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District-Court-LogoI had a district court trial—it was complicated liability dispute before Judge John Green in Baltimore City District Court.  In this auto accident collision we sued the other driver, and the other driver sued us.  This was a classic red light/green light case, which boils down to he-said/she-said when there are no independent witnesses.

An independent witness is a person who is unaffiliated with either party who sees the auto accident.  Independent is important—friends and relatives are more likely to lie to help their friends and relatives, so they have a bias, an incentive, to lie (even while under oath).

In our case, there were no independent witnesses.  However, there was a police officer who talked to the parties immediately after the collision.  In a trial, that police officer could testify about what the parties said, even if one of them hypothetically told the police officer that he “didn’t know what color his light was.”

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Pit-Bull-5
For nearly as long as there has been lawyer advertising (not too long—it was roundly prohibited in many states until about 1977), lawyers have compared themselves to animals.  Pit bulls, sharks, and other ferocious animals.  The reason is simple—it’s what the market wants.

I’ve had this conversation with many potential automobile accident clients:

“You seem too nice.”

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Front-End-Damage-1-300x225So you were in a car collision (we don’t call them accidents at trial, because it makes them sound unavoidable, or gives the impression that it was minor), and you’ve looked online, talked to friends, interviewed lawyers on the phone, and found one you like.

What is going to happen in that first appointment?  What should you bring with you to prepare?  What questions should you ask?  What questions will your lawyer ask you?

Things to bring (don’t worry if you don’t have all of this—bring what you have):

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Photo-2-300x228Do a search for auto accident lawyers, and you’ll find a ton of us—really, it’s like law schools were designed to pump out personal injury lawyers with the speed of widget-making machine.  Most of them have one thing in common—something that has always bugged me.  They call it an automobile “accident.”  I’m guilty of it—it’s hard to avoid that alliterative phrase.

Here’s the thing:  the word accident somehow makes it sound forgivable. In the religious or moral sense, that’s fine.  But in the legal sense, just because someone hurts someone else because of a mistake, it doesn’t absolve them of having to make up for it.  Sometimes we all fall back on the accident jargon, but better word is, simply, collision.  The flip side of the “accident” coin is a phrase that I do like:  personal responsibility.

If I do something wrong, I have to make up for it.  That’s how I was raised.  That’s how I try to raise my three kids.  That’s how we should all act.  Insurance makes this easy—if I cause a collision, I pay insurance so my insurance company can help those people that I hurt.  It might affect me a bit—a modest increase in my insurance premiums.  However, it makes me feel much better to know that, whatever injury I caused, I can somehow remedy the situation, through my insurance company.

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Pinocchio.jpgIt’s a simple word, credibility. Basically, it means a person’s believability. A person may not be credible because he has a history of lying, or because what he says doesn’t make sense when taken with other more believable facts.

In our recent trial, which was a liability dispute with no independent witnesses (we commonly call these “he-said, she-said” cases, regardless of gender), every single lawyer used the word credibility in opening statement and closing argument. Essentially, we all argued that our clients were credible, that the other side did not testify credibly, and sometimes that the witnesses were somewhat credible. It’s standard fare for a trial.

In a trial, credibility is the most important thing a witness or a party has. If the judge or jury has any reason to doubt that person’s truthfulness on any single point, even something unrelated, that doubt can cast a shadow on every point of that person’s testimony. That’s why some lawyers will fight hard to find a lie or a mis-rembering in testimony. It can be the difference between a win and a loss.

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Norwood jury box.jpgWe just finished a three day trial in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. It was a simple enough case in the beginning–we represented two clients who were injured when they were t-boned on Christmas day as they drove down to Our Daily Bread to help feed the homeless. Liability was disputed (meaning that the other driver’s insurance company believed our driver was at fault). Our clients had reasonable enough medical treatment, so we filed in the District Court for $30,000.00.

Unfortunately, the other side had other ideas. They immediately filed a cross-claim and moved us into the Circuit Court, something that the defense has a right to do when you file a case for over $15,000. Truth be told, our case probably should have been filed for less than $15,000. Our total medical bills were about $8,000 spread over two clients, and there wasn’t any significant permanency.

So, we slugged it out in Circuit Court. What would have been a one to two-hour trial in District Court became a three day trial in Circuit Court. It takes longer because we had to pick a jury, experts had to testify live (in District Court it is usually done by simply submitting the medical records and bills), and, of course, the jury needs to take a break from time-to-time.

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Crash (2 vehicles).jpgAn automobile accident can turn your life upside down. There’s so much to do–find reliable transportation, get to the doctor, deal with insurance companies, and survive missed work. The easiest way to know if you have a claim is to consult with a lawyer–don’t let the insurance company convince you that you have a claim (they are, after all, looking out for their own best interests).

Law School for Non-Lawyers

There are four requirements for every personal injury case. In order to recover in a lawsuit, each must be proven. For a settlement, the strength of one may help to overcome deficiencies in another.

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Norwood jury box 2.jpgSo your lawyer made a claim to the insurance company, and the case didn’t settle. Cases don’t settle for several reasons, including:

  1. The insurance company denies liability, thinking that their driver wasn’t at fault
  2. The insurance company believes that you were at fault for the collision
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Auto accident 2.jpgSo you’ve been injured in a Maryland automobile collision, and you want to get a settlement or verdict. What can you expect from the process? How long does it take? When will you get your money?

There are two possible phases–the steps leading up to a pre-lawsuit settlement, and the steps following that leading to a trial verdict or post-lawsuit settlement. We’ll talk about pre-lawsuit settlements here.

In general, after an accident and once you hire a lawyer, the lawyer will perform whatever investigation is necessary (ordering police report, talking to witnesses, locating photographs or accident video). He will work on notifying the negligent people/corporations or their insurance companies that they are on the case. At that point, they should not be talking to you, but should communicate directly with your lawyer. Your lawyer will also begin ordering your medical records or bills, so he can see what treatment you’ve had in the past, and possibly monitor current medical treatment. Finally, he will apply for PIP (personal injury protection) or MedPay (medical payments coverage).

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In some Maryland auto accidents, there is simply a limited insurance available. We see this frequently in bus accident cases and collisions involving multiple vehicles. If there are many people with injuries, the at-fault driver’s insurance policy may not be large enough to pay for those injuries. How is the money divided up?

The Set-up

An example fact pattern will help to explain this. Let’s say you are on a bus, which is hit by distracted teen who is texting on her cellphone. The teen driver has the lowest possible MAIF insurance–a policy of $30,000 per person, and $60,000 per accident in liability coverage. That means that her insurance company will pay a maximum of $30,000 for each victim, with limits of $60,000 to pay to all victims in a single accident.