This post won't go into detail about whether you can or should handle a Maryland auto accident lawsuit by yourself--that's a post for a different day (for information about filing a lawsuit on your own, see the legal Self-Help section of our website).
Instead, this is to help answer whether you should settle your case on your own, or whether you should hire a lawyer to do it for you. The analysis will depend on where you are in the process:
I Was Recently In An Accident And I'm Not Finished With Medical TreatmentEarly on after an automobile accident, there are a few good reasons to hire a lawyer:
- You need medical treatment, but you either have no health insurance, insufficient PIP insurance, and you can't pay a doctor to treat you
- You don't want to deal with the paperwork (filling out a PIP application, or ordering medical records, for example) or time (dealing with insurance adjusters)
- You want someone else to take care of your car's property damage
- You're concerned that the insurance company (either yours or the negligent driver's) might take advantage of you
Of course, the converse of each of these is also true. If you don't mind spending the time to deal with the accident, you have enough PIP insurance, and you can handle your property damage issues, then you can do it all yourself. You can choose to hold off hiring a lawyer, or you might choose to just resolve the whole thing on your own. People who have limited medical treatment, for example a visit to the emergency room and maybe a primary care doctor appointment, can easily handle this on their own. The more medical treatment an auto accident victim has, though, the more complicated the case becomes. In those situations, it might be good to have the advice of a lawyer. Clearly, if the victim requires surgery, or is in treatment for more than 6 months, a lawyer is a good idea. Anywhere in between is something of a gray area.
I Have Finished All Of My Medical Treatment And I'm Ready To Settle My Auto Accident CaseIf the case is ready for settlement, a person injured in an auto accident may try to settle the case on his own. He can probably do so if:
- He's willing to spend the time and money to order all medical records and bills
- He's willing to spend the time dealing with the insurance adjuster
- He's willing to spend the time collecting other important evidence: witness statements, police reports, etc...
Beyond this, it becomes a simple mathematical calculation. A person who has reached this point might choose to try to settle it and, if the insurance company's offer isn't good enough, he can then hire a lawyer. The calculation to determine whether a lawyer is a good idea is as follows:
Unrepresented Settlement Offer ≤ 66.66% Represented Settlement Offer
Most lawyers take auto accident cases on a contingency fee basis, which means that they get a percentage of the final settlement or verdict. Most lawyers' agreements provide that the client gets 2/3 (66.66%) of any pre-lawsuit settlement, and 60% of any post-lawsuit settlement or verdict (this number doesn't include expenses, which are usually modest in the smaller District Court-level automobile claims). The real question is whether the lawyer, either by adding his name or by expert negotiation/litigation skills, can increase your settlement or verdict by more than 2/3 (if pre-lawsuit) or 60% (if post-lawsuit). If so, you will do better by hiring a lawyer.
The reality is that insurance companies do tend to make higher offers to auto accident victims represented by lawyers. Sometimes it is enough of an increase to justify the attorneys' fees; sometimes it is not. I suspect that the main reason is inertia--insurance companies know that an unrepresented accident victim who is negotiating his own case is already less likely to hire a lawyer under any circumstances--they will sometimes accept settlements because they don't know what their case is worth; or they will sometimes accept settlements because it is easier to be done than to go that extra step to hire a lawyer. Once a lawyer is involved, however, the proper response to a low offer is to file a lawsuit, which puts the insurance company's feet to the fire (some lawyers are settlement lawyers, and some lawyers are trial lawyers--you must make sure that you hire someone with a track record of going to trial).
The only difficulty for most people is that it can be hard to know what their case is really worth, and what offer a lawyer would get. Check out the Maryland Auto Accident Settlement Calculator for more information. As a very rough rule of thumb, if the insurance company is not offering you a settlement that equals at least double your medical expenses, plus your lost wages, then they are not even trying to give you full value. In some cases, that number should be much higher than even that.
The Value A Lawyer Brings To Your CaseSo what can a lawyer do for your accident claim? Here's how they can help make your life easier:
- Deal with your insurance company to ensure that PIP makes the proper payments
- Deal with the negligent driver's insurance company to get your car's damage taken care of
- Deal with the negligent driver's insurance company to settle your case
- Help to recommend a doctor if necessary (I prefer that clients go to their own doctors; in some situations, however, this is not realistic)
- Collect all evidence, including witness testimony, medical records and bills, and police reports
- Educate you as to the settlement value and trial value of your case
- Negotiate down the amount owed by you to your doctors or health insurance
- File a lawsuit, if necessary