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So You've Had an Accident...

How to Prepare When Hiring an Attorney

First Things First After an Auto Accident – Gather All the Important Paperwork

It’s unfortunate that you were involved in an automobile accident and now you’re dealing with injuries. That being said, you need to gather the following paperwork to bring with you to the attorneys you talk to.

Immediately, gather copies of your insurance/registration information. A copy of your driver’s license. A copy of your insurance policy is important for the attorney. The policy will explain what benefits you will be entitled to. If you are unable to obtain a copy of the entire policy, don’t worry, the attorney’s office will request and obtain it.

A copy of your health insurance card is vital. Most of your medical bills will be submitted to your health insurance. If the person that hit you has medical reimbursement benefits, those benefit may be used to help pay some of those bills. Sometimes, your bills will be outstanding pending on the case and will be paid at the time of settlement. If you received bills in the mail, those bills should be immediately sent to your attorney so they can keep track of medical costs.

If you were injured in the accident and end up going to the Emergency Room, Urgent Care, or your own doctor, be sure to get a copy of your medical record for that day or time that you were admitted. If you were taken by ambulance, get that record as well. If someone is taking over your care while you are recovering, please make sure they get copies of any and all records. All records received after the initial treatment should be sent to your attorney.

You will want to retain your receipts for any prescribed medication or treatment you received after the accident. The attorney and/or their staff will make copies for your file. Again, any future receipts should be sent to the attorney.

Also, please retain a copy of follow-up medical treatment reports. Sometimes, law firms do not get all of the records. You want to be on the same page.

Obtain a copy of the police report when available. Depending on the severity of the accident, it can take up to a month or more to get a copy of the report. If it was a minor accident, it may take less time. You can call or go online to that specific police department and they will tell you the procedure of how to obtain a copy of the report. There is usually a nominal fee for the copy. If you are unable to ascertain the report, please tell your attorney and they will obtain it without worry. It is almost always available online.

Checklists of all paperwork received should be kept in your file.

I always suggest that you bring a family member or friend that you trust to your initial consultation. You might forget things said and it would be helpful to rely on that person that came with you to remember.

It’s helpful to take notes during your initial consultation.

So, remember:

  1. Insurance Policy
  2. Car Registration
  3. Initial Medical Reports
  4. Receipts for prescriptions
  5. Police Report, if available

Choosing the Right Attorney

You’ve seen all the commercials regarding attorneys and what they’ll do for you. Now you need to find an attorney yourself. You can call that 1-800 number or I would ask friends and/or colleagues who they might have dealt with if they’ve had an accident. It’s important to start there. Reputation is important.

When you are looking for the right attorney and you make that initial consultation (which is usually free), make sure to talk to them about your concerns. Write down your question for them. Most attorneys are happy to answer all of your questions and will try to level out your fears. It’s almost like an interview. The attorney will ask you questions, look over your initial paperwork, offer to take the case, and offer an agreement to sign.

Now, this doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes they don’t want to take your case if there are circumstances involved that don’t seem appealing, such as if you are coming from another attorney, or you may have waited too long to bring a claim for your accident. Check your local state statutes on auto accidents. You only have a certain amount of time to actually bring a claim. I’ve seen a few that this has happened to.

Before Signing that Agreement with the Attorney

So, you are looking to hire an attorney or law firm to represent you with regard to the injuries you received in the accident. My words of wisdom to you are:

Personal injury firms usually only work on a contingent fee basis. They will not require an initial consultation fee, nor do they bill you during the course of your case. It all comes out in the end as should be indicated in their agreement that both you and they sign simultaneously.

Read the agreement thoroughly. It will be two to three pages long. Most firms work on a contingent fee (meaning they will only take one third of the settlement and costs). Others may work on an hourly basis. It’s better to work on a contingent fee.

Sometimes, depending on your financial and/or living situation, some firms will agree to reduce the fee to 20 percent or 25 percent. They may stipulate that they will only agree to work on a reduced fee if the case is settled out of court. If the case does have to go to trial, then they can stipulate that they will take one third plus costs and outstanding medical bills.

There are times that cases are easier than others and settled within a year or less. It can be cut and dry. There are times it is not so easy and more work needs to go into a case. If it becomes a complicated case involving multiple issues (i.e. drunk driver, work-related, etc.) and extensive injuries and will take a long time to recover, if at all, cases sometimes can last a while.

Just remember to discuss the agreement with the attorney before signing. If you feel comfortable with the agreement, go ahead and sign it.

Once you’ve signed, make sure to get a copy for your file.

After you sign that agreement, there will be other documents that you will sign. In order for the law firm to obtain your medical records, you will need to sign medical releases that hospitals now require due to privacy laws. Sometimes a doctor’s office will take a generic authorization from the law office itself. This is all standard procedure to get the case going.

