If you were recently in an accident, there's a good chance that you’ve been bombarded with plenty of unsolicited advice. "Get an attorney, it's the only way you'll get anything." "Don't get an attorney. You don't need one." It's enough to make your head spin. Your friends and family are well-meaning, but sometimes, it's hard to navigate through conflicting advice.
Everyone reacts to accidents differently. Some individuals know that they want to hire an attorney the moment they get hit; others may delay asking for help despite serious and obvious injuries. Not every car accident will require an attorney, and choosing whether to retain one is a personal choice. Below, we'll guide you through some simple questions to help you figure out when you should hire an auto accident attorney.
Are you hurt?
The number one reason people hire an attorney after a car accident is personal injury. In one year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reported 128,420 motor vehicle accidents; of these, over 60 percent involved injuries.
Injuries after an accident aren't always obvious. In some cases, you may experience minor aches and pains or exhibit no symptoms at all in the hours following an accident. Everyone's body responds differently to trauma. Some people don't begin to experience symptoms until two to three days after an accident.
You may feel tempted to "tough it out" after an accident, take all symptoms seriously. What may seem like whiplash could still be causing you pain five years down the road, if not properly treated. For more serious trauma, including traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries, ignoring unusual symptoms could lead to permanent injury or death. A personal injury attorney can help you recover costs associated with your injury. Common costs include:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Wrongful death
Was a loved one seriously injured or killed as a result of an accident?
It's difficult to comprehend the sudden loss of a loved one. Accidents can take you by surprise and leave you searching for answers. But while you are trying to cope with your grief, you may be faced with the devastating reality of the financial costs you now face. Money can never bring back a loved one or lessen the pain you feel. That is not the point of a wrongful death suit. Rather, a wrongful death suit is intended to transfer the financial burden of the accident from the victim's family to the at-fault party.
In Pennsylvania, only a beneficiary of the deceased can sue for wrongful death. Pennsylvania defines a beneficiary as a spouse, parent, or child of the victim. A wrongful death suit can help you recover costs associated with the funeral and burial, as well as outstanding medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Is there a question of fault?
Sometimes fault is obvious; sometimes it is not. After an accident, it's easy for drivers to throw around accusations. If there is any question regarding who's at fault, you need to talk to a personal injury attorney. Pennsylvania is a no-fault state. Essentially, what this means is that you can file a claim against your insurance, regardless of who is at fault. But when it comes to recovering damages beyond what your medical benefits cover, you will have to take legal action against the other party.
If there are questions about fault, the other party's insurance will try to make it difficult for you to recover any damages. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you collect evidence to prove your case and file a personal injury suit. In addition to evidence that you gathered at the scene, a personal injury attorney can talk to witnesses, check for video footage, and hire someone to reconstruct the accident. Don't let the insurance company bully you. You have rights, and your injuries matter.
How many parties are involved?
Car accidents only involve you and the other driver, right? Not so much. Most of the time, personal injury cases will only involve the driver, but other parties may have contributed. For example:
- The other driver was on the job: At any given moment, thousands of employee-operated vehicles are on the road. This can include truck drivers, buses, private business employees, and rideshare drivers. When you are in an accident with someone who is on the job, it changes everything. The employer may hold some responsibility for the accident, especially if it was a company-owned vehicle. In the case of a truck accident, the employer, truck owner, and driver may all be separate people who hold different levels of liability.
- A third party caused the accident: Just because another vehicle hit you, that doesn't mean they are solely, or even partially, responsible. Did another vehicle cut the other vehicle off, causing the driver to swerve into your lane? Did the other driver run into you after they were hit by another vehicle? Did a negligent bicyclist enter the roadway, causing the driver in front of you to slam on his or her brakes? If the other party's insurance can prove that its driver wasn't at fault, it won't pay. You'll need an attorney to help track down the at-fault party and pursue legal recourse.
- The accident was the result of poor road maintenance: Injury lawsuits against the government are rare, but they do happen. If you think that poorly maintained, damaged, or non-existent safety devices led to your accident, you need to talk to an attorney. Special considerations in product liability cases and cases against the government are best left to an attorney.
Are you concerned about your legal rights?
Some people choose to handle a personal injury case on their own. That's your choice, but understand the insurance company is not there to protect you. It is worried about its bottom line. This means that it will try to deny your claims, flip the blame on you, and get away with paying out as little as possible.
