Car accident cases aren’t simply a matter of “here’s what happened, pay me a large sum of money.” Experienced Virginia car accident lawyers are skilled at each phase of the trial from the initial client consultation through a trial before a jury. Once your medical diagnosis is clear, the lawyer will work to try to settle your case. To get the best results, the lawyer prepares your case as if it is going to go to trial.
Since car accident lawyers usually take your case on a contingency fee basis, the client does not need to rush to make a quick settlement. Contingency fee means the car accident lawyer only gets paid if your case settles or if you obtain a jury verdict. So you will not have to stroke a check to hire the attorney.
There are several steps a car accident victim should take before speaking with an attorney. For more detailed information on what to do and what not to do if you’ve been in a car accident, please download my book 23 Simple Rules to Follow if You’ve Been in a Car Accident, or call our office for a hard-bound copy. Also, remember that if you were on the job at the time of your accident, there will be a Workers’ Compensation element to your claim as well which we can handle for you.
- The first step is to get an immediate medical evaluation. Even if accident victims feel well immediately after the accident, they should still go to the emergency room or see their family doctor. Some injuries like traumatic brain injury, concussions, or whiplash take a day or more to show symptoms. The sooner you see a doctor, even when pain is not immediate, the better care you should get. Early diagnosis and early treatment helps you get better faster and with stronger results. Additionally, if you wait to see your physician, the insurance companies may argue that you weren’t really hurt.
- The second step is to contact the police if anyone was hurt or if there was property damage. The police will get everyone’s contact and insurance information. The officers will write a report which details the accident site including lanes of travel, traffic signals and signs, and other information. The police will work to secure the area so that nobody else is hurt. They’ll physical also arrange for any ambulance or EMT services. They will also charge anyone they feel violated any laws, such as failure to yield, running a red light, etc. This helps to determine who was at fault for the accident, and if that person pre-pays the fine, then they have admitted guilt in your case.
- The next step is to make sure you take or get someone to take numerous photos of any damage to the vehicle you were occupying at the time of the accident, before the vehicle is repaired. This can easily be done with most smartphones today. In addition, if you have any bruises lacerations, or seatbelt burn, etc. from the accident, you should get someone to photograph them extensively and as clearly as possible before they heal.
- The third step is to contact an experienced car accident lawyer as soon as possible. The attorney will advise you how to document your pain and suffering. He’ll explain how the litigation process works. An experienced car crash lawyer will explain that you shouldn’t think about a settlement until you fully understand your injuries and what your long-term prognosis is. He’ll speak with the insurance adjusters for you have signed documents to allow him to represent you.
- Vehicle owners are required to notify their own insurance carrier about the accident. You should never admit fault even to your own company. You should give the facts about what happened. Normally, the insurance company will want to inspect the car to see what repairs may be necessary or to determine if the car was totaled.
- Vehicle accident victims are not required to speak with the insurance adjuster for the people who were at fault, i.e. the defendant. If an insurance company, other than yours, wants to speak with you, you have every right to say that you want them to speak with your lawyer. If your lawyer thinks it prudent, he will set up a recorded statement and prepare you for it, and do a three-way telephone interview so that he is on the phone during the statement. He will also prepare you before the statement as to how to conduct yourself.
Victims should also understand that both Virginia and North Carolina have a strict contributory negligence laws. This means if a jury finds that the other driver was 90% at fault and you were just 10% at fault, then you get nothing. You don’t get 90%. You don’t get 50%. You get zero. So, admitting or implying fault in any way can cause you to lose your case.
Now if you were on the job at the time of your accident, generally, fault does not affect workers comp entitlement, unless you were grossly negligent, or failed to follow a company safety rule. For instance, if company safety rules require that you wear a seatbelt, and you were not wearing one and this increased your injuries, you would not be entitled to workers comp coverage.
The stages of your case once you a hire a lawyer
- Consultation. The attorney will begin by reviewing what happened and your medical complaints. The more he understands what happened, the better he can analyze who was responsible and why.
- Investigation. In the old days, the attorney would routinely send investigators to the accident site to take pictures and/or video of the site, but today, for most locations, you can view just about every angle of the scene using Google Earth and save the shots you want. If skid marks or sight distance are important, then an investigator with appropriate training will be sent to take measurements. This can prove critical in close cases. The investigators may also examine your vehicle. The damage to all the vehicles (what parts of the car and how severe) is another piece of evidence to help determine fault.
