If you were involved in a car accident, there are probably a lot of questions running through your head. Who will take care of my medical bills? How do I get my car fixed? Should I talk to the insurance company? As a personal injury attorney with extensive experience handling car accident cases, I know that the uncertainty can be unsettling because I have represented many clients who have the same questions and concerns as you. In preparing this accident guide, I have attempted to answer some of those questions and to provide you with a better understanding of the process following a car accident.
Before we get started, you should know that this guide is provided for informational purposes only. Nothing contained in it is legal advice, nor is it intended to be. You should consult an attorney for individualized advice regarding your own unique situation. No attorney-client relationship is formed between my law firm, The Champion Firm, P.C., and you by reading this guide. If you would like to discuss your case, call us for a free consultation at (404) 596-8044. Now, let’s start going over some of the questions that are on your mind.
1. Who will pay my medical bills?
For anybody who was injured in a car accident, this is probably the number one question I hear. Unfortunately, even if the other driver was at fault, you are responsible for making sure your medical bills are paid. Of course, your total medical expenses will be part of the claim against the at-fault driver, and you will request compensation for those expenses as part of a settlement demand. However, the other driver and his insurance company are not going to pay your medical bills as they become due, and you are legally responsible for paying them while your accident claim is pending.
So does this mean you have to pay all of your bills out of your own pocket while your claim is pending? Hopefully not. If you have health insurance, it should be billed for any medical expenses. Another potential source of payment for your medical bills is the medical payments coverage on your own auto policy or on the policy for the car you were in at the time of the accident. Medical payments coverage, or “med pay” for short, is basically health insurance for car accidents. It can be used to pay medical bills regardless of who is at fault, and it can even be used if you were not in a car at the time you were struck by car (for example, if you are a pedestrian, on a bicycle, etc.). If you are unable to pay your bills—either because you do not have health insurance or medical payments coverage, or if you do have insurance but you just can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles—then some providers will treat you on a lien, which is essentially an IOU where you promise that you will pay the provider for the medical bills owed when you receive compensation from your accident case.
2. If my health insurance or med pay covers my medical bills, can I still claim them from the other driver?
Yes. Even if health insurance or med pay is used to pay some or all of your medical bills, you still get to claim the total amount of your medical bills when making a claim against the at-fault driver. In legal terms, this is what is known as the “collateral source rule.” Many insurance adjusters will try to take advantage of injured car accident victims who attempt to negotiate their own settlements by telling them that they can only claim what they paid, or the reduced rate that their health insurance paid. If you hear that then you are being misled. Your medical bills are what the health care provider actually charged, and you get to claim the full amount, regardless of whether they have been paid.
Now, with that being said, it is important to point out that your health insurance company may contend that it is entitled to be reimbursed from any settlement for the medical bills it has paid. It is quite common for health insurers to assert reimbursement rights, but just because they assert those rights does not mean that they are actually entitled to be paid back. Whether a benefits provider such as a health insurance company has valid and enforceable reimbursement rights is beyond the scope of this guide as it requires a qualified attorney to examine the facts of the case, the language in the health insurance plan, and the pertinent law. Just be aware that this may be an issue.
3. What if I miss time from work? Will I be able to receive compensation for lost wages?
Yes. Lost wages are one component of your overall economic damages. You get to claim lost wages, even if you did not lose any money out of your own pocket as a result of the time you missed from work. For example, if you were still paid while you were out but you had to use leave time or disability benefits, then you get to claim the missed time from work as lost wages. This is part of the collateral source rule, which was mentioned above.
4. What insurance companies should I notify after a car accident?
This question is one of the most important, and I will tell you why in a minute. The most obvious insurer that needs to be notified is the one for the driver who caused the accident. You also need to make sure that you notify your own car insurance company. Some people are apprehensive about notifying their own insurer after a wreck because they are afraid their rates will go up if they report an accident. If you share those concerns, you must put them aside because it is critically important that you notify your own car insurance company if you are in an accident. This is true even if you were not in your car at the time of the accident—for example, you were in someone else’s car, you were a pedestrian, on a bicycle, in a golf cart, etc.—because you still may be entitled to certain benefits under your own policy. Likewise, if you were in someone else’s car, then you should make sure that the insurer for the car you were in is also notified.
So why is it important to notify your own insurance company, even if the accident was not your fault and even if you were not in your car at the time of the accident? The answer is that your insurance policy requires it. Virtually every insurance policy requires you to provide the insurer with notice of an accident as soon as reasonably practicable. If you don’t provide your insurer with timely notice, then it may deny coverage when you or someone else seeks benefits under the policy.
