Car accidents happen all too often, leaving drivers and passengers alike seriously injured. In addition to the pain of their injuries, victims are left dealing with medical expenses, missed time at work, and adjusting to their new reality.
By law, the person who caused the car accident should pay for these injuries. In many cases, lawyers for car accident victims can secure that payment through a settlement, which is an agreement in which the at-fault party pays money to the crash victim, in exchange for the victim giving up the right to sue for additional damages.
In this blog post, we discuss how lawyers for car accident victims analyze settlements to determine when their clients should accept them.
The Real Risk of Car Accidents
More than 4 million people suffer injuries and need medical attention because of car accidents each year in the United States. In addition to injuries, more than 36,000 people die in fatal motor vehicle accidents.
All too many accidents result in severe injuries for vehicle occupants, including:
Traumatic brain injury: If a vehicle occupant strikes their head during the accident, they are at risk of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The severity of TBI symptoms will depend on the location and severity of the blow. Symptoms can include physical and cognitive impairment, a coma, a vegetative state, or even brain death.
Head injuries: A blow to the head can also cause a dangerous skull fracture or laceration.
Spinal injuries: The spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that allows the brain to communicate with the body. Spinal cord injuries can significantly limit the victim’s mobility, including causing symptoms such as numbness, muscle weakness, and partial or total paralysis.
Back and neck injuries: The back and neck are both susceptible to injury from the jarring force of an accident. One common neck injury after a car accident is whiplash and is caused by rapid back-and-forth movement to the neck. Victims suffering from neck and back injuries often require ongoing physical therapy and suffer from constant pain.
Internal damage: If you suffer a blow to your body, it has the potential to damage organs including the lungs, kidney, and heart. These injuries are often difficult to detect, and any delay in treating them can result in serious health complications.
Broken bones: At a minimum, broken bones limit a victim’s mobility and ability to perform day-to-day tasks. At worst, they require surgery and rehabilitation, and leave victims permanently disabled.
Facial and dental injuries: If a passenger’s face strikes a hard surface, dental and facial injuries may include cracked or chipped teeth and broken facial bones. If the damage is severe, facial reconstruction surgery or plastic surgery could be required.
Any of these injuries, and the countless other injuries a car accident can inflict, come with steep costs for victims in the form of medical expense, lost time at work, and extreme discomfort and difficulty.
Establishing Liability for a Car Accident
Before an experienced car accident attorney can negotiate a settlement for a victim, the lawyer must first figure out who owes the victim damages. Lawyers investigate the facts of a crash to identify those potentially-liable parties.
Every crash differs, but the parties who may owe money to crash victims frequently include:
Negligent driver. A driver whose negligence caused an accident will often face liability for the victims’ resulting injuries. Negligence occurs when a driver fails to exercise reasonable care behind the wheel, such as by violating traffic rules and regulations including speeding, driving under the influence, speeding, or driving distracted.
Negligent driver’s employer. If a negligent driver was acting in the scope of their duties as an employee at the time of the accident, then the victim’s lawyer may have the ability to hold the driver’s employer legally and financially accountable, because employers generally must answer for the misconduct of their employees.
Vehicle manufacturer. The manufacturer of any vehicle must ensure the vehicle’s safety, reliability, and quality. The manufacturer of defective automotive equipment can face legal liability to crash victims if that defect played a role in causing an accident, such as when a car’s brakes fail or its airbags fail to deploy.
Local government. Our tax dollars pay for the government to maintain roadways and traffic signals in a safe condition. A government entity’s unreasonable failure to fix, or to warn the public about, unsafe roads can make that entity legally liable to crash victims for damages. Strict time limitations make seeking compensation from a government agency more difficult, so accident victims should always seek advice from a skilled car accident injury lawyer as soon as possible.
Lawyers for car accident victims often find that more than one party could face legal liability to an accident victim. In those cases, lawyers must analyze if, when, and how to approach each of those parties seeking a fair settlement of a client’s claims.
Assessing Damages to Seek in a Settlement
Having determined who may owe damages to a car accident victim, experienced attorneys next focus their attention on the amount of damages those parties should pay in a settlement.
That analysis typically starts with a calculation of the various types of harm an accident victim has suffered.
Every accident case differs, but those categories of harm often include:
Medical costs. The party who causes an accident must generally pay for the current and future costs associated with treating injuries the accident caused, such as doctor’s bills, the cost of surgeries and procedures, hospital stays, emergency transportation, and prescription medicine.
Lost income. Many car accident injuries force victims to miss work, work a reduced schedule, or leave the workforce altogether, resulting in the loss of wages and future income. The party with legal liability for an accident should compensate victims for this financial loss.
Property damage. The party at-fault is responsible for the repair or replacement of any property damaged in the accident. This includes damage to any vehicle or other property such as a cell phone or other electronic devices.
