A Guide to Car Accident Settlements
You’ve been in an accident. People are hurt, cars are wrecked. What do you do now? Should you call an attorney right away, or should you wait to see what happens?
The moments following an automobile accident can be chaotic and confusing. Your first instinct, of course, is to help the injured and notifying law enforcement authorities. Knowing what to do after that can be bewildering.
Unfortunately, the actions you take in these moments could spell the difference in the way the rest of your life will play out.
When you contact a car accident lawyer can impact your settlement
Getting your legal team in place sooner rather than later could make the difference between winning and losing your case.
Following an accident where people are injured or killed, you are almost certainly going to need the help of a lawyer to ensure your rights are protected. And, it’s better to have that help by your side as early in the process as possible.
Should you represent yourself in a car accident case?
With YouTube videos and online guides on everything from converting your car to run on vegetable oil to how to make your own furniture, it is not surprising that the do-it-yourself trend has extended to the legal sphere, too.
Although self representation in legal matters may be gaining in popularity, doing so isn’t necessarily wise.
If your case cannot be settled out of court, it may go to trial. This is where having an attorney is especially crucial. A trial has many intensive legal protocols that must be strictly followed.
Without knowing what questions to ask, how to properly answer questions when you’re on the stand, as well as what evidence to present and how to present it, it may be unlikely that you will win in court on your own.
The following serious mistakes made during the claims process could significantly affect your leverage during settlement:
- Giving a recorded statement that can later be used against you
- Failing to understand the value of your claim, and therefore asking for too little (or too much)
- Taking an initial settlement offer
- Failing to file a claim in time
- Assuming that it will all “work out”
Why you should contact an attorney for your car accident case
Not only do lawyers have the capability of collecting evidence at the scene and information from witnesses to the accident, but they also know how to use that evidence to prove your case. Good injury lawyers understand how to do their homework, are familiar with state and local laws, and know how to pursue full and fair compensation in a car accident case.
Sometimes a case requires in-depth research for critical information like extensive driving history reports, employment records, and previous accidents of the parties involved. Having an attorney with vast experience in personal injury cases is essential to gathering this information and preparing a successful accident claim.
An attorney can help you not only ensure you obtain the best settlement terms possible (depending on your specific needs and desires) but can also make sure these terms are accurately memorialized in a written settlement agreement.
Your settlement agreement must be carefully drafted to protect your legal rights to compensation because most settlement agreements require you to waive your right to seek future compensation through a lawsuit.
As a result, the terms included in the settlement agreement must contain a compensation amount that is reasonably related to all the expenses you suffered and will likely suffer in the future due to your injury. It should also contain payment terms that enable you to receive compensation when you need it.
Important questions about car accident settlements
How do I obtain a car accident settlement?
The law allows parties to settle their dispute at any time before a judge or jury renders a dispositive decision in the case. Although settlement talks can begin at any time–even before a lawsuit has been filed or on the eve of trial–settlement discussions usually start early in the life of the lawsuit.
Either party can begin the settlement process, which usually is initiated by one party offering the other terms and conditions that both would find agreeable in exchange for settling the dispute. It is common for this “first offer” to be rejected and countered by the other party.
The two parties continue to negotiate over the precise terms and conditions, with the injured party seeking to obtain as much as possible in compensation and the at-fault party generally wanting to resolve the case for as little money as possible and without a formal finding of fault.
Assuming that the two parties can reach terms that are mutually acceptable, the settlement agreement is put into writing and, if necessary, presented to the court for approval.
The settlement agreement will usually indicate the amount of compensation the injured party will receive and how the settlement amount will be paid (e.g., in a lump sum or periodic payments). The settlement agreement should also indicate what would happen if the at-fault party does not pay the agreed-upon amount according to the terms of the agreement.
What is the time frame for receiving a car accident settlement?
The settlement negotiation process typically takes place after you have completed your medical treatment and all of the records and reports have been received from your doctors. At that point, your injury attorney will evaluate your case and make a demand for payment to the insurance company.
Usually, how much is demanded depends on the amount of your medical bills or the severity of your injury.
Occasionally, settlement offers happen shortly after an accident. This can occur if an insurance adjuster or company wants to settle while you are still receiving medical care. But this is often before the full extent of your injuries and future medical needs are known.
For that reason, we usually suggest that you do not discuss settlement or attempt to settle until your medical care is complete, or you have reached your maximum expected recovery.
It is important to know that the goal of the insurance company is to settle your claim for the least amount of money possible.
