While law school likely prepared you to answer questions on substantive law, there are certain practicalities that often go ignored. Many law schools now emphasize legal skills and the practice of law, your exposure to client interactions likely came through externships, internships, clinics, or clerkships. If you plan to practice in the personal injury area of law, clients are expecting you to be able to help them with real world problems on day one. Take a look at these questions that every personal injury lawyer must know how to answer:
“Should I give a statement to the insurance company?”
The short and simple answer is no. In almost all cases, the client should not give a statement to another party’s insurance company, or even their own insurance company. Shortly after an accident, an insurance adjuster will contact the client asking them to provide personal information and a statement of what happened. When declining to give a statement, advise the client to be courteous but firm. Emphasize that although the adjuster may try to convince them they are there to help, any statement could potentially be detrimental to their claim down the road. When a client gives a recorded statement, the insurance company will attempt to verify the claim against other evidence for (even minor) discrepancies.
“I was just in an accident. What should I do?”
First and foremost, assess the injuries and get medical treatment to those in need quickly. Carefully check yourself and others – not all injuries are immediately apparent. If someone is injured, call 911. Next, contact the police, unless there is no damage worth reporting. Even though the client may be reluctant to involve the police, it’s important to do so in order to obtain a police report. The police report can be critical in prosecuting the case and obtaining compensation. It’s also important to talk to witnesses and get their contact information. Exchange contact information with the other driver(s) involved in the accident. In addition to getting the contact information of witnesses, have them write down their account of what happened. The driver should also make notes and write down how they experienced the accident. After talking to witnesses, take pictures – lots of them. Make sure you have pictures of the scene of the accident, any vehicle damage, and all injuries. You should continue taking pictures throughout medical treatment and the healing process, as these pictures are important in proving damages.
“The other driver doesn’t have auto insurance. Do I still have a claim for my injuries?”
The answer to this questions is depends on the state and whether the client has uninsured/underinsured (UM/UIM) motorist coverage. UM/UIM coverage is a policy provision that requires the driver’s insurance company to pay in the event he or she is injured by an uninsured/underinsured motorist. If the accident occurred in a state that requires uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (or if the client has UM/UIM coverage on their policy), then the client’s insurance company must pay for damages caused by liable, but uninsured/underinsured drivers. Currently, 22 states require uninsured motorist coverage; 14 states require underinsured motorist coverage. There are more uninsured motorists than you may think. In fact, about one in eight drivers were uninsured in 2014.
“Will the other driver’s insurance carrier pay my medical providers now so I can get treatment?”
Unfortunately, most of the time the other driver’s insurance carrier will not immediately pay for your treatment. Instead, you likely will have to use your own health insurance. Assuming the injury stemmed from a car accident, your auto insurance policy may include something called Medical Payments coverage. If you have this coverage, your car insurance will pay for your medical bills up to the value of the policy. In getting treatment immediately, another option may be providing the medical facility with a Letter of Protection, which promises that they will be paid at the end of the case. In turn, your health insurance will have to be repaid from the defendant’s insurance. This repayment process is known as subrogation, which means one party standing in the place of another. In the context of a car accident, your health insurance will pay for you to get treatment, but will expect to recoup their expenses from any settlement or verdict you obtain.
“Can I bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of my family member for an accident?”
If the worse happens and a loved one is killed in an accident, the decedent’s estate administrator or personal representative may bring a claim for wrongful death. Each state has slightly different wrongful death procedural requirements, but generally you must show the negligence of the defendant caused the death of the decedent. Wrongful death actions are clustered in the legal areas of vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, occupational hazards, criminal behavior, or death that occurred during a supervised period. Under Alabama law, the proceeds from a wrongful death action flow outside the estate and are not subject to the creditors of the estate. In all states, proceeds of a wrongful death claim are paid out pursuant to the descent and distribution statute.
While clients will undoubtedly ask many questions requiring careful research on your part, be prepared to answer the five questions outlined above from day one. As a newly minted personal injury attorney, you will find that these questions come up more times than not when an injury victim walks through the door.