Emotional distress. A car accident is a distressing event that often causes more than physical injuries. Car accident victims are prone to emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. This emotional distress can have a profound impact on the victim’s life for which the victim deserves compensation. Emotional distress is often the most contested aspect of damages claimed in a car accident claim.
Diminished quality of life and relationships. Car accident injuries often limit the victim’s ability to engage in activities that were previously an important part of their life. Injuries can also disrupt a victim’s ability to maintain personal relationships. These non-monetary losses merit compensation from the party at-fault for them.
Exemplary/punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish the party who caused a car accident for egregious behavior. Whether punitive damages are available will depend on the nature of the decisions or actions that contributed to the cause of the accident. For example, the actions of a driver with an extremely high blood alcohol concentration might rise to the level of warranting punitive damages.
The damages calculation that experienced car accident lawyers perform serves as a reference point in settlement negotiations. By knowing how much money a car accident victim should receive, lawyers can advise their clients about the relative strength of a settlement offer.
Analyzing a Settlement Offer
People tend to picture courtrooms, judges, and juries when they think about hiring a lawyer for their car accident claim. In reality, however, the majority of car accident claims never see the inside of a courtroom at all.
Instead, most car accident claims end in a settlement between the injured accident victim and the at-fault party or parties (and their insurance companies). For that reason, analyzing the strength of a settlement offer constitutes an indispensable skill for any car accident injury lawyer.
Quick Overview of Settlements
As we set at the outset, a settlement is an agreement, usually written down in a contract that both parties sign. In the typical settlement, the party with liability (and its insurer) agrees to pay a certain amount of money to the victim. In exchange, the victim agrees to release that party from further liability and to withdraw any lawsuit that the victim has filed.
Once the parties sign a settlement agreement, the case is usually over. With only extremely rare exceptions, you cannot reopen a settlement once it is finalized. The money a car accident victim receives in a settlement usually represents all the money the victim will get.
That makes it extremely important for the car accident victim to feel sure the settlement pays the maximum amount realistically available for the victim’s claim.
How Skilled Car Accident Lawyers Analyze Settlements
Attorneys for car accident victims analyze settlement offers by taking all of the factors discussed above into account to decide whether the amount of money the at-fault party (and its insurance company) have put on the table represents a fair resolution of the victim’s claim.
Lawyers have a saying that the best settlements are the ones in which no party walks away totally satisfied. They say this because settlements usually (although not always) require both parties to compromise, at least a little. In a car accident case, that means the victim often agrees to accept a little less (but not too much less) money than demanded, and that the at-fault party agrees to pay a little more (but not too much more) than they’d prefer to pay.
With that basic approach in mind, lawyers analyze settlement offers by asking:
Does the amount offered reflect the severity and impact of my client’s injuries and losses? In other words, how close does the amount offered come to 100 percent of the damages the lawyer has calculated that the clients should receive?
Does the offer reflect the strength of my client’s case for liability and damages? At-fault parties, their defense lawyers, and their insurance companies will often discount the damages the victim demands by estimating the chance that the victim would lose if the case went to trial. The victim’s lawyer will analyze that discount against his or her own assessment of the probability of winning or losing a trial.
Is this the most money my client can realistically get from this party? Car accident lawyers understand that you can’t get blood from a stone. If the at-fault party does not have any more insurance coverage or personal assets to pay than what is already on the table (because it reflects the maximum insurance policy limits, for example), then that is all the client can realistically hope to get from that party. One of the most important steps in car accident cases is obtaining the policy limits of the at fault driver – how much insurance coverage is available.
Will settling with this party help my client’s case against another party? In cases in which more than one party owes damages to a car accident victim, lawyers might see a strategic advantage in agreeing to a settlement with one party, but not another. That could happen, for example, if the lawyer wants to avoid a trial against two parties, or if the lawyer thinks the victim has a stronger claim against one versus the other.
Finally (and most importantly), are my client’s best interests served by accepting or rejecting this offer? Every car accident victim has unique priorities and needs that can influence whether a lawyer recommends they accept or reject a settlement offer. In otherwise identical cases, a lawyer’s assessment of the client’s needs and priorities might lead to a recommendation that one client says yes to a settlement offer, but the other client says no.
Lawyers perform this assessment and then, typically, make a recommendation to their clients about whether to accept or reject the money offered in settlement. Ultimately, however, it is up to the client whether to agree to a settlement.
Find an Experienced Lawyer to Help You Settle Your Car Accident Claim
Car accident victims tend to want to move past the trauma of a crash and its resulting injuries as quickly as possible. That can make it tempting to agree to the first settlement offer that comes along.
We hope, however, that having read the discussion above, you see that it takes the training, skill, and intuition of an experienced car accident lawyer to evaluate whether a settlement offer is fair. Contact a skilled car accident injury lawyer today to make sure you get the settlement you deserve for your car accident injuries and losses.