closing arguments
- Knowledge of appropriate procedural rules and jury instructions
- Jury deliberation and verdict
Determining the value of your claim
How much compensation might you receive for your injuries? This can be a complicated question. Often, accident victims do not know what their claim is worth. On their own, they may underestimate the fair value of the claim or overestimate the fair value, which may lead to a failure in settlement negotiations. The job of the insurance representative is to pay out as little money as possible to the injured person.
Your lawyer cannot promise a specific dollar amount but will work vigorously to ensure that you receive full and fair compensation.
A personal injury lawyer evaluates the value of your claim for damages by considering factors such as:
- The nature and extent of the injuries
- Medical and rehabilitation expenses, including the extent of anticipated future medical treatment
- Physical and emotional pain and suffering
- Lost wages and benefits
- Loss of future earning capacity
- Inability to continue in your chosen career
- Effect of the injuries on your quality of life
The amount and type of compensation vary from state to state. It also depends on your claim and the defendant.
Typically, damages include:
- Economic damages. These compensate for direct financial loss, such as the cost of reasonable and necessary medical care, loss of earnings and future earnings, property damages, and more.
- Non-economic damages. These include compensation for physical and mental pain and suffering, disfigurement, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.
- Punitive damages. The court imposes these damages to punish the at-fault party for outrageous conduct.
If the accident victim dies due to another person or entity’s negligence or misconduct, certain surviving family members may have a wrongful death lawsuit.
A wrongful death claim focuses on the losses suffered by the deceased person's family. This civil lawsuit is separate from any criminal charges that may apply. Depending on the state, certain eligible survivors (usually close family members) who suffered harm from the decedent's death can file a wrongful death lawsuit. The court may award economic and non-economic damages.
If the injured person does not die immediately from the accident, their survivors may also maintain a survival action. This lawsuit focuses on the decedent’s suffering and is similar to what the deceased could have recovered in a personal injury lawsuit if they had survived.
In some cases, damages are limited or capped by statute. For example, in Pennsylvania, if your claim is against the local government, damages are capped at $500,000. For claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you may seek up to $250,000 for punitive damages.
How can a personal injury lawyer help you?
It is critical to know that all states have time limits or statutes of limitations for lawsuits. You must file claims within those time limits, or you lose your ability to file a claim and recover for your losses.
If an accident injured you, you may need to deal with both personal and financial losses. You may have lost income. Mounting bills keep coming. The pain and struggle of recovering from your injury won't go away. Dealing with the stress of an accident that leaves you with serious injuries can involve a long, confusing, and emotionally draining process.
But you do not have to go through it alone. An experienced personal injury lawyer can protect your rights and advise you of your legal options.