Inevitably, the first question a potential client asks our accident attorneys during their free consultation is “What is my case worth?” This question is typically followed by a definitive statement regarding how much money their friend, neighbor or co-worker received for a “similar” case. To be clear, dozens, if not hundreds, of different factors are inputted into the equation to determine the likely value of a settlement between the liable party (or more commonly, the insurance company) before or after a lawsuit is filed. Accordingly, the Fort Lauderdale accident and injury lawyers at Lyons, Snyder & Collin have created a brief cheat sheet to help you ascertain the value of your accident case. We caution you, this cheat sheet is simply a guide – each case is different. Even the slightest variation between one case to the next can lead to a different settlement. Before we delve into the likely value of your case, it is necessary to discuss the common misconceptions about case value.
The insurance company will “pay out” a victim with minor injuries to avoid the nuisance of defending a claim.
More and more, insurance companies offer accident victims extremely low proposals for settlement (especially pre-suit) unless the victim was involved in a “major” accident or has “significant” injuries (i.e. broken bones, torn ligaments, etc.) other than “soft-tissue” injuries.
Insurance companies have mathematical formulas which determines how much money they will “pay out” for a claim. The insurance company will pay a set amount regardless of the attorney you retain or the information (i.e. medical bills) presented depending on the severity of the accident and injury.
Although all insurance companies use proprietary formulas to greatly assist the valuation of a claim depending on the severity of the accident and injury, numerous factors can dramatically raise the value of a claim such as: (1) Which doctors the victim receives treatment from; (2) What treatment is recommended and the length of treatment; (3) Is surgery required and is the victim willing to obtain surgery; (4) Is the injury permanent and to what degree; (5) The medical bills and are they inflated; (6) The victims’ prior medical history; (6) The victim’s employment and/or special skill (i.e. athlete); (7) Was the victim contributory negligent; and (8) The insurance company and the policy limit. These factors do not even include the personal injury attorney’s skill in advocating with the insurance adjuster on your behalf – especially during the pre-filing negotiation.
Any attorney (even if they do not specialize in personal injury) can handle my case.
You would not hire a podiatrist to perform open heart surgery – why hire a bankruptcy or real estate attorney to handle your personal injury claim. An overwhelming large majority of personal injury matters are handled on a contingency fee basis. This means the attorney only gets paid a percentage of the settlement – the attorney collects nothing if they do not prevail. The contingency fees in personal injury matters are set by the Florida Supreme Court and are the same for all attorneys. Therefore, whichever attorney you hire (regardless of their level of expertise) is paid the same percentage of the settlement.
Factors that determine the value of your case.
All the factors assume that the victim has a defined “pocket” to recover from (i.e. insurance policy on the driver or uninsured motorist policy). Practically speaking, the value of your case is determined in large part by the amount of insurance available. If you are involved in a serious accident where the destitute driver has no insurance (and you do not have uninsured motorist coverage) your case may be “worth” nothing as you have no one to recover from (even if the case should be valued at a million dollars).
The seriousness of the injury
This is (along with the seriousness of the accident) are the two most important factors in determining the value of your case. Rule of thumb: the more serious the injury – the higher the value of a case. Insurance companies are well aware that juries are more inclined to award large settlements to “more serious” injuries they can relate to (think broken arm, permanent scar on face or torn knee) – then soft tissue injuries (think sore back). Cases become tricky, however, when the seriousness of the injury does not correlate to the seriousness of the accident. For example, a small fender bender in a parking garage leading to a torn knee. Insurance companies understand that in cases with (relatable) serious injuries, juries can feel sympathetic to the victim (i.e. “stand in their shoes”) and value the case at an inflated amount. As such, insurance companies are typically more inclined to settle cases with these types of serious injuries to minimize their exposure at trial.
The best cases (i.e. most lucrative) for personal injury attorney oftentimes involve one or more of the following: (1) a break or tear that requires surgery and follow-up therapy; (2) an injury that includes a permanent impairment rating; and/or (3) an injury that precludes the victim from working in the future (i.e. a doctor is bite by a dog and loses feeling in his fingers).
