Personal Injury Law:
What You Need to Know
Most of us have heard the phrase personal injury, but many people may not be sure exactly what it means. A personal injury refers to a situation where someone has been physically or emotionally injured or killed by the wrongful act of another.
A personal injury claim is when the individual harmed wants to get money from the person or company that wronged them as compensation for the harm. This claim may be for negligence, which simply means the injured person claims the wrongdoer was careless. Automobile accident cases are the classic example of negligence claims. Another example is a slip or trip and fall which is called premises liability.
If the carelessness is committed by a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer or accountant, it is called professional malpractice. As you might guess, products liability refers to harm caused by a defective product. Finally an industrial or worker’s compensation claim is one for injuries or death which occurs on the job. Unlike other personal injury claims, the person making the worker’s compensation claim need not prove anyone was at fault or careless in order to recover worker’s compensation.
Who will pay for my medical bills, lost time from work and physical limitations?
Personal injury law says that if someone else carelessly causes an accident they can be responsible to pay medical bills, as well as any pain, discomfort, emotional harm, lost wages or physical limitations which are the result of the accident.
Expenses for medical bills and lost time from work are usually easy to calculate down to the penny. However, a compensation for pain, scarring, emotional harm, or physical limitations - both short and long term - are not so easy to calculate. For these items you, your lawyer, insurance companies and sometimes juries must decide the fair and reasonable amount of money that will compensate for your injuries and harms.
Remember, however, that the other person may not have any insurance, or enough to pay the bills. Also, sometimes there may be a dispute as to who was at fault or whether all the injuries and treatment are directly related to the accident. That’s why it’s usually best to first submit your bills through your own health insurance. A lawyer can advise you on questions of fault, available insurance coverage and who is responsible to pay for these things as well as whether your health insurance, treating doctors or hospital have a right to a share of your claim.
How does fault come into play?
Whether someone will owe for the harm caused to you depends on who was at fault and how much they were at fault. Frequently, there will be several individuals and companies that share some of the blame. Often, the injured person also has some responsibility for their own injury. The total amount of money each person or company must pay depends on what percentage of fault they have and the injured person’s claim is reduced by their percentage of fault.
What is a wrongful death case?
If someone dies as a result of another’s carelessness or fault, the surviving family members can bring a wrongful death claim for the loss of their loved ones. In Arizona, the only persons who can bring such a claim are the parents, the wife or husband and natural children of the person who died. They may seek to be paid for any loss of financial support from their lost loved one, as well as their loss of love, guidance and companionship.
Do I need a lawyer to make a claim?
Although you are not required to have an attorney to make a personal injury claim or to negotiate with an insurance company, an attorney can help you to understand your legal rights. If you caused an accident or may be responsible for someone else's injuries, an attorney will usually be hired by your own insurance company to represent you depending on the type of claim and coverage. Regardless, if you are in an accident you should always immediately contact your own insurance company and tell them what happened. This is true whether you think you were at fault or not.
How long do I have to pursue a claim?
If you are unable to agree on an amount to settle your claim with the other person(s) or their insurance company, you must file a lawsuit to protect your rights. For most negligence cases in Arizona, you must file the lawsuit within two years of your injury. Be careful, though, because some deadlines can be as short as six months. There are different requirements for making a claim against government agencies, or if you were hurt on the job.
How are personal injury attorneys paid?
Some lawyers charge their clients based upon how many hours they work on a matter for their client. Others charge a set amount for handling specific types of problems. Most personal injury lawyers are paid a percentage of the money you ultimately obtain as part of a settlement or trial. This is called a contingency fee.
The way this usually works is the lawyer agrees to bring the claim and do his/her best to get a satisfactory settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached, then the lawyer will take the case to trial and ask a jury to decide what the client should be paid. At the beginning of the case, the client agrees that the lawyer’s pay will come out of the money he actually gets for the client; an agreed upon percentage of the amount collected. Once money is obtained for the client the lawyer then takes that percentage of the money collected.
The client and lawyer also usually agree at the beginning of the claim that the lawyer will pay all the litigation related costs of the case until money is collected for the client. At that time, the reimbursement of those litigation costs, in addition to the contingency fee, comes out of the money collected for the client. These litigation costs may include filing fees at the court house, costs for investigators, expert witnesses and the cost of obtaining medical records. These costs are separate and different than attorneys’ fees. Fees are to pay the lawyer for his/her time, skill and effort. Costs cover expenses the attorney had to pay up front to advance a personal injury claim to a settlement or trial.
Finally, it also is usually agreed at the beginning of a case that if the lawyer does not succeed in getting any money for the client, then the client will not owe any fees at all to the lawyer. Fees in a personal injury claim almost always depend upon the lawyer being successful in obtaining money for the client. The client, however, may still have to repay the lawyer for costs associated with the personal injury claim.
How can I find an attorney?
One of the best ways to find a lawyer is to get a referral from a trusted friend or family member. Ask questions such as “How did you know the lawyer? What kind of matter did the lawyer handle for you? Was the lawyer prompt and attentive to your needs? Were you satisfied with the result?” If you already know a lawyer you should ask that lawyer what her specialty is. Most lawyers practice in particular areas and you may find it wise to hire a lawyer who specializes in personal injury.
You can also go to the State Bar of Arizona's website at www.azbar.org and select "Find a Lawyer" to search for Arizona attorneys by name, practice area, office location or languages spoken. Importantly, the State Bar of Arizona has stringent standards lawyers must meet before they can be certified as a specialist in an area of law. Injury and Wrongful Death Specialization was created by the State Bar to protect consumers and to make it easy for them to find qualified lawyers who practice in this area. To be certified in injury and wrongful death a lawyer must pass a written test, have participated in a significant amount of trials, and receive high recommendations from judges and other lawyers.
To find the names of attorneys who are certified as specialists in a particular field, click here.
What to Do if You Are Involved in a Car Accident
The most important thing is your health.
If necessary, go to the emergency room or follow up with your regular doctor. You should bill all treatment through your regular health insurance, if you are covered. Some doctors will agree to provide treatment and wait to be paid from a settlement.
Pay close attention to the details of how the accident occurred.
Try to find out who was responsible for causing the accident or injury. You should call the police and request that a report be made when you are involved in an accident that was someone else's fault. If the police do not do so, you should obtain the contact information for everyone involved and their insurance companies as well as the names and contact information of any witnesses. If you are not hurt and are able to safely take pictures of the cars and the road with your cell phone, do so.
Talk to your insurance agent.
After an accident, review your own insurance policy and talk to your insurance company or agent. You may be entitled to payments for medical bills ("med pay coverage") and your own car insurance may apply if the other driver does not have insurance or if there is not enough insurance ("uninsured and underinsured motorists" coverage).
Always report the accident to the other person's insurance company.
Always be polite and cooperative when reporting the accident, but remember that you generally do not need to give a recorded statement nor should you talk about your injuries until you are released from your doctor's care.
Document your injuries and expenses.
Keep track of all expenses you incur, including bills and receipts, and be sure to document any time lost from work due to the accident. Take photographs of the vehicles, the accident scene, as well as your own injuries, if applicable.
What to do if you caused or may be responsible for the accident.
Never leave the scene of an accident. You will need to cooperate by providing truthful information to the police or sometimes to your employer if the accident happened while you were on the job. If you may be at fault for causing an accident and you have insurance, you should report the accident to your own agent or insurance company, and they will usually be able to take care of investigating the accident, settling any claims based on the available coverage, or hiring a lawyer to defend you, if necessary.