Whether or not you should handle your own personal injury matter or hire a professional depends on many factors. In this brief video, Santa Clarita accident attorney Robert Mansour discusses the factors that may affect your decision to hire a professional or do things on your own. If you choose to handle your accident case on your own, you may also find this video helpful as Robert offers some important tips for handling your own case.
Hello, everyone. This is Robert Mansour. I'm a lawyer in the Los Angeles area, and one of my areas of practice is personal injury. One of the issues that comes up quite a bit is whether or not a client should handle their own personal injury case. Perhaps that's something you've wondered about. Maybe you've been involved in a car accident, and you're wondering, "Should I involve a lawyer, and if I don't involve a lawyer, what should I do to handle my case?" That's what this video is designed to handle. I serve primarily the Santa Clarita area, which is in Northern Los Angeles County, and my number is 661-414-7100, and the website is Valencialawyer.com. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see that I indicate that you should always seek professional advice when dealing with legal matters. I think that, that's a very good idea, even if you choose to do things on your own. It doesn't hurt to get a professional's advice and see if they can give you some guidance. Let's begin.
The first threshold question is, "Should I even get a lawyer involved?" I think you should get a consultation, but I don't necessarily think you always have to hire a lawyer. In fact, I would say that a good 40% to 50% of the time when clients come and see me, I tell them they might be better off without an attorney. There are some cases that don't need a lawyer, and you're certainly capable of handling them yourself. For example, if you are not injured in an accident case, and all you have is property damage, then you don't really need a lawyer. Lawyers are of much more value when you've had an actual injury. Property damage issues are best handled without a lawyer, because if a lawyer takes a big fee, they're going to take a big chunk of your property damage recovery. That's not going to be great for you. If it's only about property damage, I wouldn't hire a lawyer. If there is only minor property damage in your case ...
Let's say you've been involved in an accident, but there's very little damage to your vehicle, less than $1,000, which is not all that difficult to do to get some $800 of damage, $500 of damage. If it's very hard to see the damage to your vehicle, in other words, people can't even see it, and you have to squint to see the damage, then you're better off handling your case on your own. Because in most cases, I hate to say this, but juries and insurance adjusters are not very impressed when there's very little property damage or none that can be seen. That's one of the threshold questions. If you only have minor injuries, and say you just have a little bit of a sore neck, a little bit of a stiff back, nothing major, no treatment is necessary, or maybe very little treatment is necessary, then again, involving a lawyer may not be a very good idea. Also, if you waited too long to seek medical treatment, or there too many significant gaps in your treatment ...
For example, I got a call from a client the other day who said, "Hey, I was involved in an accident a year ago, and now I think I want to get a lawyer." I said, "Well, were you hurt?" He goes, "Oh yeah, I got some neck pain, and back pain, etc." I said, "Did you go to any doctors? Did you have any treatment?" He said, "No, I haven't had any doctors, or any treatment, or any examinations." I told him, I said that's not something I can really help him with, because he waited an entire year before he started even treating or getting any attention for his injuries. That's not going to fly, and a lawyer is not going to be able to help you with that, in most cases.
If you choose to handle things on your own, here's some advice. Do not give a statement to any insurance company too early in the process. What they're going to do is they're going to call you, and they're going to insist on taking your statement. They're going to say things like, "We're going to close our file if you don't give us a statement," or "We really want to learn more about your accident, and we'd like to take your recorded statement." Usually, by the way, this occurs the day or two after the accident. Sometimes even the same day, you'll get a call from your insurance company, their insurance company, and they're going to want to take your statement. In my opinion, giving a statement too early in the process, especially within the first 30 days, is premature, and in most cases, it doesn't help you at all. In fact, it is usually used against you.
People say, "Can I talk to my insurance company?" I say, "That's fine. Talk to your own insurance company." That's okay, but be very careful what you say about your injuries, because if they talk to you the following day, you might not feel so bad. You might still be recovering from the shock of the accident, and then a few days later, you start to feel the pain. In the meantime, you've already told the insurance adjuster over the phone during your recorded statement that you're fine, that you feel okay, and you're not hurt. Then if you try to say that you were hurt later on, they will definitely use that against you. I would just politely decline the statement. Say, "Thank you very much, but I'm not prepared to give a statement at this time. Perhaps sometime in the future, but not right now." Again, I have never really seen anybody benefit from giving a recorded statement to the insurance company too early in the process.