They may offer to pay your initial medical bills and a small amount of compensation in exchange for a full release of liability for any future medical bills and payments. And, generally, once you sign a release, you may lose your right to seek additional compensation even if the full amount of your medical expenses, lost pay, and pain and suffering are not covered.
We recommend that you do not sign any settlement agreement before you consult with an attorney.
Do I have to wait until I’m fully recovered to settle?
It is usually best to wait to settle your claim until the total cost of the medical treatment and the full extent of your recovery is known. This allows you to recoup all past and future medical expenses, as well as understand how fully you’ll recover.
Even when all the necessary testing and surgical procedures have been completed, there will be recovery time. The time it takes to regain abilities is different from person to person and injury to injury.
Though it may be difficult to wait, not capturing all the costs or not including all the medical care necessary can be risky, because once you settle, there is no chance of going back to get additional compensation.
Do more severe injuries mean a higher settlement amount?
Generally speaking, the more severe an injury is, and the more permanent the loss, the higher the value for pain and suffering tends to be. For instance, the value of a lost leg is much greater and may require a much higher settlement than a broken ankle from which there is a full recovery.
An accident case is made up of several components, all of which ensure the settlement is full and just. Items that must be included in the calculation are:
- Medical bills: This includes tests, surgeries, and treatments that must be done as a result of your injuries or to help you regain your physical abilities.
- Lost Wages: Past and future earnings from work, as well as any times you cannot work because you have to attend treatment programs and appointments with specialists.
- Actual inability or limitations: Accounts for any activity you can no longer do as a result of the accident. This also accounts for the physical pain you’ve endured since the accident and what you will likely suffer in the future.
Some of these factors are easier to calculate than others.
While you can add up the medical bills (past and estimated future costs), lost earnings, and the costs to repair or replace your vehicle, the normal activities and enjoyments you can no longer do are more difficult to place value on.
According to Georgia Law, quality of life issues are best resolved by an “enlightened jury.”
The jury will be in the best position to assign the value of your quality of life following the accident.
What are the factors that can result in a larger settlement?
In order to ensure that fair and full compensation is awarded, not all accidents are equal. There are elements of an accident that can add up to a larger award, if they are handled correctly.
Here are a few factors that can result in a larger settlement:
- Severe or catastrophic personal injury
- Wrongful death
- The involvement of multiple defendants, including commercial or business interests
- Extraordinary negligence or willful recklessness by the at-fault driver
- Punitive Damages
Here’s what you should know about each of these circumstances:
Understanding severe or catastrophic injuries
The amount of time your injuries will cause suffering is a key factor in the ultimate size of your settlement.
You can often expect a more substantial settlement if you’ve suffered a permanent injury or a lost limb than you would if you sprained your neck or ankle and can expect a full recovery.
Compensation for catastrophic injuries might include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Physical therapy and rehabilitation expenses
- The cost for prosthetics
- The cost for replacement wheelchairs
- Expenses related to modifying your vehicle-now and for the rest of your life
- Modifying your living quarters to allow for wheelchair accessibility
- Loss of future enjoyment of life
- Lost or diminished capacity to work (For instance, someone who earns a living that depends on the use of his or her legs would be reflected in the demand for compensation.)
If your injuries are likely to cause you pain and suffering for years rather than months, your lawyer will adjust the demand for payment to compensate you fairly.
Understanding wrongful death
Georgia law allows wrongful death claims when there is a death as the result of an accident where negligent, reckless, intentional, or criminal acts are found to have played a significant factor.
A wrongful death claim is filed in addition to any personal injury claim, and many of the same items are compensable in both. Expenses, such as medical and funeral costs, would be included along with other factors that attempt to compensate the plaintiffs for their loss. (Look here for a more in-depth discussion on wrongful death claims.)
Additional damages for wrongful death in Georgia include the full value or future value of economic losses and the enjoyment and expected experiences of life.
An accident with multiple defendants, including commercial or business interests
The law expects people who earn a living by transporting goods or services to exercise a high level of caution. Truck drivers, furniture delivery drivers, and florist van drivers all must obtain commercial drivers’ licenses (CDL) to ensure they have superior driving skills. When a person with a CDL is involved in an accident, it may mean that they did not take their role as a professional driver seriously enough.
Professional drivers aren’t the only ones who can be held accountable for such accidents. It’s also possible that the driver’s employer failed to train the driver properly to ensure his or her duty to the safety of other drivers. If it can be proven that there was negligence due to a lack of training or enforcement of the rules, then it can mean a settlement from the employer as well.