Potentially less lucrative (yet very common) cases for personal injury attorneys involve soft tissue injuries (think slightly bulging disk in back or a strained spine) where the severity of the injury is difficult to define (even when the victim truly exhibits pain and discomfort), especially in low-impact car accidents. For these cases it is imperative to retain an experienced personal injury attorney to properly present your case to the insurance adjuster (pre-filing) and/or jury (if suit is filed). If not, the insurance company will very likely make a “low-ball” offer under the theory that since a jury cannot “see” the injury the risk is minimized for an excessive judgment. Insurance adjusters in South Florida (due to the high level of fraud (i.e. staged accidents and phony chiropractors)) routinely make outrageously low offers – sometimes not even the value of the medical care for these types of claims. In some cases, a personal injury attorney can later sue the insurance company under a theory of “bad faith” if a jury awards a judgment in excess of the policy limits.
The bottom line, although soft tissue injuries can have significant value, they may be harder to settle then injuries involving broken bones and torn ligaments – especially in cases with low impact. That being said, a victim of an accident should consult with an personal injury attorney as the insurance carrier will almost always minimize the value of the claim unless they believe a trial-lawyer is willing to file a lawsuit.
The seriousness of the accident
This is (along with the seriousness of the injury) are the two most important factors in determining the value of your case. Rule of thumb: the more serious the accident – the higher the value of a case. Even in cases with significant medical bills (and defined injuries), insurance companies may balk at making a reasonable offer in the absence of a serious accident. Insurance companies are well aware that juries are more inclined to award large settlements to “more serious” accidents they can relate to – think T-boned vehicle in a busy intersection – then a fender bender pulling out of your driveway. Cases become tricky when the seriousness of the accident does not correlate to the seriousness of the injury. For example, a flipped car on the interstate leading to a sprained ankle. Insurance companies understand that in serious accident cases, juries can feel sympathetic to the victim (i.e. “stand in their shoes”) and value the case at an inflated amount. Intuitively a juror would assume that a victim of a massive car accident has legitimate injuries; the same cannot be said of a victim of a minor (low-impact) car accident. Jurors like to see pictures and no pictures are more powerful than a totaled car. As such, insurance companies are typically more inclined to settle cases with these types of serious accidents to minimize their exposure at trial compared to minor accidents with little visceral effect.
The best cases (i.e. most lucrative) for personal injury attorney oftentimes involve one or more of the following: (1) a high speed accident on a highway or busy intersection; (2) any serious accident where liability is clearly as result of the other driver (i.e. where the liable driver was under the influence of alcohol); and/or (3) an accident where one or more cars are totaled or require the “Jaws of Life”.
The bottom line, although minor accidents can have significant value (especially with serious injuries such as broken bones, permanent scars on face or torn ligaments), they may be harder to settle then serious accidents. That being said, a victim of an accident should consult with an personal injury attorney as the insurance carrier will almost always minimize the value of the claim unless they believe a trial-lawyer is willing to file a lawsuit.
Insurance companies value the “likeability” of a victim when valuing a claim. This is especially true if the victim is uniquely impacted by the accident – think a permanent scar on a model or loss of vision to an athlete. Juries intuitively want to give more money to a person they like or can relate to. Juries also give more money to classes of people they feel sorry for – think a child bit by a dog. Insurance companies account for this likeability factor when making an offer (especially soon after a victim’s deposition or before trial). Conversely, insurance companies may decrease the value of claim for an unlikeable or unsavory individual.
The Bottom Line
Every case is different and depends in large part on the size of the insurance policy. An insurance company may make an offer of: (1) $50,000.00 for a herniated disk injury suffered in a horrific car accident while only offering $10,000.00 for the same injury suffered during a fender bender in a parking lot; (2) $250,000.00 (policy limit) for a broken right hand on a pianist while only offering $15,000.00 for the same injury on a fast food employee; (3) $100,000.00 for a facial scar to a model while only offering $8,000.00 for a facial scar to an unemployed mechanic. As such, it is important to retain an experienced personal injury attorney to seek the highest possible settlement for your (unique) case.