If you think your legal rights may be in jeopardy, you need to reach out to a licensed attorney right away. If you have already been talking to the insurance companies, you need to be very careful with what you say or do. Never admit blame, and don't hand over any medical records without talking to an attorney. Insurance adjusters can be very good at getting information that they need to use against you without you even realizing it. This is why we always suggest talking to a lawyer as soon as possible and deferring any conversations with the insurance company to your lawyer.
Are there extenuating circumstances?
Not all accidents are straightforward. Personal injury cases can be messy and complicated. Let's take a look at a few circumstances that may impact the outcome of your case:
- Drunk driving: Drinking and driving is a crime. But this doesn't stop drivers from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. According to MADD, drunk driving killed over 11,000 people between 2016 and 2017, accounting for nearly one-third of all traffic fatalities. Drivers who get behind the wheel after drinking show extreme disregard for the lives of others. Because of this, the court may award punitive damages to punish the driver for his or her actions.
- Road rage: Was the other driver driving aggressively? Did one or both of you participate in road rage? Road rage can have a huge impact on proving fault and damages. These cases are complicated and require the help of an experienced legal professional.
- Hit and run: Proving damages in a hit and run case can be difficult. It often involves resources to which a civilian simply does not have access. A personal injury attorney can talk to the police, locate any video footage, and search DMV records. If the attorney cannot find the other driver, you may have access to your own uninsured motorist coverage.
Extenuating circumstances extend beyond the actual accident. Contact an attorney right away if:
- You can't find a care provider that will treat you.
- The insurance company is refusing to cover your costs.
- You received a ridiculously lower offer (which is usually a sign that the insurance company doesn't intend to play fair).
- You are self-employed or a stay at home caregiver, which will make it harder to prove and calculate lost wages.
Are you required to hire an attorney after a car accident?
While technically you don't have to have an attorney, practically, it's a whole different story. You likely want an attorney to help you file a lawsuit and negotiate with the other party. Handling a personal injury lawsuit on your own is a very difficult, time-consuming process that most often results in the plaintiff (you) getting a greatly reduced settlement or nothing at all. Things that you can expect your lawyer to take care of include:
- Review and investigate the facts of the case: You may see your case one way, a lawyer may see it another. A personal injury attorney can tell you whether he or she thinks that you have a viable case and if you missed any relevant information or potentially liable parties.
- Collect and organize evidence: Personal injury cases involve a lot of evidence. Beyond the evidence at the scene, your past and present medical record will likely come into play. Your attorney will connect with your caregivers to obtain relevant evidence. The attorney will also review your records for any red flags. Remember that time you went to the doctor for a sore back five years ago? That may suddenly be relevant.
- Contact and interview witnesses: Your lawyer will want to talk to any witnesses to the accident. Witnesses can make or break a case, and your attorney will want to know what he or she has to say before trial.
- Negotiate a fair settlement: You may not realize it, and it certainly isn't fair, but insurance companies usually offer higher settlements to represented parties. Why? Because they know that attorneys will call them out if their offer is not fair. Insurance companies try to get away with offering less than what you deserve. Your attorney will take care of all the back and forth negotiations.
- Take your case to court: The goal is to get you compensation for the full cost of your injuries by asserting your legal rights. Sometimes, this requires taking your case to court. In the event your case makes it in front of a jury, you want an experienced legal professional by your side.
When should you hire a personal injury attorney?
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you need to talk to a personal injury attorney. But the question is, when. We always suggest talking to a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. This will help your attorney get a jump start on the case and make sure that he or she has enough time to file a lawsuit, if necessary. In Pennsylvania, drivers have two years to file a personal injury lawsuit, so the sooner you can talk to an attorney, the better. Some of the benefits of talking to an attorney early include:
- Evidence: The earlier you talk to an attorney, the more time he or she will have to gather evidence. This is especially important in cases where there may be video evidence of the accident. If you wait too long, it's less likely you'll be able to access this footage.
- Memory: The human brain is imperfect. As time goes by, you may start to forget the details of the accident. This is common for witnesses who do not have a vested interest in the case. Even if you do manage to remember the details, the insurance company will have a better chance of poking holes in your story, pointing to unreliable evidence.
- Action: The heart of your case relies on personal accounts and evidence. We already know that waiting can affect these areas. But in some circumstances, it may be helpful to call on an expert witness or reconstruct the accident. These things need to be scheduled and take time. If you wait, you may lose the opportunity to present critical evidence.
Every case is different. It's hard to determine how much your case is worth and how much work it will require without talking to an experienced legal professional. That's why, if you have questions or need help after an accident, it's always a good idea to sit down with a car accident attorney right away.