How Files Are Kept

Files are generally opened within a day or two after your initial meeting. The paperwork you provided or that the law firm obtained is then sorted out into their proper folders, both physically and on their computer system.

As reports and records come in, they are scanned into the computer system and then physically filed. It’s a dual way to protect your information.

Some files get voluminous and have to be transferred into boxes while others stay small and simple in what we call a "red-well" folder.

Files are numbered and kept in a separate room in an attorneys’ office. That way they can be easily accessed by all staff and attorneys working on the file. If the attorney does not have the time to go to the file room, they usually can access what they need on the computer system or have their staff get the information for them, especially medical records.

When I worked in a firm, after a case is settled, a file is usually always kept for seven years just in case an issue should come up and it needs to be resolved. That is rare. Sometimes the file is kept longer depending on the structure of the settlement if it is not a direct payout. Again, that is rare.

You should feel confident that all files are kept in an organized manner in most reputable law firms.

It is important to take and have photographs.

If you are able during the initial minutes after an accident, grab your cell phone, and take pictures of the scene, the damage to your vehicle. If you cannot, the police should take pictures. Sometimes, they will call an accident team out to take photos and video to recreate the scene, depending upon the severity of the accident.

If you have injuries, I would definitely take pictures of all your injuries. If you are physically unable, please have a family member or friend take those pictures. If you have treatment such as physical therapy, pictures should be taken there too. As you are healing, you should take pictures of scars too.

If your car is totaled and impounded to a junkyard, you should absolutely go, get your personal belongings, and take pictures of the damage to the car, inside and out.

It is imperative for all sides (including the insurance companies) to get a good picture (pun intended) of what happened to you.

Now if you are a family member representing a relative who passed away in an accident, don’t worry about the photos. There will be photos taken by other people and the police.

Lastly, all the pictures should be in full color and usually 4x6 in measurement. Sometimes larger photographs will be made for trial purposes.

How Insurance Companies Determine Damages

So, while I am no expert in this area, but have experience in dealing with insurance companies providing paperwork, including accident reports, medical records, and other correspondence. Some well-known adjusters take their time. (This is just one of the reasons that cases are delayed).

The adjusters go over the records scrupulously and question certain medical records, perhaps even questioning if a medical reason caused an accident, they question the wording on the police reports, medical records and review photographs. They even question the billing submitted to the insurance company. Just keep all this in mind when the initial investigation is conducted.

That being said, what happens is when the attorney and staff gather all your records with a table of contents so the paperwork can be ascertained in an orderly fashion, it is sent to the adjusters asking them to review the records and call to negotiate settlement before filing a lawsuit. A 30 to 60 day diary is implemented at that time on the calendar.

Insurance adjusters have formulas to go by depending upon the policy benefits. How they calculate damages and injuries goes by that formula. What their formulas are, I cannot say, but you can certainly ask.

A private investigator may be hired.

Depending on the severity of the accident, it is possible that your potential attorney or the insurance company will hire a private investigator to investigate the facts of the accident to make sure all the events coincide with the police report and your account of the accident. They will also seek for the person who caused the accident and take their statement. He/she will also investigate the defendant’s whereabouts if they are unable to be found for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the defendant avoids the situation. To hire an investigator, the attorneys should talk to you about this and they will need permission. The private investigator may come to you to ask questions as well

After the private investigator is done with their investigation into the case, they will also take photographs, and write up a lengthy report which will also be kept in your file.

Your attorney is truly looking for the best outcome, leaving no stone unturned.

Having to Be Out of Work and Possibly on Disability

This is the difficult and tricky part of the case. Sometimes, again depending on the severity of your injuries, you will be out of work for a few days or longer. Your insurance may pay for a portion of that.

While it is no fun to be out of work and of course, you worry about your next paycheck, if a disability is a definite need, your doctors will need to determine your injuries and how you are progressing medically. Stay on top of things with both the attorney and your doctors where this is concerned.

It may be that you are unable to recover fully that will you have to file for either short-term or long-term disability. Your attorney can then help you fill out paperwork for disability.

Depending on the length of your recovery, your disability may be cut off because the powers that be will feel that you are able to work. That is when you file an appeal. This is something you will need to stay on top of especially if it is felt that the recovery is considered long-term.

Short-term disability is a different dynamic. By short-term disability, insurance companies will pay for you to be out of work until you are fully recovered say in a few weeks to a few months. Keep in mind though, they only pay a percentage of your pay. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

Remember, talk to the attorney about their take on this.

Keeping a Diary Relating to the Accident

Always, ALWAYS, keep a diary regarding your accident. It’s important to note what you were doing at the time of the accident (hopefully you were not texting or on your cell phone).

Keeping notes will help you in the long run. Especially if your case goes to court and you have to testify on your own behalf.

Keep a chronological list of dates with doctors’ appointments, therapy appointments, attorney appointments.