- Determination and Estimation of Coverage. Your own insurance policy should have a portion called Underinsured Motorist Coverage. (UIM). It is very important to find the declaration page of your policy. This will display what your coverage is. It is usually expressed as policy limits, with two numbers and a slash line. For instance it may say $100,000/$300,000.00. The first number is the per person limit and the second number is the total coverage in the event that more than one person was hurt. The reason the amounts are important is because the minimum coverage required in Virginia is $25,000.00, and in North Carolina, $30,000.00. So no matter how bad your injuries are, if both you and the defendant have the minimum coverage, that is all you will be entitled to. Unfortunately, we are not entitled to know the amount of the defendant’s coverage without filing a lawsuit. Most of the time, you can get an idea based on the year, make and model of the defendant’s car. So if they are driving a 1980 Honda that is barely holding together, you can bet their coverage is very different from someone driving a brand new Mercedes.
- Photos of the damage to the vehicle and any severe injuries. As noted above, it is very important to get photos of the vehicle damage. Particularly in a nasty wreck, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you have to go to trial, nothing conveys what you have been through better than a mangled mass of twisted metal.
- Medical care and gathering of records and bills. The attorney will review your medical injuries and the treatment you’ve received so far. The lawyer may suggest that your see other doctors, psychologists, therapists, and other health care providers. During your case, the lawyer will obtain medical reports which explain your medical condition, your prognosis, the loss of any long-term function, the pain and suffering that usually accompanies the type of injury you have, and any problems that are unique to your situation.
- When to negotiate. Insurance companies for the people who hit your car want to settle your case as quickly as possible for as little as possible. Experienced Virginia car accident lawyers understand that delay is not your friend. Many doctors will defer payment until your case is resolved, but they are not required to do so. Therefore, your own health insurance company should pay for your medical care until the case settles or there is a verdict.
While some injuries such as a broken arm are treated and then heal in a few months, there are often exceptions. When your arm heals, you may lose some range of motion. There still may be a persistent pain. If you settle too early, you can’t come back and ask for more money. That’s why it’s good to wait until your medical condition has stabilized.
- Demand Letter-Once all the bills and records regarding your related treatment are received, and you have reached maximum medical improvement, your attorney will prepare a demand letter, which will set forth the facts of the claim, and recite, in detail, the entirety of your medical treatment related to the accident. If you had any prior injuries to the same body parts, this would also need to be discussed and dealt with. You attorney will also attach all the relevant medical records and bills and tally them up to compute an appropriate amount to ask for settlement from the insurance company. The amount asked for is typically not the amount your attorney expects the case to settle for, but is merely a place to begin negotiations. The attorney will also attach any relevant photos of the vehicle damage, photos of your visible bodily injuries, and a copy of the accident report.
- How to negotiate. An experienced car accident lawyer understands how much your case is worth. He understands the strengths and weakness of your case and the defendant’s case. He understands the art of negotiation – how much to ask to start in order to get the settlement you deserve. The lawyer also understands when a settlement offer just isn’t fair and that you should proceed to a jury trial. Often times, the best settlement offer comes right before the jury trial date.
- Watch out if you have a worker’s comp case. One thing many folks ignore is the situation where they may have a worker’s compensation case as well because you were on the job at the time of your accident. Generally, the law does not allow a double recovery. This first means that you cannot settle your case against the other driver without the permission of the workers comp adjuster. If you do, that is the automatic end of your comp case. Also, the money paid out by workers comp will create a lien against your injury case. That being said, these amounts are usually reduced and worked out at the time of settlement. The main take-away is NEVER settle your injury case before your workers comp case or you will be in for a rough ride.
- Figuring how much the case is worth. For more detail on this subject, please download my free book, How Much is My Case Worth? Your lawyer should understand how to value and how to prove each of the following damage items:
- Your past and future medical bills. This includes hospital visits, doctor exams, work with physical therapists, and time with other medical professionals and healthcare providers.
- All medical prescription costs. Often, a car accident victim needs to take medications during the healing process. Some patients may need to take medications for the rest of their lives.
- The cost of any medical devices. Prosthetics, walkers, canes, and other devices cost money. They may need to be replaced over time. These expenses should be calculated.
- Lost income. This includes all the money you lost because you couldn’t work up through the date of the trial. It also includes any lost wages or income that you will lose because you have a partial or complete disability or until your injuries heal. Lost income is generally proved, with the preparation of legal counsel, by evaluating your tax returns, statements from your employers, and profit and lost summaries. In some cases, we work with accountants, vocational experts, and other financial professions to detail how much lost income the accident cost you.
- Property damage. This is typically the cost to fix your car or to replace it if the cost to repair it is nearly as much as the cost to buy a new one. It should be noted that typically your personal injury attorney will not deal with this at all, and it will be handled early on by you, and not by your attorney. This is because there is little leeway in negotiating vehicle damage amounts. You are entitled to recover the blue book value of the car and nothing more. While occasionally, there may be some add-ons for new items on the vehicle or other property damaged in the accident, it is usually fairly set in stone and there is little an attorney can do to change what you are entitled to. So unless the claim was completely denied, property damage is usually not part of your lawsuit.