You may be wondering what benefits you could possibly need to use under your own auto policy if you were not at fault. There are several. The first is property damage coverage. If the other driver’s insurer does not immediately take responsibility for the accident and agree to pay your property damage (or if the other driver didn’t have any insurance), you will still need to get your car repaired (or totaled as the case may be). Your own policy may have collision coverage, which will pay for your property damage, even if you didn’t cause the accident. Second, medical payments coverage, which was discussed earlier, can be used to pay for your medical bills. Last, uninsured motorist coverage may be needed if the other driver either has no insurance or not enough insurance to cover all of your damages, including damages for bodily injury and property damage.
It is important to point out that other insurance companies may also need to be notified of the car accident. For example, you may be entitled to a variety of benefits under any auto policies that were issued to any relatives who reside in your household. A qualified personal injury attorney should be consulted to determine all potential sources of insurance coverage for your accident, and accordingly, which insurance companies need to be put on notice of the accident.
5. How do I get my car fixed?
There are a couple options here. Some people choose to use their own insurance company for their property damage claim if they have collision coverage under their auto policy. Your insurance company will then seek reimbursement (also known as subrogation) from the at-fault driver’s insurance company. The downside of this option is you will likely be responsible for paying your deductible up front, but you can generally seek reimbursement for your deductible from the other insurance company (and many times your own insurance company will get your deductible back for you as part of its subrogation claim).
Another option is to have the insurance company for the at-fault driver pay to fix it. Sometimes, the other insurance company may not be willing to pay for your property damage early in the process if its investigation into who caused the accident is still ongoing. Because you will need your car fixed or replaced as soon as possible, this may be a reason to get your own insurance company to handle the property damage claim up front. If the insurer for the at-fault driver does accept liability, then it will likely have a property damage adjuster do an appraisal and determine the cost of repairs. At that point, you will either get your car repaired or replaced if it is totaled. If your damaged car is not drivable and you need a rental car, the other driver’s insurance company should pay for your rental car.
A common question that my clients have is whether they can get compensation for the reduced value of their car. It is no secret that a car accident can reduce the value of a car. For this reason, Georgia law allows people to recover diminished value damages. These claims can be tricky though, and insurance companies are notorious for low-balling people on diminished value claims.
6. I keep getting calls from the insurance companies. Should I talk to them?
As a general rule, you need to talk to your own insurance company. Your own insurance policy likely contains a cooperation clause that states you have a duty to cooperate with your insurer in its investigation of the claim. The insurance company for the other driver is a different story. You have no obligation to speak to them. While the insurance adjuster for the other driver may attempt to come across as friendly and act like he or she is on your side, don’t fall for it—it’s just an act. Their job is to minimize the amount of money they will pay on your claim, and to accomplish this goal they will do everything they can to question their insured’s liability for causing the accident and the amount of your damages. If the other insurance company wants to take a recorded statement from you, it would be wise to decline, at least until you have had the opportunity to consult with a lawyer.
Of course, if you are going it alone and not hiring a lawyer, you will probably have to talk to the other insurance company. If you don’t speak to them, you will probably have a hard time coordinating your car repairs and negotiating your settlement. If you do decide to talk to the other insurance company, just remember that whatever you say can and will be used against you, so be cautious!
7. Should I hire an attorney?
This may be surprising to hear from a personal injury attorney, but you may not need an attorney if you are in a car accident. If you weren’t injured, for example, you probably don’t need one. If you only sustained minor injuries (“minor” is admittedly a matter of interpretation) and received little or no medical care, then you still probably don’t need a lawyer. However, I always advise people who have been in a car accident to at least consult with a lawyer. There’s no harm in talking to a personal injury attorney because most, including myself, will provide a free initial consultation, and a qualified attorney can advise you on the immediate steps you need to take to protect your interests. If you would like to contact us for a free consultation on your case, I can be reached at (404) 596-8044.
If you were injured, then you should strongly consider hiring an attorney. Some people try to handle their injury claim on their own because they think they can save money by not having to pay an attorney a portion of their settlement. While that line of thinking is understandable, the benefits of hiring a lawyer far outweigh the cost. As an initial matter, an attorney will likely be able to get you considerably more money than you could get on your own. In addition, an attorney will be able to navigate the claims process, notify the proper insurance companies, analyze the thorny issues of whether any health insurance or other benefits providers are entitled to be paid back, and negotiate any unpaid medical bills. At the end of the day, the chances are you will end up with a better result if you hire an attorney.