A list of photographs is vital. If you receive medical records at the time of your appointment, keep those in a list too.

Your attorney can put together a detailed timeline of your accident and what happens after that, but its also a great to idea to keep a diary just in case anything was missed on either end. You can never be too careful. Details are a must in the legal arena.

Here is how I would keep a diary entry:


Diary Entry:

Medical Records Received:

Photographs Taken:

Keep this diary in a Word document or PDF format. You can email this to your attorney when/if needed.

Keep a list of witnesses (names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses).

At the time of the accident, there no doubt be witnesses to the accident but what happens afterwards is important. If your case goes to trial, your family and friends may be of help in your case. Here is why:

Your injuries have had a significant impact on your life. Your family and friends may be of assistance in describing that impact. They may give a statement or sometimes they may be called in for a deposition to describe your accident, etc...

Keep an organized list of these witnesses, family members and friends. It may happen that the attorneys will not want to interview them, but again, you never know.

Here is how I would keep a list:

  1. Name
  2. Address
  3. Email
  4. Telephone Number
  5. Notes

Stay in touch with your legal team working on your case.

Communication on every level in a case is important. Keep this in your diary. You don’t want the ball dropped in any aspect and trust me, I’ve seen it where cases can be delayed or even dismissed due to unintended errors. 

Some attorneys might not appreciate the fact that you want to know what is going on if you have not heard from them in a while regarding the status of your case. I’ve seen attorneys not communicate until it’s time to actually file a claim, BUT don’t let that frighten you. They are doing their due diligence, have done their investigation and submitted the records to the insurance company to see if a resolution can be made. It does take time.

Your job is to heal, recover and of course communicate with your attorney and the staff.

If Your Case Settles Before Going to Court

If your case does settle before having to go to court, that is great! You won’t have to take time out of work or your schedule to sit through a grueling trial.

Once you sign off on the paperwork necessary to facilitate the settlement, the settlement check will be sent to your attorney and your attorney will advise you of the fees, costs and the residual settlement. Now, granted, it may not be a huge settlement after all is said and done, but at least you get something to pay your other bills with and/or just be able to breathe a little bit more.

If it is a large settlement, then you will want to talk to your attorney about how to save this money for future use, especially for medical needs. You may want to invest, or just simply save it.

There are options. Use them wisely.

If It’s Time for Your Case to Go to Court

Depending upon the circumstances, your case may need to see a trial through. There are circumstances and issues that neither side can agree on. Your attorney will advise you through this time. You (or your representative) will need to be at court as necessary. The paralegals will sit with you as you watch the events unfold. Sometimes, a settlement is reached before swearing in the first juror and if that happens, that’s a relief. Anything is possible. After the evidence is introduced, the jurors begin to get sworn in, and then the opening statements start, the questioning of you, the defendant, and any witnesses will be called to the stand.

After all that is done, closing arguments are done and then the case is handed to the jury to decide the outcome of the case as well as the settlement of the case.

Sometimes the other side does not agree with the jury and will file an appeal and vice versa, you can too file an appeal if the case is not decided in your favor. It depends on cost whether filing an appeal is a good idea. This is something that will need to be discussed at length. This doesn’t always happen, but it is good to keep in the back of your mind. Once a case is decided on and is in your favor, the attorneys will take care of the necessary paperwork to get the settlement check and again, will advise you of fees and costs of the case, as well as suggest what you can do with the monies from the settlement and how to use it for future medical needs, etc... You will probably sign a settlement document that itemizes everything. Once the net proceeds are in your hands, it’s up to you to exercise your options.

Always ask questions.

Never be afraid to ask questions, during the initial meeting, during your case and afterwards. Sometimes legal stuff can seem intimidating, but really it's not.

When meeting with your attorney, at the initial consultation, they will hand you a booklet, or documentation regarding their firm and what they do. Sometimes they will already have a list with questions you are already thinking about, this will have straightforward answers already pre-printed for you. Of course, that might lead to other questions you have and that’s ok.

During the case, if something comes up, you can just call their office and they will be happy to help you answer your questions. Again, I stress COMMUNICATION so nothing is left to chance. I’ve seen a few cases where things do get left to chance. It is the attorney's job to make sure your case is top priority as all cases should be treated.

Your Checklist

  1. Gather all paperwork
  2. Seek out an attorney
  3. If comfortable, sign an agreement with the attorney/firm to take on your case.
  4. Take photos
  5. Keep a daily diary of all things related to the accident
  6. Get A police report if available;
  7. Stay in contact with the legal staff working on your case; make sure you are all on the same page and make no apologies for asking where things are. It’s your case.
  8. Make sure to check on payment for being out of work; or having to be on disability.
  9. Stay in contact with your attorney and staff; Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  10. Last but not least, remember it is your job to HEAL, RECOVER and communicate with all those working on your behalf
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