Should I Hire a Lawyer after a Car Accident?
Whether you should hire a lawyer after a car accident is an important decision. You have the right to talk to a lawyer before you talk to an insurance company, but you also have the right to fight the insurance company on your own. Make an informed choice. As you decide, consider these tricks that insurance companies use against injured people who don’t hire lawyers.
Insurance companies are for-profit businesses. Their purpose is to make money, not to make friends, and insurance companies don’t make money when they pay money to you. They will do anything they can to avoid paying you money. While an insurance company representative may pretend to be your friend, remember the simple truth—insurance companies want to pay as little as possible to you so they can keep more money for themselves. In fact, some insurance claims representatives may get paid more if they pay you less.
Most people are not prepared for the tricks that auto insurance companies play to avoid paying a fair amount for injuries caused by car accidents. The U.S. insurance industry is rich—the industry has trillions of dollars in assets and profits that exceed $30 billion per year. Its CEOs earn more than those in other industries. The insurance companies didn’t get this wealthy by paying money to injured people—they got this rich by keeping money for themselves.
There is a good chance you will be in an automobile accident at some point or have been in one already. Over two million people suffer injuries in auto accidents each year according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report. On this page, we describe some common tricks that automobile insurance companies use when the person that they insure causes an accident.
1. Deny Your Claim Outright
Imagine making deliveries for your employer on Peachtree Street here in Atlanta when suddenly a truck causes a collision that almost crushes you. This is what happened to Ethel Adams who had a $2 million policy with a subsidiary of Farmers Insurance in Seattle Washington. She almost died and suffered permanent and life-altering injuries that left her in a wheelchair. When she finally woke from her coma, she discovered that her insurance company was denying her claim on the grounds that the incident was not an accident, but rather a purposeful act.
In fact, denying claims was systemic in the company. Farmers Insurance actively awarded adjusters who met low payment goals by offering them an incentive program that included gift certificates and pizza parties. In other words, Farmers Insurance—which runs commercials where it pretends to be your friend—was giving gift certificates and pizza parties to insurance adjusters who underpaid people who had been hurt.
The lesson for us is clear—an insurance company’s goal is not to pay you money, but to keep the money for itself.
In this video clip from a car accident trial in Atlanta, GA, Butler Tobin’s lawyer describes the wreck during opening statement.
2. Realize that You Won’t Take the Case to Trial
Many people don’t realize how important it is to prepare a case for trial, even if your goal is to settle the case with the insurance company. Being ready to try the case in front of a jury is the ultimate weapon, and it is usually an accident victim’s only real weapon. If an insurance company knows that you (and your lawyer) are ready and willing to go to trial, then they know they have to pay you the full amount. But if an insurance company knows or suspects that the injured person is unable or unwilling to take a case all the way to trial, the insurance company won’t pay the full value of the claim. Why would they? If an injured person is unwilling or unable to take the case to trial, then the insurance company knows that the person will eventually have to take whatever amount the insurance company offers—even if it is too low.
Of course the insurance company won’t come out and tell you that. They want you to think that they’re going to do what’s right, and pay the full value of a claim, even if you aren’t able or willing to take the case to trial. They say that because they’re hoping that they can offer less than the full amount you’re entitled to, and you’ll take the money because you don’t realize they’re lowballing you. But think about the insurance company’s real goals. Will the insurance company make more money for itself if it pays you the full amount, or if it pays you less?
3. Pretend that They Don’t have to Pay Your Medical Bills
Car insurance companies often pretend that if a medical insurance company or a worker’s compensation policy has paid for your medical bills, then the car insurance doesn’t have to compensate you for them. That’s wrong. In Georgia, the at-fault driver (or the at-fault driver’s insurance company) has to compensate an injured person for his or her medical bills, even if the injured person had medical insurance. The reason is that someone who causes a collision or hurts someone else should not get a ‘discount’ on the damage that he or she caused just because the injured person was smart enough to have insurance.
Here’s something else the car insurance companies won’t tell you—after your case is over, your medical insurance company or worker’s compensation insurer can come after you and claim that you have to pay them back for the medical procedures that they covered. That process is called subrogation. And if the car insurance company didn’t pay you for your medical bills, where does that leave you? The car insurance company paid you just a little bit of money (for “pain and suffering,” maybe), and now your health insurance company or worker’s compensation insurer is telling you that you have to give that money back to them to cover your medical bills. That leaves you in a hole.
4. Under-Count Your Medical Bills
Medical treatment providers like hospitals, doctors, or surgical centers send their bills in unusual ways. For instance, if you went to the emergency room, you probably have multiple bills arising from that one visit. The ambulance company will send one bill, the hospital will send a second bill, and the ER doctors will send a third bill. Surgeries work the same way: the doctor who performed the surgery will send one bill, the hospital or facility where the surgery was performed will send a second bill, and the anesthesiologist will probably send a third. You are entitled to be compensated for all of those bills.
Car insurance companies know that, but they probably won’t tell you about it. They may identify only one or two bills, and claim that’s all they have to pay you for. You may not find out until after your case is settled that the insurance company didn’t cover all the bills that it was supposed to. By then, it’s too late. You’ve been lowballed.
