I hate to break it to you, but despite all the cute auto insurance ads on TV, insurance companies are not “nice guys”. At least not if you were injured through the negligence of their insured. You have to understand this very important fact right from the get-go: In personal injury litigation, insurance companies are not your friend. They are not a “good neighbor”. They are not a cute little lizard. They are not “by your side”. You are not in “good hands” with them. They are a business. Their business is to pay you as little as possible on your claim so they can yield a bigger profit.
Case in point: Last week I settled a case for a woman who fell off a horse at a local riding stable during a riding lesson in upstate New York (near Syracuse). It was her first time on a horse. The saddle spun around while she tried to mount, throwing her to the ground, where she suffered a serious femur fracture. Turns out she weighed more than the saddle setup could handle. The stable owners knew it, but failed to warn her. Here was the original position the insurance company took (you need to click the image to read it):
After we got that letter, we sued the stable owners. We then took the deposition testimony of the owners and witnesses. The insurance company lawyers then asked the trial judge to toss out our case because our client had “assumed the risk” of horse riding lessons, and had signed the waiver. The trial judge dismissed our case. We then appealed to the appellate court in Rochester, New York, got the trial judge reversed, and the case reinstated. Last week, at a mediation, we settled the case for $130,000, which by the way was the amount of money we always thought the case was worth.
Yeah, it took a while, and a lot of work, but it was worth it. Just ask the client.
The insurance adjuster may tell you that you don’t need a lawyer to settle the claim. Don’t believe her. Almost always you need a lawyer to protect your rights! A national study found that injured persons who were represented by an attorney received 300% more than persons who settled their claims without a lawyer. Even after deducting the standard lawyer’s fee of 1/3, you usually make out better with a lawyer. Also, if the insurance company won’t offer you a fair settlement, only an experienced attorney can successfully take the case through litigation and to trial.
Sometimes I do advise potential clients to handle their own claims. When? Usually when the case is quite small, or the insurance carrier has already made an offer that I feel is fair, or a combination of the two. Under those circumstances, you are sometimes better off taking the money and avoiding paying a 1/3 contingency fee to a lawyer. But those cases are rare. If your injury is at all significant, the insurance carrier is almost certain to “low ball” you if you proceed without an attorney. You will almost certainly do much better, even after the 1/3 fee is deducted, with a reputable attorney who can put the fear of a strong trial presentation into the insurance agent’s bean-counter head!
Moreover, a good attorney can BUILD your case. That’s right. His work can actually make your case WORTH MORE. How? He knows how to develop your medical records. He knows how to package and present your case to the insurance carrier, and, if necessary, to a jury at trial. Lawyers are called “advocates” for a reason. Not only can an experienced attorney get you a lot more money in most cases, he or she can tell you what is fair, and what you should refuse to accept. Remember, the insurance company’s goal is NOT to “be fair”; it is to make a profit. And how do they make a profit? By paying YOU, and every other unlucky injured person, AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.
At the very least, before you decide to “go it alone” in your personal injury claim, you ought to take advantage of the “free consultation” that almost all personal injury lawyers offer. What have you got to lose?