How to Determine Whether You Need a Lawyer After a Car Accident

By Desiree Baughman
Desiree maintains insurance licensure in 46 states, and by combining years of experience as a writer and insurance professional, she delivers information consumers can easily relate to and understand. A graduate of Sweet Briar College with a diverse writing portfolio, she regularly serves as an expert source and commentator for respected outlets like CBS Money, Bankrate, and Ragan.com.

How to Determine Whether You Need a Lawyer After a Car Accident

As you read this, four car accidents will happen in the U.S. Approximately 135 million cars travel our country’s roads every day, with a car accident resulting in injury occurring almost every 14 seconds. There are about 5.4 million car accidents per year on average in the U.S., and in 2013 alone 3.8 million suffered car accident-related injuries.

Many of us expect that insurance will provide whatever we need to recover after an accident, such as medical treatment, lost wages, vehicle repairs and more. But there is never a guarantee that you’ll be fairly or adequately compensated by the auto insurance of the driver who causes an accident. That’s why many victims of automobile accidents turn to personal injury attorneys to help them achieve a better recovery. According to a study by the Insurance Research Council (IRC), medical expenses for those injured in non-fatal accidents are increasing faster than inflation. The average bodily injury claim (medical expenses alone) is over $14,000 per person, an amount that goes up about 4 percent each year

Is a Lawyer Always Necessary?

A lawyer isn’t always necessary or even financially reasonable. For example, if the injuries you’ve suffered are minor (like small abrasions or soft tissue damages such as whiplash), the cost of hiring a lawyer would likely exceed the money you’d pay for medical treatment. If you don’t want to get a lawyer but are worried about your claim/settlement, you can also seek assistance from your state’s department of insurance. They may be able to intervene on your behalf with the insurance company or help you understand and manage the claims process better.

When Should You Consult a Lawyer?

There are certain circumstances that really do justify meeting with a lawyer (even if you don’t ultimately pursue any legal action). You may want to get legal advice if:

  • the injuries you’ve sustained may leave you with long-term health problems;
  • the other driver involved in the accident was underinsured or uninsured, as defined by state law;
  • there’s any dispute as to who was at fault;
  • you feel pressured by the claims adjuster to accept a quick settlement;
  • a settlement offer feels unfair or inadequate considering the facts and circumstances; and/or
  • the state you reside in has a statute of limitations that may threaten your ability to challenge or negotiate a settlement offer.

The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Lawyer

There is a perception that hiring a lawyer will jeopardize your chance of getting a fair settlement from the insurance company. It’s true that having a lawyer will probably make the claims process slower and more formal (for example, your attorney may recommend that you do not speak with the insurance company without consulting them first). But a good lawyer can defend your rights without creating a hostile situation between the parties.

Fighting an insurance company by yourself could be a difficult and expensive prospect, and you might notice that the insurance company takes you a little more seriously after you bring in a lawyer who has as much expertise as they do. A lawyer can help to generate legitimate settlement options and can advise you in choosing the best one. If you’re nervous about working with a lawyer, remember that the insurance company probably has an army of lawyers, and they’re definitely not going to be nervous about using them. Also remember that nobody–neither you nor the insurer–wants to spend thousands of dollars and countless hours in a court battle.

As with anything, there are drawbacks and risks in hiring a personal injury lawyer, and you’ll simply need to weigh them to decide what’s best for your situation. Some things that make hiring a personal injury attorney less than attractive to some people include:

  • Lengthy Battles: If your lawyer and the insurer cannot come to a reasonable agreement, the process of settling your claim may get drawn out. If you actually sue the insurance company, it could be years before you see any money. This is especially true if you live in a large city with a bustling court system, or are managing litigation between multiple jurisdictions or in a jurisdiction you don’t live in.
  • Money, Money, Money: According to the American Bar Association, most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency basis. What this means is that the attorney will take a cut of the final settlement. Beware, their cut can be as high as 40 percent. In the end, you may end up with less than if you had handled the whole thing on your own, because in many cases an attorney will not be able to increase the final settlement by more than 25 percent. Remember that in addition to the contingency fee, an attorney will also charge you court costs and administrative fees.
  • Risky Business: There may be multiple settlement offers made during negotiations, and if you don’t accept any of them, the next step is to file a lawsuit and possibly go to trial. Courts and juries often rule in favor of the injured policyholder (who likes insurance companies?), but again there’s no guarantee. If things don’t go your way, you could end up with less than originally offered, especially if you’ve racked up substantial court fees or other expenses during litigation.

Handling Your Insurance Company After an Accident

How you deal with your insurance company in the hours after an accident can greatly impact whether or not you need to seek legal assistance for your claim. Here’s how to handle the post-accident communications:

  1. Review and fully understand your coverage before speaking with your insurer. Pay particular attention to the “Coverage” and the “Exclusions” segments of your policy. Never provide any written or recorded statements until you really understand your policy as it applies to the circumstances.
  2. Call your insurer for clarification about any policy items that aren’t clear to you. If you’re asked for a statement, only give one if you have one prepared–don’t go off the cuff. Also, give your version of events without admitting any fault (‘we crashed’ vs. ‘they hit me’). If you are partially to blame for the accident, let that be determined in the investigation.
  3. Keep receipts and records for any meals, lodging, wage losses, and health-related expenditures related to the accident, and track the time you spend pursuing your claim or recovering compensation for your injuries. Staying organized will enhance the likelihood of getting a fair and fast settlement.