Also, if the insurance company for the other side offers to visit you for coffee and meet you at your home within a few days after the accident, what they are trying to do is, they are trying to give you a small settlement, get you to take that money, and they can just close their file. Again, that's not a very good idea. Do not do that. If you can, get a copy of the police report. If there was a police report at the scene, try to get a copy of it. What's going to happen is the officers are going to give you a card, and on that card in most cases, will be a police report number. What you need to do is you need to contact the agency that is handling that particular police officer unit that reported to the scene. It could be a local police station. It could be a county police station. It could be a sheriff's department. Just go ahead and see if you can get a copy. It might cost you a little bit of money, but it's worth having it. Sometimes it could take several weeks, so don't delay on that.
Also, get copies of all your medical records and bills. What I mean by this is that sometimes people don't understand that medical records and bills are two different things. Medical records is what the nurses write down at the hospital and what the doctors write down at the hospital, all of the notes, forms that you fill out, etc., etc. X-ray findings, MRI reports, that's all part of your records. The bills are just the bills, but what you need to understand is that it's two different departments, in most cases. It's a records department that you need to get your records from, and the billing department where you get your bills from. All you need to do is you need to just call them, and say, "Hey, I'm Mr. Smith," or whatever. "I was involved in an accident on such and such a day. I visited your facility. I would like all of my medical records and my bills." You may have to call two different departments to get all that, but you are entitled to those things, because you are the patient, and legally that's your stuff. You can get it, but you need to ask for it, because they're not just going to give it to you.
Sometimes my clients say, "What about the benefits forms that I get from my insurance company, my health insurance company?" Sometimes clients get these things called Explanation of Benefits forms, and they arrive in the mail. It shows how much they were charged, how much the insurance company paid, and how much is their responsibility. That's not a bill. That is just an Explanation of Benefits from your insurance company. That's not the same thing as the bill from the hospital or the bill from the doctor. If you are still treating at the doctor's office, it's too early to get the medical records and the bills. Wait till the very end, and then get it all at one time.
Try to get a detailed property damage estimate for your vehicle. Sometimes clients say, "Well, I took it to a place, and they told me it's going to cost X." I say, "Well, did they give you an estimate?" And they say, "No." I say, "Well, that's not very helpful." Make sure you get a detailed property damage estimate for your vehicle. It could be that the insurance company is going to handle that for you, but if they don't, it's helpful to get that estimate. Actually, in any event, it's helpful to get the estimate, because it might reveal that the accident was more powerful than the damage seems. Sometimes you'll take a look at the car, and it doesn't look so bad, but if you take a look at the property damage estimate, you'll see that there was frame damage to the vehicle. If there was frame damage to the vehicle, that could be persuasive when trying to argue to people that the impact was a lot bigger than it might seem on the surface.
Get photos of all vehicle damage and all injuries. This is a problem that I see all the time. Clients get into an accident. I say, "Do you have any photographs of the damage to your vehicle?" "Oh, no." "Do you have any photographs of the damage to the other vehicles?" "Oh, no." "Where is the vehicle?" "Well, it's at the tow yard." Well, I would suggest going to the tow yard and taking photographs of that vehicle from a multitude of angles, from a multitude of distances. If there is any hidden damage, try to take pictures of that. Take a decent digital camera with you. Don't take your phone, unless you have a very good camera on your phone. Sometimes people take pictures with their phone, but they don't know how to get those pictures off of their phone, and that's not going to be very helpful. The nice thing about digital prints, or digital photos, is that you can print them in various sizes. You have the source image, and you can do a lot with that. You can burn it onto disc. You can send it by email. You can do a lot of things with a digital copy. At some point, you're going to want to make traditional print copies of those photos, as well.
Very important. If there was any visible injuries to your body, you want to take pictures of that as well. A lot of clients forget, or they call me, and they say, "Hey, I got some bruises on my body." I say, "Did you take any pictures?" They say, "No, I didn't." I say, "Well, good luck persuading the insurance adjuster if you didn't take any pictures." You got to also mention all of your injuries to your doctors. If it's not in your medical records, it's like it never happened.
Get your car fixed as soon as you can. This is important, because if you delay, the insurance company might say, "You owe us for storage charges, because you didn't call us soon enough," or "The body shop is going to start calling you and saying, 'Hey, you just can't keep your car here forever.'" You got to move quickly on issues involving property damage. Either your insurance company goes and fixes your car, or the opposing party's insurance company. I generally like your own insurance company to do it, even if you incur a deductible. It's generally much faster. They generally will do a better job. They are also your employees. You pay the premiums on that insurance policy, and so they have a duty of loyalty to you that the other insurance company doesn't have. Also, they will be more apt to pay for storage charges. They will pay for a rental. They'll generally be more generous with you than the opposing party's insurance company. But act quickly. If your car is a total loss, you just can't leave it at the tow yard. You've got to make sure that you resolve the issue quickly so that they don't try to nail you with these quote unquote storage charges that you might be strapped with if you wait too long.