5. The “Causation” Defense: Claim that the Accident Didn’t Cause Your Injuries
Car insurance companies often try to make you think they’re being nice or reasonable by admitting certain things. They may admit that their driver caused the wreck, and say that they’ll pay you something because of that. They may admit that you had treatment or a surgery after the collision. But later in the process, they may pull the so-called “causation” defense. That means they’ll argue that your injuries were caused by something other than the accident, and therefore they shouldn’t have to pay you the full amount.
Insurance companies do this a lot. They’ll dig through your medical records for years or even decades before the accident, trying to find some medical record from somewhere in your past that they can say proves that you already had this injury. Or they’ll claim that some event after the collision is what caused the injury, so they shouldn’t have to pay for it. Sometimes they just say “your age” is the cause of your ailing back. In many cases, the insurance company will hire a radiologist—that is, someone who reads MRIs—to look at your MRI and claim that the injury looks old, so it must not have been caused by this accident. Insurance companies pay these radiologists hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even, over the course of years, millions of dollars), so some dishonest radiologists will say pretty much whatever the insurance companies want.
Our best tool to fight these well-paid “experts” that insurance companies hire is cross-examination. Watch the video to the right to see what we’re talking about.
This video comes from Butler Tobin’s cross-examination of a hired-gun radiologist named Barry Jeffries. Watch and see how much money the insurance companies have paid him.
6. Use Normal Pleasantries against You
After a wreck, it is natural to be polite and look after the other person, even if that person was at fault. Unfortunately, sometimes if you tell the other person not to worry or kindly suggest the collision wasn’t the other person’s fault, their insurance company may try to use your kindness against you. The insurance company may claim that your statement implied that you were not really injured or were admitting to fault–even if that is not what you meant.
Even if the accident is clearly not your fault, Georgia is a comparative negligence state, which means your compensation will be reduced by the percentage you are to blame. (You are barred from collecting anything if you are 50% or more to blame). The other party’s insurance company will do everything they can to show you are partly at fault, because that reduces their pay-out. In other words, by blaming you, the insurance company keeps more money for itself.
7. Pressure Before You Have Had Time to Speak with a Lawyer
Soon after a collision, you may be contacted by both your insurance company and the other person’s insurance company. Remember: you do not have to speak with them before you talk with a lawyer. The insurance company may push you into accepting a low settlement that is unlikely to cover your real expenses, which will still be rolling in. They may also record what you say in hopes that they can find something to use against you later.
The insurance adjuster may tell you that you must accept a settlement agreement by a particular date. Don’t listen. Much of the time, that’s just not true. Insurance companies may make say that to people who do not have lawyers because they’re hoping to force the injured person to settle before he or she has a chance to hire a good lawyer. Once an injured person hires a lawyer, the insurance company knows it’ll have to pay more.
8. Demand that You Provide a Recorded Statement
The insurance company may demand that you provide a written or recorded statement within a certain period of time. The insurance adjuster may tell you that they cannot start their claims process before you make a statement. This can be a trap. If they get you talking, the insurance company can ask leading questions in hopes of getting you to say something they can use against your case later.
- Consider consulting with a good Georgia personal injury lawyer before you talk to the insurance company. You have the right to talk with a lawyer before giving any statement, recorded or not, to the insurance company. Don’t make a statement when you are still upset, angry, or emotional about the accident.
- If you make a statement too soon after an accident, some of your injuries may not yet be apparent because the initial shock and pain can mask other symptoms. Later, when doctors find other injuries or the pain starts to appear and you tell the insurance company about the medical issues, the insurance company may claim that you are lying.
- You don’t have to make a statement on a deadline set by the insurance company. In fact, you have the right to speak with an attorney before talking with the insurance company at all.
9. Act Concerned for Your Welfare to Get a Quick, Cheap Settlement
Insurance representatives—often called insurance “adjusters”—are not your friends. Adjusters may try to settle early and act as though they are giving you a great deal by agreeing to pay your medical bills to date and throw in a few thousand more. Not so fast. What about future medical bills? Lost earning capacity? Lost work, or the value of the vacation and sick days you had to take?
Remember that you can only settle once. After a settlement, if your injury gets worse or starts acting up again, you can’t ‘re-open’ the case or claim to obtain additional compensation. So be careful—and know your rights. When an insurance company says “early settlement,” that often really means “lowball settlement.”
10. Lead You to Believe They Are Willing to Pay Everything
To keep you from talking with a good lawyer, insurance companies often claim they will “accept fault” or “accept liability” and pay your bills. That’s a bait-and-switch. What the insurance company doesn’t tell you is that they were going to have to “admit fault” anyway, especially if you were rear-ended or the police officer wrote a ticket to the other driver. The insurance company also may not tell you that they’re going to try to avoid paying for your future medical bills, for your pain and suffering, or even for the full amount of your past medical bills. They may “admit fault,” but they’re going to nickel-and-dime you.