- Pain and suffering. Each day, you have to live with physical aches, pain, and discomfort. The pain may get worse when you move or perform simple tasks. Pain can prevent you from sleeping, enjoying family, doing your job, and engaging in simple tasks like eating and walking. Pain can include itching, swelling, vision loss, and a range of agonies.
Along with the physical pain is the emotional worry about when and if your injuries will heal. You worry that you’ve become a burden to your family. Physical pain is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, fear, and other emotions.
Your doctors can summarize some of your pain and suffering. Family members can testify as to your sadness, your crying, and other symptoms. Often, the best witness for showing pain is you, the victim. An experienced lawyer will usually value the pain and suffering part of your claim based on his experience and knowledge of the jury pool and what other juries have awarded in the past.
- Scarring and disfigurement. Car accident victims who have scars, especially facial scars, or who lost a limb or body part because of the accident or an amputation – are generally entitled to additional damages.
- Loss of consortium. In North Carolina, (but not in Virginia) a spouse of an accident victim may be entitled to damages because they have lost the ability to enjoy their spouse’s companionship, guidance, and intimacy. This element only becomes significant in the most severe injury cases.
How long will all of this Take?
So, this sounds like an awful lot to do. You may ask how long all of this will take? And this really depends on how long your treatment takes and many other factors that are too numerous to get into here. I suggest you download the book How Long Will My Case Take? where attorney Joe Miller provides the detailed answers to that question.
- Filing of the claim in Court. If your attorney cannot reach an agreeable settlement with the insurance company, then a lawsuit should be filed before the statute of limitations runs. In both Virginia and North Carolina, that is two years after an accident. The complaint will identify who you are. It will also identify the defendants who caused you injuries. The complaint typically sets forth the theories of liability, typically negligence, and there may be a plea for punitive damages, if warranted. Once the complaint is filed, we can then formally conduct discovery and prepare your case for trial.
- Formal discovery. Discovery is the phase where each of the parties has the right to ask questions about what the other side knows.
- Defense questions. Defense lawyers will ask victims to state what happened, what their injuries are, and what treatments they’ve received. The defense lawyers will explore anything that might show the victim was partially at fault for the car accident. The defense attorneys will also try to minimize your injuries by exploring if you had any prior accidents or if there were other events that may be the cause of your pain.
- Plaintiff questions. Your lawyer will seek to determine which defendants owned the car. If the driver was different than the owner, we’ll seek to determine if the driver had permission to use the car. We’ll ask the driver where he/she was coming from and where they were going and get into all the details of the accident, particularly if liability or fault is contested. Many questions will vary depending on how the accident happened.
- Discovery has three basic parts to it:
- Interrogatories. These are written questions, sometimes 50 or even 100, about the events surrounding the car accident and the injuries
- Depositions. These are oral questions under oath that one lawyer asks the opposing party. All of your responses are taken down by a court reporter. This also includes depositions of your doctors.
- Requests for production of documents. These are written request to produce things such as medical bills, medical reports, proof of insurance, traffic citations, and other documents.
- The trial. Cases that can’t be settled should be tried before a jury. Depending on the amount we are trying to claim, some cases can be tried in lower Court by a judge. For instance, in Virginia, a district court case has a $25,000.00 limit. So if you know for a fact that there is only $25,000.00 in coverage, this may be the way to go. It does save a lot of money on doctor’s fees, deposition costs, etc.
- But on the higher value cases, plaintiff’s lawyers always ask to have a jury decide the case. The main parts of a jury trial include:
- Voir dire. The selection of the jury
- Opening statements. Each side presents its version of what happened
- The presentation of evidence. Each side calls witnesses to testify. The opposing side can cross-examine those witnesses. The victim’s lawyer will generally call the victim/plaintiff, the family members, and any witnesses to the accident, if liability is contested. The employer and co-workers may be called. Doctors may also be called unless the parties agree that medical reports or video depositions can be used. Depending on the type of claim, economic experts may be called to testify about future wage loss and even vocational experts, if the plaintiff is unable to return to work due to his or her injuries.
- Closing statements. Each side summarizes the evidence and argues why its side should win.
- Instruction to the jury. The judge instructs the jury on how to properly review the case.
- Jury deliberation. The jury reviews the evidence and decides who is responsible. If the defendants are responsible, the jury decides how much damage to award the car accident victim.
- The verdict. The jury informs the judge what decision it has made. The judge then reads the verdict to the parties.
- Appeal. The losing side may appeal the verdict to a higher court. Appeals are usually based on some legal or judicial error during the trial phase.
Speak with an Experienced Virginia car accident lawyer now
Car accident victims shouldn’t wait to speak with a lawyer. Memories fade. Evidence such as skid marks can disappear. Injuries usually worsen if you don’t see your doctor. As a respected car accident lawyer, Joe Miller will guide you through each phase of your case. He has been fighting for injury victims for over a quarter century. To make an appointment, please call (888) 694-1671 or complete my contact form.