Throughout the entire handling of your personal injury case, you want to be courteous and civil to the insurance adjuster at all times. Why is that? Number one, there's really no reason to get nasty and angry. In most cases, try to keep a cool head, even if you're upset. Also, keep in mind, this is the same individual in most cases who's going to be writing you a check some day. The last thing you want to do is anger them or have a strained relationship with the same person who you're going to be asking for money from in the future. Always keep your eye on the ball, so to speak, and don't get riled up. Try to keep your cool, and maintain your composure at all times.
One other thing, put things in writing when you think it's important. Don't leave things to voice messages. Another issue is you have to determine how you're going to pay for your medical care. Let's say you're getting some medical care after the accident. If your health insurance company is going to pay for that, that's fine. Just realize that they might ask you to reimburse them at the end of your matter. Sometimes you don't even know if they're going to ask you to reimburse you, and then months later, they find out that you got treatment from an accident. They try to get reimbursement, and you've spent all the money. Make sure to explore whether or not your health insurance provider has a right to reimbursement or not.
The other thing that you could do is that you can ask the insurance company for the opposing party to pay your medical care, but they're not going to pay it as you go along. In fact, they will rarely ever pay things on face value. I'm always surprised when the insurance company for the opposing party will pay anything at face value. They generally want to nickel and dime you and say, "This cost too much," or "You were treated for too long." They will make assurances to you in the very beginning. Many times they'll say, "Just go ahead and go to your doctor, and send us your bills, and we'll take care of it." Don't hold your breath. You will submit your bills, and they will probably not pay the entire amount, or they will nickel and dime you to death.
The other thing that you can do is you can turn to your own auto insurance company, if you have the right kind of coverage, and they will pay for your medical bills through something called medical payment's coverage. It's also known as some other type of thing, but the truth of the matter is, you need to find out whether or not you even have this kind of coverage. If you do, your own auto insurance company might pay for your health care up to a certain amount, but then they will ask for reimbursement at the end of your case. In some cases, you may be able to get that reimbursement waived.
Wait until you are healed from your injuries. Don't present your case too early. This is a very common error that I see. Clients are very eager to settle their case, and they're not even done treating yet. They treat for a few days, and then they say, "How much should I get for my case?" I'm like, "We don't really know, because you're not even done treating with your case. You don't have any idea how much your medical bills are. You don't have any idea whether or not you have any serious injuries. You don't have any idea if you're going to heal properly, if you're going to have any residual problems." Presenting your case early in the game doesn't really help.
What you need to make sure is that you present your case at the very end when you are completely done with all of your medical treatment. One of two things will happen. Number one, you will reach a pre-accident status. The doctor will discharge you from his or her care, and you will have reached pre-accident status. Or the doctor will say, "Hey, listen. I've done everything I can for you. There is nothing more that I can do. I'm going to discharge you from my care." Only then should you present your case. Keep all of your doctor's appointments, and don't delay in your treatment.
If you don't keep your doctor's appointments, and you skip on them, and you get too busy, and you don't go, or you wait two or three weeks before you start any kind of treatment whatsoever, all of those things will be used against you by the insurance adjuster. Sometimes people just stop going to the doctor. They treat for a couple of weeks, and then they just stop going. That's a sign to the insurance adjuster that you don't have any serious injury, because you simply decided to stop going. Again, always keep your doctor's appointments, and don't delay in your treatment.
Another big mistake is that people over-treat. They figure, "Hey, I got into an accident. Guess what? I'm just going to keep going for all these massages and doctor's appointments, and while I'm at it, I'm going to get all this other medical care that I've been wanting to get my whole life." They start bootstrapping injuries. There's nothing insurance adjusters hate more than over-treatment. Juries don't like it much, either. What does it mean to over-treat? That means you're going far too long. How much is too long? In my experience, anything that is simply a soft tissue, minor aches and pains, most insurance adjusters will start to give you a hard time after six weeks of therapy. After six weeks of treatment, if you're just going week after week, I've seen some clients go for massages for seven months, and then they are surprised that the insurance company for the responsible party doesn't want to pay. Again, this is not the time for you to get all the medical care that you've always dreamed of. It'll backfire, I promise you.
See if you can get a narrative report. That means that if your doctor will do you the favor of writing a report that says, "Mr. Smith was involved in an accident. These are the injuries that I think Mr. Smith had from the accident. This is the treatment that he got, and this is my prognosis," something along those lines. To be honest with you, most doctors will not do this unless you pay them an extra fee, but it helps when it comes to presenting your case. Again, if it's a very simple straight-forward case, perhaps a narrative report is not really necessary.