8. How do I choose an attorney if I need to hire one?
Many people don’t personally known an attorney, much less one who specializes in personal injury cases. If you do decide to hire an attorney for your personal injury case, here are a few basic steps to follow and questions to ask to find the attorney who is right for you.
First, you should look for an attorney who specializes in personal injury cases. If you were charged with a crime, you wouldn’t want to hire a lawyer who specializes in real estate or divorces to represent you. Conversely, you wouldn’t want a criminal defense lawyer to represent you in a real estate transaction or a divorce. Personal injury cases are no different when it comes to needing a specialist. An attorney who specializes in injury cases is likely going to have a better understanding of how to properly handle your case and will get you a better result. I specialize in personal injury and wrongful death cases, and I have an in-depth understanding of how to handle these types of cases. As a result, I refer cases to specialists in other areas of law when someone calls me about a problem that is outside my area of expertise.
Second, ask any lawyers you are considering if they have handled a case like yours before. A personal injury attorney who only has experience with car wrecks may not be the best qualified to handle a case involving a defective product or medical malpractice, and vice versa. I have extensive experience in a variety of personal injury areas, including car and trucking accidents, medical malpractice, products liability, and premises liability. However, some personal injury attorneys do not have such a diverse background.
Third, what kinds of results has the lawyer obtained? Results are not only a good indication of whether a lawyer has been successful, but they can also be a good indication of the types of cases a lawyer has handled. A lawyer who can only claim small results either has not handled big cases or has not been successful doing so. If you have a significant case with large damages, you should hire a lawyer who has a track record of obtaining large results.
Fourth, will the lawyer return your calls? One of the most frequent complaints that clients have is that their lawyers don't return their calls. Try your best to find out if the lawyer will return your calls because communication between the lawyer and client is vital to the success of your case. While we are on the subject of returning calls, a word of caution is in order about the personal injury firms that advertise a lot on the radio and TV. Many of those firms utilize paralegals and legal assistants to handle many aspects of their clients’ cases. The end result is that the case does not get a lot of attention from a lawyer. This means that when you call the law firm, you will likely have a difficult time actually speaking to a real lawyer, or if you do speak to one he or she will not be as familiar with your case. I give individual attention to each of my client’s cases and am always accessible. Not only does this benefit my clients’ peace of mind, but the direct line of communication allows me to better understand their cases and get them better results.
Fifth, is the lawyer willing to go to court? While most cases settle, your lawyer must be willing to file a lawsuit and go to trial if necessary. You would be surprised how many lawyers do not even want to file a lawsuit, much less go to trial. A lawyer who is not willing and able to take your case to court will not get you the best possible result. I routinely file lawsuits and am willing to go as far as necessary to get my client the best possible result, even if it means taking the case to trial.
Last but not least, are you comfortable entrusting the lawyer with your case? Your case is very important. You should make sure that you have trust and confidence in the lawyer who is going to be responsible for handling something that is so important.
9. How much is my case worth?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions that prospective clients have. There is almost never a clear-cut answer to this question because there is not a magic formula or calculator that can be used to determine a case’s value. Every case is different, and the value of a case depends on a variety of factors. Some of those factors include whether the other driver was clearly at fault or whether liability is in question, whether you share any blame for causing the accident, the amount of your medical expenses and lost wages, the nature and severity of your injuries, the extent of your pain and suffering, the amount of available insurance coverage, whether there are any aggravating factors in the accident, and the credibility or likability of the parties involved. Based on all of these factors, as well as any others that may be unique to your case, an experienced personal injury attorney can normally come up with a range for the settlement value of your case and determine how to approach settlement discussions with that range in mind.
10. How long will my case take to settle?
As with the answer to the previous question, it depends on a variety of factors. Again, every case is different. Some cases take months, while others take years. Adding to the unpredictability about how long a case can take is the fact that some of the factors that determine a case’s duration are outside of your control. One of the biggest factors is the amount of money the insurance company is willing to offer to settle. When the insurance company offers a settlement amount that is fair and acceptable to you early in the process, then your case will fall on the shorter end of the spectrum. However, in many cases there are disagreements about the value of a case (remember, there is no magic formula for determining a case’s value), and when you are not willing to accept the insurance company’s highest offer it may be necessary to file a lawsuit. When you file a lawsuit, a case can still settle at any point after that, but if the insurance company still refuses to budge then you may need to take your case to trial.
In short, the factors are too numerous and unpredictable to give a one-size fits all answer to this question. The best advice though is to be patient and worry more about getting fair compensation for your case than just a quick settlement.