What Does a Personal Injury Lawyer Do?
Have you ever wondered what a personal injury lawyer does? Most people assume that all lawyers litigate cases, as they do on television crime shows, like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. While personal injury lawyers do sometimes argue cases in court, they also do a great deal more. Read on for more information.
Obtain Justice for People Who Have Been Injured
Primarily, personal injury lawyers attempt to obtain justice for people who have been injured, harmed, or generally been the victims of wrongdoing by other people who are at-fault for causing the injury.
Note that—unlike in Law and Order—personal injury cases do not involve criminal charges or a determination of guilt or innocence. Personal injury lawyers practice in civil court, not criminal court. The justice sought is not for a court to find the person who caused the injury guilty and for the victim of the injury or harm to receive compensatory damages—often called damages, for short. Compensatory damages are financial, intended to compensate an injured individual for the full cost of the injury.
Let’s assume that you’ve been in a car accident, for example. You had to be removed from the car by emergency personnel and taken to the emergency room, where doctors determined that you suffered two fractured legs. You will face mounting doctor’s bills.
If the car accident was caused by the actions of another party, that party could be found negligent—that is, operating a vehicle with less care than the ordinary reasonably prudent person would likely have done. If that driver was negligent, a court may find him or her liable for your injuries, meaning that he or she will be responsible for compensating you for injuries.
A driver who caused a traffic accident may have broken one or more traffic laws, such as speeding or going through a red light. However, legal violations are prosecuted in criminal court, whereas your injuries following a traffic accident are a matter for civil litigation. Criminal prosecution of accidents does not directly affect personal injury claims, although a conviction can be used by a claimant as evidence of negligence. Individuals injured in car accidents can bring personal injury claims regardless of whether the other driver violated any traffic laws or was acquitted of all criminal charges stemming from the accident. The standard of proof is lower in a civil case than in a criminal one.
There are two primary methods of obtaining justice following an injury: (1) bringing a third-party insurance claim and (2) bringing a personal injury lawsuit. Let’s look at these in turn.
Bringing a Third-Party Insurance Claim
In many cases, injured individuals never go to court. Instead, they file what is termed a third-party claim with the insurance carrier of the at-fault party. If that party is found responsible for an accident, the insurance company in many cases should pay any injured person.
A third-party claim may sound simple enough, but there are several reasons why it can, in fact, be complicated and challenging for the injured person. In these cases, it helps to have a seasoned personal injury attorney work with the insurance companies and negotiate for the highest possible settlement.
The first reason to hire an attorney is that insurance companies can be very skilled at denying or minimizing claims. This is a fact of life. Injured people may think that an insurer has every reason to feel sympathy for them, but it actually works the other way. As insurers see it, a claim brought to them for payment negatively affects their bottom lines. They don’t want to admit their insured was at fault, because that exposes them to risk, and they don’t want to pay out a claim, ever.
Insurance companies may contest the assertion that their insured party caused an accident. They may blame something else entirely or imply that the claimant was actually at fault. They may try to say that your injuries stem from causes other than the accident, such as a sporting injury or pre-existing condition. Insurance companies may also dispute your medical treatment and suggest that your injury or harm could have (or should have) been treated differently. They may also claim your pain and suffering is less than it is.
Finally, these companies have additional techniques for minimizing the payout of a third-party claim that don’t involve disputes. One favorite technique is to process a claim relatively quickly, but at a low level of compensation—often quite a bit lower than the claim is worth. Insurance companies assume, often quite rightly, that an injured person will be under some financial duress as medical bills mount.
An injured party who can’t pay bills or cannot work due to the injury may jump at the prospect of an insurance check. Such individuals may not feel inclined, or have the time, to negotiate for more. Personal injury lawyers are alert to all these potential tricks and strategies. They are experienced in negotiating for the highest level of compensation possible.
One final note on third-party insurance. In some cases, bringing a third-party claim can be very complicated because it may involve multiple insurers. Truck accidents are often complex cases. Truck accidents can be caused by drivers, owners, subcontractors who repair, inspect, and maintain trucks, subcontractors who load and secure cargo, truck manufacturers, manufacturers of components, and repair companies, or a combination. At times, all of these parties will have separate insurance carriers and policies, all with separate coverage and provisions. The complications of these cases alone make it a prudent idea to hire an attorney.
Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit
If bringing a third-party insurance claim is not an option or negotiations with insurers have not resulted in a fair settlement, personal injury lawyers can help injured people bring a personal injury lawsuit in civil court. In these cases, testimony from both the plaintiff (the injured party) and defendants (the at-fault parties) can be heard by judges and juries, who then determine whether to award compensation and at what amount.
Helping Compile Evidence
Both third-party insurance claims and legal suits require substantial evidence, for several reasons. First, you must establish the negligence and liability of the party who caused your injuries. You have to prove that these negligent actions occurred, how they occurred, and when they occurred. You must also prove that the defendant’s negligence directly caused your injuries.