If you have any lost earnings from the accident, in order words, you lost money from your job, you were out of work for a few days or a few weeks, make sure you get some kind of documentation for that. If you're out only a couple of hundred bucks, then you can just assert the lost earnings, and in all likelihood, you'll be fine. But if you start to ask for more than $500, $1,000 in lost earnings, the insurance company for the responsible party, or actually even your own insurance company, if you're pursuing them, will ask you for documentation. That means you're going to have to prove to them how much you were earning before the accident, and how much you lost after the accident. Sometimes you can get a letter from your payroll department or a letter from your supervisor, saying, "Mr. Smith lost this many days from work. He was getting paid X dollars per hour, and therefore, he lost this much money." If you're going to ask for a significant amount of money, you're going to probably have to show the insurance company that your doctor put you off work, which means that you're going to have to have some kind of doctor's notes or doctor's documentation saying, "Please keep Mr. Smith off of work until such and such a date."
The insurance adjusters need documentation. They don't pay money just for the fun of it. They need to legitimize every nickel that they pay, so they're going to need some proof. Have realistic expectations about your personal injury case. You have not won the lottery, and this is not your retirement plan. The days of getting into accidents and getting all kinds of money for your case are over. These days, you're lucky to get your medical bills paid, in some cases, but don't expect that you're going to get thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars above your medical bills. You must have realistic expectations about your personal injury case. If you have very high expectations, then you're mostly likely going to be disappointed.
At the very end of your personal injury matter, you're going to have to prepare something called a "demand package." This is where you put all of your materials together, photographs, medical bills, medical records, any narrative report you got from the doctor, property damage estimate to show the severity of the impact, even if you've already settled your property damage claim, especially if there's anything relevant in there, like frame damage, police report to show that you were not at fault for the accident and that the other party was at fault, all of the material, lost earnings documentation, etc.
Then you send all of that to the insurance company with something called a "demand letter." This letter is basically something that can be very straightforward, but essentially it takes the following form. Number one, you'll recite the facts of the accident, how it happened, who the parties were. You will then get into what injuries that you had. Then you describe what kind of treatment you received and a little bit of a summary about that. You will also outline all of your damages, so your medical bills, your property damage, if it hasn't yet been resolved, your lost earnings.
Then you might want to add a little bit for your "pain and suffering." The first part is called your economic damages. Those are the actual bills. The second part is called your general damages, your pain and suffering damages, your non-economic damages. This is where you don't want to go too crazy, because if you ask for three, four, or six times your medical bills, that's not going to work, unless you have a very serious residual problem from the accident.
Then you send all of this to the insurance company. If you want, you can do it return receipt requested, although it's not necessary. Be very polite. In your letter, you can ask for an amount of money, or you can just leave it open for discussion when the insurance adjuster calls you. Frankly, I have found that the amount you ask for rarely matters. They use software, they have guidelines, and that's how they're going to come with an offer for you.
When you get the offer from the insurance company, you don't have to take it. You can decide to negotiate. You can file a lawsuit. You can maybe go see a lawyer and get their opinion, but it's the starting point for negotiation. After you have agreed on a settlement amount for the insurance company, it's time to settle your case. They're going to send you something called a release, which means that they will ask you to release their client, the person who hit you, from liability, and you're never going to go after them again. When you sign that, you send it back to them, and then they will send you the check for the amount that you settled for.
You still have to handle any liens, so for example, if your health insurance company wants to be repaid, or your own auto insurance company wants to be repaid for money they paid out on your case, you have to honor those liens, or at least investigate them, because you don't want them to come back and haunt you later on. This really is the only paperwork you should ever be signing from the insurance company. You don't want to fill out any paperwork in the very beginning of the case. Sometimes they'll send you paperwork that says, "Hey, we just want your medical records." Generally what they want to do is they want to go fishing for all of your medical records. I wouldn't sign anything they send you at the beginning of the case. It's generally a big waste of time and not in your best interest.
Hopefully this gives you a nice overview of how to handle your own personal injury case. If you have any questions about it, I would really recommend that you go see an experienced personal injury attorney. Feel free to call my office for some advice if you need it, but if you have a serious injury or serious property damage, then you might want to get a lawyer involved. Otherwise, you might be able to handle the case yourself. This has been Robert Mansour presenting How to Handle Your Own Personal Injury Case. Thank you very much for watching, and please visit my website for additional information.
by Robert Mansour
Robert Mansour is a personal injury lawyer serving Santa Clarita, Valencia,