Can you handle your case by yourself? Of course you can. Is it a good idea? It all depends. You definitely don’t need an attorney for a small accident case, one that involves little or no property damage to your car and one in which your injuries and treatment last no more than a month or two.
My firm doesn’t accept small accident cases because of my belief we should take cases only when a client could receive a significant benefit in return for our time and expertise. We can help clients even with small cases, but after the fees we’d need to charge to be fair to our obligations to our firm—including the attorney, case manager, paralegals, medical records review specialists, and others—there might be little left over, and that wouldn’t be fair to clients with small claims.
I counsel potential clients every week about the projected values of their cases and give them free advice on what they need to look out for if they decide to go it alone. Those calls—and I take them almost every day—are one of my motivations for writing this book.
An experienced personal injury attorney who goes to court (and wins) has a better understanding of what a claim is worth and can often effectively communicate the value of the claim to insurance adjusters. Unless you’re in the business of settling and litigating injury cases, you will be at a serious disadvantage when dealing with a seasoned insurance claims representative if you don’t have an experienced lawyer at your side.
I recommend handling your case alone in Tennessee only if the property damage is very minimal (less than $2,000, say), and your non-surgical, non-permanent injuries totally healed in less than ninety days after the accident. But if you’re experiencing any ongoing pain, you need to be extremely careful about settling your case. You may think you’ll recover completely from your injury in a month or so from now, but be careful! Many people who suffer soft tissue injuries (such as whiplash) get 90 percent better in the early months but might have to deal with continual neck or low back pain for the rest of their lives. You need to be totally pain free for at least sixty days before you consider settling your case. Once you settle, you settle forever. You get only one shot, so make sure you’re secure in your decision.
Accidents due to grossly negligent actions (i.e., DUI) expose the carrier to what are called punitive damages, which are designed to punish and deter wrongful reckless conduct. The insurance company may tell you its policy doesn’t cover such damages. While that may (or may not) be true, it could factor into your case evaluation. You may have been hit by a third-offense drunk driver who attempted to flee the scene, or you may have been hit by a wonderful older woman on her way to church. Juries feel. Sometimes they feel anger. Sometimes compassion. Their verdicts will reflect that feeling. It can cut both ways. Bottom line, if you are hit by a DUI driver, your case is worth more. The adjuster fears defending their drunk insureds. Don’t let the adjuster sway you otherwise.
Before you decide to go it alone …
In 1999, the Insurance Research Council (IRC), a nonprofit supported by insurance companies in the United States, performed a study to find out if people who had accident claims received more money in settlements by using attorneys than did those who settled on their own. The IRC (IRCweb.org) found that people who used attorneys received on average three and a half times more money in settlements than those who settled on their own. This study debunks the myth the adjusters feed you to keep you from hiring a lawyer who will have only your interests in mind.