An accident where multiple defendants are found negligent has many layers. If, for example, a truck driver leased his truck to a company that provides services to a still larger company, there are three tiers of liability to be explored.
Victims of such an accident may have claims against each of the defendants for damages leading to multiple settlement options. A situation like this requires careful investigation and can lead to a more substantial settlement in the end.
Determining extraordinary negligence or willful recklessness by the at-fault driver
Georgia law expects all drivers to follow the rules and to behave in ways that do not threaten the safety of others. When a driver fails to do this, the law punishes them accordingly. The more egregious or outrageous the behavior of the driver that caused your wreck, the better your chances of winning a larger settlement will be.
An accident with drivers under the influence
If the at-fault driver is drunk or under the influence of drugs and it can be proven, your chances of winning the case are better.
Blood alcohol and toxicology reports can often be found in police reports and are among the best ways to demonstrate that the individual was carelessly endangering others.
Eyewitnesses who observed any behaviors of the at-fault driver prior to an accident can be a good way to prove recklessness as well. Witnesses can include a bartender who served the driver or the convenience store clerk who refused to sell beer because the person was visibly under the influence. Sometimes these witnesses can be difficult to find or unwilling to testify, but their testimony is often critical to a personal injury claim.
Understanding punitive damages
Punitive damages are special reparations meant to punish the defendant and to discourage repeat behavior. Punitive damages may be paid when the at-fault individual is proven to have engaged in especially reckless, wanton, and willful behavior. These damages are often added when intoxication by drugs or alcohol is involved.
Punitive damages are strictly limited by Georgia law. The jury is authorized to impose such damages only when there is a specific plea for them in the original complaint.
What happens if there’s no settlement?
If the insurance company does not offer a fair settlement, a lawsuit should then be filed. Lawsuits are often filed in the county in Georgia where the at-fault driver lives. See the Georgia Constitution, Article Six, Section Two, Paragraph Seven for more details.
What is a fair settlement from an insurance company?
The answer to this question depends on several factors. Usually, a fair settlement is determined based on the kind of injury you have, the quality and ability of your personal injury attorney, and the amount of insurance available.
In Georgia, an injury victim is entitled to compensation for the harms and losses suffered. This usually means your past and future medical expenses, your lost pay as a result of your injuries, and your pain and suffering–including any future limitations caused by your injury.
“Fair” may also depend on your expectations and the conduct of the at-fault driver.
Our firm will discuss with you what other victims have received for similar injuries and under similar circumstances. If the insurance company makes an offer below that range, we will discuss your options of making a counter-offer and continue to negotiate or file a lawsuit. Insurance adjusters often make better and larger settlement offers to attorneys and law firms that have a reputation for filing suit against low-ball offers.
An attorney’s understanding of convincing arguments, such as how the accident has affected your enjoyment of life and how much it could cost you in the future, comes from years of practice and a wealth of experience. For this reason, it is usually in your best interest to choose a lawyer who has a long and successful history of winning personal injury cases.
Paying bills from a car accident settlement
If you have been hurt in a car accident and your medical treatment was paid for by your health insurance or workers’ compensation insurance, these insurance carriers, or even your hospital or doctor’s office, may place a lien on your recovery. These medical providers may have a full or limited claim to reimbursement from your award or settlement. Often, the only way to know how strong a health insurance plan reimbursement (subrogation) right is, is to obtain and review the policy language.
Other liens, such as hospital, physician, and ERISA liens, are often highly negotiable. They should never be paid in full without first having an attorney assess the strength of the lien and negotiate it to a lower amount.
The Millar Law Firm’s Georgia attorneys provide this service at no additional charge to our representation.
Can I receive a free consultation for my car accident case?
An initial consultation should be free of charge as part of an attorney’s services. Your meeting should involve sitting down with a lawyer or legal team to discuss what happened in the accident and how it is affecting your life.
You do not need to have the accident report or your medical records during an initial consultation. An experienced lawyer can begin gathering that information and evidence for you and begin the settlement process on your behalf once you agree to work together.
Do I have to pay legal fees if I do not win my case?
The Millar Law Firm works on a contingency fee basis, which means we do not collect legal fees unless we secure compensation for you. Our payment then comes as a percentage of your compensation when your case is finished.
Contact The Millar Law Firm for a free consultation
If you have suffered injuries or are coping with other damages after a car accident, you can schedule a free case consultation with an experienced attorney at The Millar Law Firm.
There’s no obligation to hire our firm, and you’ll leave the meeting with a better idea of how you should proceed.