Someone probably told you to get a lawyer if you've been in any kind of accident. That might be a good idea. But what is personal injury law? Do you need an attorney for a personal injury lawsuit? What will a plaintiff's personal injury attorney do for you?
A personal injury case is a type of civil action. If another person's carelessness or negligence results in your injury, you may have a cause of action for personal injury. Most personal injury cases involve insurance claims, and an attorney gets involved when the insurance company refuses to pay or the settlement offer is insufficient.
Despite the hyperbolic claims of TV ads, most personal injury claims do not settle for millions of dollars. A good plaintiff-side personal injury attorney seeks a fair settlement to compensate their client for their medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. This article reviews what to expect when you hire a personal injury attorney after a serious accident or injury.
What Is a Personal Injury Case?
Whenever another person causes someone's injury, the injured person has a claim for personal injury. Personal injury cases are negligence claims. The injured party, called the "plaintiff" or "claimant," must prove that the negligent party, called the "defendant," was responsible for causing their injuries.
Unlike a criminal case, where the state must prove the charges, the plaintiff must prove their case in a civil case. This means proving negligence. The plaintiff must show the defendant:
- Owed a duty of care to the plaintiff
- Breached that duty in some way
- The breach was the cause of the plaintiff's injuries
- The plaintiff suffered actual injuries because of the breach
When you go to the grocery store, you expect the floors to be safe to walk on. If you slip on a puddle, the grocer has breached their duty to keep the floor safe. If you break your ankle because you fell, you have suffered an injury, and the store (or its insurance company) should pay for your recovery. This, in a nutshell, is a personal injury case.
Types of Personal Injury Cases
Many types of cases fall under the personal injury umbrella. Slip-and-fall claims happen everywhere, from grocery stores to icy sidewalks. Other common cases include:
- Vehicle accidents. These range from cars striking pedestrians to airline crashes. Cases with large numbers of accident victims may result in class-action suits.
- Premises liability. If you fall in a parking lot, who is responsible: the store owner, the parking lot owner, or the property owner? Issues of property liability and competing insurance claims can take months or years to sort out. Meanwhile, you need money for your bills.
- Animal bites. Everyone loves their pets and insists their dog would never hurt anyone — until it does. Proving an animal is vicious or not appropriately controlled requires knowledge of how courts work and how animals attack.
- Medical malpractice. This specialized practice area rests heavily on understanding medical records and medical insurance. You must have legal representation in this area if you hope to win.
Some criminal cases, such as DUI, assault, and even homicide, have some overlap with personal injury. If a driver is drunk and rear-ends you at a stoplight, they may face criminal penalties for drunken driving, but you also have a claim for any injuries you suffer.
Why You Need a Personal Injury Attorney
If you've been in a serious car accident or had another severe injury, your first thought is about medical expenses, not legal advice. People may not think of hiring a personal injury lawyer until after seeing a doctor, starting treatment, and then learning their insurance would not cover all their expenses.
Unless your injury was minor and the insurance company pays up immediately, there are good reasons to have a plaintiff's attorney on your side.
Statutes of Limitations
All states have statutes of limitations for personal injury and medical malpractice claims. The statute of limitations is the time you have to file a claim for personal injury or product liability. In some states, you have only one year from the date of injury. The statutes for medical malpractice claims are similar, although you may have longer.
Your attorney can review your case and see if you're near the deadline. There may be ways to extend or "toll" the statute. If you miss the deadline, most states will not allow you to file your case, even if the other person is clearly at fault.
One of the main reasons insurance adjusters reject claims is because of improperly completed forms. Insurance forms need specific documents, including police reports and medical bills. The forms themselves are complex and challenging to fill out correctly. An attorney can help complete these documents and ensure you've sent everything necessary. Injury victims have other things to deal with besides complicated documents.
Evidence and Expert Witnesses
Even if your case never goes to trial, you still need evidence that supports your claims and witnesses to back up your evidence. For instance, if you slipped on a wet floor in a grocery store, you need cleaning schedules, surveillance videos, employees' names, and statements from people who saw you fall. An attorney can get all that through discovery.
If you do end up in court, you may need expert witnesses. These are people with knowledge of particular fields or disciplines who can explain why your accident differs from others. They're critical for product liability cases and medical malpractice cases. Personal injury law firms often have expert witnesses on retainer for auto accidents and other types of cases.
Most personal injury cases never see the inside of a courtroom. Between 90 and 95% of all cases settle out of court because the cost of litigation is more than the price of a fair payout. But, a layperson does not always know what a fair settlement offer is. Defense attorneys rely on this when making settlement offers. Plaintiff's attorneys level the playing field for their clients.
How Do You Get a Plaintiff-Side Attorney?
Personal injury plaintiff's attorneys advertise heavily on TV, in print media, and online. You may never see an ad for a personal injury defense attorney since most work for insurance companies and medical professionals. The best place to start a search for a personal injury attorney is through an online attorney referral service, like FindLaw's attorney directory.
You should ask your attorney for a case evaluation at your initial consultation. Ask for an honest appraisal of your case and what they think your chances will be in court. The attorney should be willing to tell you if you have a decent case or if you would be better off settling for what the defense offers. Beware of any attorney who guarantees a big win.
Ask about their trial experience and their track record in court. Many top-tier plaintiff's attorneys seldom go to court, but they win all the cases when they do. But these are the most expensive law firms on the market. There is nothing wrong with a well-prepared plaintiff's attorney willing to go to court for their clients.
Ask about attorney fees and court costs. Nearly all personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis, meaning there are no attorney fees until the client wins. But that's not the entire story. There are other costs to the legal process, including filing fees, costs for depositions and witnesses, and ancillary expenses like office staff hours. The attorney may not get paid until you win, but the paralegal still needs a check. Be sure the contingency fee agreement accounts for all these extra costs. Common practice is for the attorney to bill the client monthly for extra expenses, but some firms deduct all legal fees from the contingency fee.
Finally, if you're not happy with the first attorney, by all means, find another. Your attorney represents you, and you should be comfortable with the person who will speak for you in court.
Talk to a Plaintiff-Side Lawyer
If you or a loved one have suffered a serious injury and need an attorney, the clock is ticking. You need a personal injury attorney in your area right now. You have medical care and recovery to worry about. Let the attorney worry about the rest.