Second, you must establish the extent and nature of your injuries. Third, you must also prove the extent and nature of any related events, such as wages you have forfeited by being off of work or pain and suffering.
The good news is that the evidence you will need to prove these claims is relatively easy to obtain. It’s just that injured people, in their pain and distress, often fail to do so. Proving negligence, for example, is often a matter of obtaining records, such as police crash reports in the case of a car accident. A call to law enforcement immediately after a crash is required in Florida if a crash has resulted in injuries, death(s), or a minimum of $500 in property damage. Crash reports include the officer’s observations about the crash, including the likely causes.
If crash reports are not available, personal injury attorneys can hire investigators who can use investigative techniques and forensic analysis to determine what happened. These investigators can see if there is surveillance footage, interview eyewitnesses, and more. Proving the nature and extent of your injuries can be done by obtaining records of your doctor’s visits, as well as the treatment prescribed, and copies of any x-rays or MRIs. Law firms can obtain expert testimony about how certain injuries are likely to have happened, as well. This expert testimony then becomes part of the evidence.
If your injuries have affected your job performance, a personal injury lawyer can calculate how much that has cost you in lost wages. If you have had to recuperate from injuries and couldn’t work, or have had to take time off for doctor’s appointments or surgeries, the amount is calculated by multiplying the time by your salary. If you can’t work at all, a personal injury lawyer can compute what your earnings would have been had you not been injured. That becomes part of your compensation. You can also ask for retraining expenses if you can retrain for another job.
Finally, an attorney can negotiate for compensation for pain and suffering. The term “pain and suffering” refers to pain and suffering, of course, but it also encompasses the overall impact an injured person’s injury or harm has had on their life. Catastrophic injuries, in which the injured person cannot walk ever again or will need full-time health attendants in the future, usually receive high pain and suffering damage awards, simply because the person’s life is so negatively affected by the injury. In contrast, a simple fracture of an arm, though painful to the injured person, will likely heal in due time. While that person may receive a pain and suffering damage award, it will be much lower than that of a person with a catastrophic injury.
Attorneys can examine all of the factors that go into a pain and suffering award. They can then make the case to the insurance company or the court for the highest award possible. Important considerations include whether the injury affects the person’s livelihood or promise of livelihood (a sports star who is no longer able to play, for example, may receive a higher award than someone who isn’t as affected) and the relative age at which the person was injured (younger people may receive higher pain and suffering claims because the effect will last for a longer proportion of their lives).
Calculate and Explain an Individual’s Potential Compensation
A personal injury attorney can also calculate and explain to injured people what damage compensation is possible. In fact, one of the biggest advantages of consulting a personal injury attorney is that injured parties will understand how much to expect and thus will be better equipped to assess settlement offers.
In summary, people injured by a negligent person or other entity may be eligible to receive economic compensation for the following:
- Medical bills (doctor’s visits, emergency room visits, ambulances, surgery, hospitalization, clinical care, prescription medication, physical therapy, medical devices, retrofitting a home for an injury, and more)
- Prospective medical bills (all of the above, if expected in the future)
- Wages lost from work
- Prospective wages lost from work
- Pain and suffering, if applicable
In addition, if the at-fault party shows a particularly egregious disregard for the safety of other individuals, in the opinion of the court, a court can levy punitive damages. As the term “punitive” implies, these damages are intended to punish the wrong-doer.
Handle a Wide Variety of Cases
Personal injury attorneys handle almost any case in which one party causes injury or harm to another party. The parties can be people, such as drivers of cars that cause accidents, or organizations, such as a company that manufactures a defective product, like an e-cigarette that catches fire in a user’s pocket.
At-fault parties may also be certain government organizations, such as a county that does not adequately maintain or repair its roads, if road conditions cause an accident. Potentially-liable organizations can include companies, hospitals, healthcare organizations, governmental bodies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and more.
Personal injury lawyers handle the following types of cases:
- Vehicle accidents, such as
- Car accidents
- Truck accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Bike accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Boat accidents
- Premises liability (injuries, harm, or wrongdoing in buildings or property—such as malls, hotels, nightclubs, apartment buildings, offices, and more)
- Nursing home negligence
- Defective products
- Dog bites
Explain How Your Own Insurance Policies Will Affect Your Claim
Personal injury lawyers can also explain how your own insurance policies affect personal injury claims. Generally, this isn’t a huge factor that will affect your legal strategy, but vehicle accidents are an exception to this rule. As most Floridians know, Florida is a no-fault state. This means that everyone must first turn to their personal injury protection (PIP) insurance for payment of medical bills and wages lost from work.
In the case of serious and significant injury, however, injured people can step outside of the no-fault system and bring a third-party or personal injury claim. These usually involve situations where bones have been broken, the use of some part of the body is limited, the injured person is disabled for a significant period of time, or the injuries include disfigurement.
If you need more information, most personal injury lawyers offer complimentary consultations, so you have nothing to lose by calling and asking any remaining questions you have.