Insurance companies often suggest or hint that you should not hire a lawyer because “lawyers charge too much” or “a smart person like you doesn’t need help.” That should tell you all you need to know about the insurance company’s true intentions. They want to keep you from hiring an attorney because if you do hire a good personal injury lawyer, the insurance company will have to pay more.
In this video clip from a trucking accident deposition, Butler Tobin cross-examined the owner of the trucking company about who was responsible for the collision.
11. Create Delays
There are three benefits an insurance company may gain by delaying your case. 1) They can hold onto the money longer so it’s earning interest for them instead of you. 2) As time drags on, medical bills mount, and you become desperate for cash, the chances of an insurance company settling for a low amount increase. 3) Finally, if they delay enough and you don’t act, the statute of limitations will run out, at which point you w lose all your rights to collect compensation for your injuries. Under Georgia law (O.C.G.A. § 9-3-33), the statute of limitations is often only two years to file a legal case for personal injury.
There are various delay scenarios.
- The “friendly” insurance agent will trickle out small amounts of money to keep you happy in the hopes you won’t contact an attorney who would immediately recognize that the time to file your lawsuit is slipping away. The company may send you a check to fix your car, but not a check that would cover your current and future medical expenses.
- The insurance company may ask for more medical records to “analyze.” They may promise they are trying their best on your behalf to close the case and pay you. Of course, once you provide the requested records, they will tell you they need some other information before they can offer you a full payment. This can go on and on. But once the statute of limitations has run out, you have lost all your rights, and you’ve lost them permanently. Those little checks and the promise of a bigger pay-off will immediately stop.
- They may simply not respond or pick up their phone, leaving you to wonder what is happening with your case. This may be an attempt to push you off until the statute of limitations runs out or it may simply be that the company has not hired enough adjusters to service its customers.
12. Dispute the Severity of Your Injuries and Your Medical Expenses
Whatever you do regarding your medical care, the insurance company will try to spin it. They will even dispute treatments ordered by your doctor. If you get a lot of medical treatment, the insurance company may say you didn’t need it, and are faking it to build a case. If you get just a little medical treatment, they may say that your injuries are slight.
If you’re hurt, it’s see a doctor immediately. Y ou only have one body, and you need to take care of it Some people like to put off seeing the doctor, in hopes of ‘toughing it out’ and hoping their injuries will heal on their own. Unfortunately, when people wait even a few days to see a doctor, the insurance company often claims that the person’s injuries must not have been serious. The insurance company may also claim that any injuries the doctor diagnosed did not occur in the wreck, but must have occurred after the collision.
In reality, you may have thought the pain would subside after a week or so, and didn’t want to make a big deal of your accident. When it didn’t subside, or when you didn’t regain your mobility, you may have decided it’s time to see a doctor after all. But by that time, your hesitance has given the insurance company ammunition. Remember, your health comes first. Get the amount of medical treatment that your doctor recommends and take care of your health. But don’t wait to do it.
This video clip comes from the testimony of our client’s doctor. Here, the doctor discusses how car accidents can cause back or spine injuries. We took this testimony, in what is called a “deposition,” so that we could show it to the jury at trial if necessary.
13. Claim Your Injuries Were Pre-Existing
Insurance companies routinely blame injuries suffered in accidents on what they call “pre-existing conditions.” Basically, even if the accident was not your fault, the insurance company will claim that you already had the injury before the collision happened, and for that reason, they should not have to pay anything. This is particularly true if you ever had an injury to a body part that was re-injured in the accident. Don’t sign anything giving the insurance company general medical authorization to dig through all your unrelated medical records so they can look for ways to trip you up. Talk to your attorney before ever signing anything with an insurance company following an accident.
14. Spy on You
Insurance companies don’t just take the information about your accident and medical condition and then do what’s right. If it’s a big enough case, they may assign an investigator to try to get secret video footage of you anytime you leave your house, hoping to find something that they can use against you. They call this “surveillance,” but we call it by its real name—spying. Insurance companies may also monitor your social media in the hope of finding photos or video that they can use against you.
Does an insurance company spying on people and internet-stalking them sound creepy to you? It sounds creepy to us. But insurance companies do it all the time.
15. Claim You Have Less Coverage than You Actually Do
Don’t take the word of an insurance company employee when they tell you that an expense of your accident is not covered. Insurance policies can be complicated, and insurance companies often pretend that there is “no coverage” when there really is. A good personal injury lawyer can help untangle the legal issues.
SHOULD I HIRE A LAWYER FOR MY CAR ACCIDENT?
Auto insurance companies use lots of tricks, some of which are not even included here. (That would take many more pages.) Keep these insurance tricks in mind as you decide whether to hire a lawyer—and if you do hire a lawyer, hire a good one. Don’t hire a lawyer who calls you out of the blue, sends someone to your house uninvited, or promises a specific amount of money. Those are unethical practices in Georgia, and good lawyers don’t pull stunts like that.
At Butler Tobin, we’ve seen these insurance tricks for years, and we don’t fall for them. If you’d like to talk with us and ask questions specific to your case, call us at 404-JUSTICE (587-8423), email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use our website’s chat feature. If we can’t take your case, we’ll suggest a lawyer who can.