Auto Accident Legal Information
 

Overview

Accident lawyers help victims of serious accidents and their families get financial compensation for the injuries, deaths or damage the accident caused. They do this by filing lawsuits against the people or organizations they believe are responsible for causing the accidents. In order to file and win an accident lawsuit, you must be able to show that the person you’re suing caused your accident through negligence, a legal term for extreme carelessness, or illegal behavior.

Accident lawyers handle all types of accidents -- including incidents that weren’t really accidental, such as nursing home abuse. Some of the most common types of accidents handled by accident lawyers include:

  • Car, truck and motorcycle crashes.
  • Workplace, construction or machinery accidents.
  • Slips and falls in public places.
  • Accidents with defective products.
  • Medical malpractice and birth injuries.
  • Boating and swimming accidents.
  • Financial fraud.
  • Pedestrian and bicycle accidents.
  • Food poisoning.
  • Health problems caused by unsafe prescription drugs.

 

“What do I have to prove in an accident lawsuit?”

There are three things to prove in any accident lawsuit:

  1. You were injured.
  2. The person or organization that you are suing caused your injuries.
  3. The actions that caused your injuries breached a legal duty to you. Most plaintiffs try to prove that the defendant was negligent, which is a legal term for unreasonably careless, but some lawsuits are based on other types of legal duty.

If you can prove all of these, you have proven your case. However, there’s another part of trial, sometimes called the “damages phase,” in which you will then have to show that your injuries justify the money you’re asking for. This may be easy or difficult, depending on your case and how much you’re asking for. Your attorney will show medical reports, police reports and other documentation, and may ask experts to testify about your injuries.

 

"What can I win in an accident lawsuit?"

To some extent, what you can collect depends on what state you live in. But all states allow you to collect financial and physical damages, which compensate you for costs like:

  • Past and future medical bills to treat the injury.
  • Past and future wages lost because of the injury.
  • Damage to your property caused by the accident.
  • Costs of a funeral for a wrongfully killed person.
  • Any other costs that were caused by the accident.
  • Compensation for a serious, painful injury.
  • Compensation for a permanent disability.

Most of the time, you can also collect emotional damages, such as:

  • Loss of a deceased loved one’s care and companionship.
  • Pain and suffering.
  • Mental anguish.
  • Emotional distress.
  • Loss of quality of life.

Many states put a cap on damages, especially in certain types of cases, such as medical malpractice. That means that if a jury awards you more money than the cap allows, your winnings will be reduced to the maximum amount allowed by law. In addition, not all states allow you to ask for attorneys’ fees.

In some cases, you may also be able to collect punitive damages, which are not tied to any specific loss. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for knowingly doing something illegal or unethical, or for very extreme carelessness. Even if you can prove those types of behavior, punitive damages are not available in every state or every type of case.

 

"How long do accident lawsuits take?"

Lawsuits can be as short as a few weeks or as long as decades, depending on the circumstances and the people involved. However, most lawsuits fall in between. Statistically, you can expect most lawsuits to take two to three years, from filing to a completed trial or settlement.

It’s important to realize that not every lawsuit goes to trial. If the organization you’re suing believes that it cannot win or cannot win cheaply in court, it may offer you a financial settlement before the case goes to trial. This can happen in as little as a few weeks. The financial settlement ends the case; by taking the money, you agree to drop your lawsuit. For that reason, you should only take it if you are sure that the money will meet all of the needs your accident created -- such as future doctor bills and financial support that you’ll need if you can’t work. Your attorney can help you decide whether it’s better to take the settlement or go to trial.

 

"Should I negotiate with the other people or companies involved in the accident?"

Very often, people involved in serious accidents may be offered financial settlements by the other side before they’ve even thought of filing a lawsuit. This happens most often when the other side knows it is legally liable for your accident and wants to stop lawsuits. By taking this money, you may be signing away your right to sue -- so you should only do it if you’re sure the money will meet all of your needs. If you aren’t sure, or feel pressured in any way, politely decline their offers so that you have time to think. If you have an accident lawyer, he or she should handle these negotiations for you.

If you are dealing with an insurance company, know what your claim is worth and feel comfortable with negotiating, it might be a good first move. People don’t always realize that they can negotiate with their own insurance companies to reach a fair financial settlement. However, if you feel bullied, aren’t sure what to ask for, or know you’re not good at negotiating, you don’t have to do it yourself. An accident lawyer will not only negotiate for you, but show the insurance company that you are taking your claim seriously.


"What If I'm partly to blame for my accident?"

First of all, don’t be so sure you’re at fault. It’s hard to think clearly right after the trauma of a serious accident. And sometimes, the legal definition of fault is different from the one people use every day. An experienced accident lawyer can help you make that determination.

But if you know you’re partly at fault for the accident, you can usually still recover damages. There are only five jurisdictions in the United States that stop plaintiffs from recovering any money at all if they’re partly at fault: Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama. In those states, if a jury decides that you’re even one percent at fault, you will not be able to collect damages. Thirteen other states allow all plaintiffs to recover, even if they’re 99% at fault. In all of the other states, you will be barred from recovering if you are about half at fault. However, in all states that allow partial fault, the amount of money you can collect will be reduced in proportion to the amount of fault the court finds. That is, if the jury decides that you were 10% at fault for your accident, but awards you $100,000 in damages, your $100,000 will be reduced by 10% -- to $90,000. A good accident lawyer will know how to present your case in the strongest way possible.

 

"How do I choose a good accident lawyer?"

Choosing the right lawyer is important, because you may only have one opportunity to win your case. If your lawyer is ineffective or worse, you may not have the chance or the energy to try it again.

When choosing a lawyer, it’s important to know that lawyers, like doctors, don’t all have the same specialty. Make sure your lawyer handles accident cases -- not patent applications or divorces or criminal cases. To find the right lawyer for you, you can ask people you trust to recommend law firm in your area. If they don’t have recommendations, you can also call state and local bar associations, which usually offer lawyer referral services. Get several names, so that you can “shop around.”

Almost all accident lawyers offer free consultations -- initial meetings in which they learn about your case and give you an idea of your prospects. You should go to several of these to see if you and the lawyer are a good match. Look for lawyers who have experience with cases like yours. If you ask, the lawyer should be able to provide information about past cases and satisfied clients. Don’t hire any lawyers who make promises you don’t think they can keep, are evasive, or who don’t seem to respect you. Legal services are personal services, and you should be comfortable with the person you’ll hire.

 

Payment

Accident lawyers almost always work on contingency. In a contingency fee system, you don’t pay lawyer fees at the beginning of the case, or during the case. Instead, you and your lawyer agree on a percentage of your winnings that the lawyer will take, if and when you win the case. If you lose, your lawyer does not get paid at all. Depending on the lawyer, you may still be asked to pay for court fees and administrative work during the case. In this way, accident lawyers are able to help everyone, even those who couldn’t necessarily afford conventional hourly legal fees.