Deciding whether to hire an attorney or represent yourself in a personal injury claim can be a tough decision. Every case is unique. Although some claim types always require expert legal representation, others can be successfully negotiated without one. Let’s discuss how you can decide if self-representation is right for you.
Soft Tissue vs. Hard Injury Claims
The majority of personal injury claims in the United States do not require filing a lawsuit. This is because most claims involve minor soft tissue injuries, and a settlement can be negotiated outside of court.
Soft tissue injuries may be the result of:
- Minor car, motorcycle, and boat collisions
- Bicycle accidents
- Slip and falls
- Dog or other animal attacks
- Work-related accidents
Soft tissue injury claims can usually be negotiated without an attorney, but hard injury claims cannot. Hard injuries include broken bones, damaged organs, permanent scarring, poisoning, herniated disks, or other serious injuries. In most serious injury claims, hiring an attorney is the only choice.
Serious, “hard injury” cases include:
- Medical malpractice
- Wrongful death
- Brain or spinal cord trauma
- Toxic poisoning
- Severe burns
- Any permanent injury
When You Can Handle a Claim Yourself
Let’s discuss 4 instances when you can probably handle your own personal injury claim…
1. When your injuries are soft tissue
Soft tissue injuries include whiplash, swelling of tendons or ligaments, lacerations, contusions, abrasions, headaches, blurred vision, and other similar maladies. When injuries are minor and liability is clear, the insurance company may simply ask you to submit your damages. Then you’ll negotiate a mutually agreeable settlement amount.
In an average personal injury settlement, once the adjuster has your documentation and finishes investigating the claim, all that’s left is to negotiate a settlement. You should be able to negotiate your own claim as long as you understand the basics of calculating a settlement amount.
2. When liability is clear and the only issue is the amount of compensation
Although most hard injuries require legal representation, sometimes you can represent yourself. That happens when the insurance company accepts 100 percent liability and the only remaining issue is the amount of the settlement. If you don’t think the settlement offer is fair, consult with an attorney before signing the release.
3. When you have the time, energy, and commitment to work the claim
Handling a personal injury claim can be a lot of work. Coping with your pain, doctor’s appointments, and therapy sessions may be all you can handle. You may just not feel well enough to effectively pursue your claim.
If you are well enough, be prepared to put in the work required. You’ll have to acquire medical records and police reports, speak with witnesses, negotiate with the insurance adjuster, and more. Some negotiations are cordial and resolve quickly, others are unpleasant and can take months.
4. When an attorney won’t accept your case
Once an attorney reviews your case, she may determine liability isn’t clear, or think the insurance award won’t be enough to cover your losses plus her fees (around 33 percent of the final settlement – that’s after miscellaneous expenses are deducted). Attorneys are also bound under state bar rules to pay any legitimate liens before paying you.
Attorneys want their clients to be satisfied with the net settlement amount they receive. So, after weighing all the factors, if the attorney doesn’t think your case will be profitable for both you and her, she probably won’t accept it. If this happens, your only choice may be to handle your claim yourself.
When You Must Hire a Personal Injury Attorney
Here are 6 scenarios when you won’t be able to handle your own claim…
1. When your injuries are very serious
If you’ve suffered any kind of serious injury, permanent disability, scarring, or other catastrophic injury, you must seek the counsel of an experienced personal injury attorney. To be safe, meet with an attorney if you spent more than a day or two in the hospital, or received treatment for more than a month due to the negligence of another party.
2. When your case requires litigation, technical expertise, or large upfront costs
If your injury was caused by medical malpractice, toxic poisoning, or a defective product, it’s not the average personal injury case. These cases are complex, and require a level of technical expertise you don’t have. Attempting to represent yourself in these types of cases is foolish.
Medical malpractice cases almost always result in court trials. Unless the malpractice is entirely obvious, it’s rare to see a settlement. A physician or hospital perceives a claim filed against them as an attack on their reputation, and will fight hard against it. Moreover, their insurance companies will often spend whatever is necessary to defend their clients.
These cases always involve expensive and lengthy discovery. This includes taking depositions, hiring court reporters, paying for transcripts, and more. Navigating these complicated legal procedures requires great expertise and deep pockets. It’s not unusual for attorneys to spend thousands of dollars on discovery alone.
3. When a lawsuit is filed outside of small claims court
Sometimes settlement negotiations become deadlocked, resulting in a lawsuit. Although representing yourself in a court higher than small claims is possible, it’s very difficult. Unlike small claims court, higher courts have strict rules of procedure. Judges in state courts can have little patience for “pro se” litigants.
In addition, insurance company attorneys can be relentless. Losing a claim to a pro se plaintiff would severely damage their reputation. You will be served with multiple legal pleadings, motions, objections during trial, and more. And if you somehow succeeded, the attorneys could still appeal the loss to a higher court.
4. When you can “opt-in” to a class action
Defective product injuries often result in class action lawsuits. Some defective product cases can go on for years. They require multiple court hearings, technical expertise, and substantial outlays of money. Instead of representing yourself, you may be eligible to participate in a class action lawsuit.
If you’re eligible, you can “opt-in” as a class member. Once accepted into the class, you’ll be represented by a law firm. It’s tough to say what an average personal injury settlement might be in a class action. When it finally settles, depending on the number of class members and the amount of the settlement, you’ll receive a check for your portion.
5. When your claim is against the government
If your claim is against your town or city, or against the state or federal government, seek out an attorney with experience in government litigation. Claims against the government require complying with strict deadlines under the Tort Claim Acts. The deadlines can be as short as 60 days!
If your claim is minor, you may be able to navigate the government tort claims process yourself. But again, it never hurts to get a free consultation from a local attorney.
6. When the insurance company is acting in bad faith
Bad faith claims against insurance companies are seldom settled without litigation. Getting an insurance company to agree it acted in bad faith is almost impossible. It often takes a jury verdict for an insurance company to be brought to task for wrongdoing. You’ll need an attorney to present an effective case.
Choosing an Attorney
Like physicians, many personal injury attorneys specialize in specific areas of the law. Some focus on a particular type of case, such as medical malpractice, defective products, wrongful death, or asbestos litigation. Do some research to find an attorney that specializes in your type of case before making a choice.
Injury attorneys work on contingency, which means they take their fee out of the final settlement. You have no upfront costs. If you’ve already collected most of the evidence, the attorney may even agree to reduce her fee. Bring it up during your initial consultation. There’s nothing wrong with asking, even if the attorney ultimately refuses.
Most personal injury attorneys provide free initial consultations. Once the attorney hears what you have to say and reviews some of your documentation, she may decide your claim is substantial. You’ll have to decide whether to retain that particular attorney or visit with others. Be sure to find one you’re confident will represent your best interests.
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