Be highly skeptical of any lawyer or online website claiming an ability to predict how much a case is worth immediately following an accident! It's just not possible. There are too many unknowns during the early stages of a case. Here's a list of common factors that go into properly valuing a claim.
What's the Extent of the Injuries?
This may seem obvious, but it is far from it. Whether it's an automobile accident or a slip & fall, the full extent of an injury is seldom clear immediately following an accident. What may at first appear to be a minor neck strain may later be found, after appropriate diagnostic testing, to be something much worse - such as a disc herniation requiring surgery. On the flip side a diagnosis of a potential fracture may later, after the swelling goes down and more diagnostic testing is done, turn out to be nothing more than a strain. A large and grotesque laceration may heal nicely and leave little or no permanent scarring, while a seemingly minor cut can unexpectedly leave a permanent and very noticeable scar. Injuries initially thought to be permanent can turn out to be only temporary, and vice versa. All of these examples, exactly as I have written them, have proven true numerous times over the years at my office. There is absolutely no way to know for sure, in the early stages of a claim, how someone is going to heal with time. Will they need surgery six months down the road? How will they respond to treatment? Will a laceration leave a permanent scar? Will further diagnostic testing reveal additional injuries? This is one of the biggest reasons why personal injury cases take as long as they do to be resolved. To properly value a claim your lawyer, and the insurance company, need answers to these questions - and it's just impossible to know the answers for sure in the early stages of a case. So if a lawyer or online service claims to be able to tell you how much your case is worth on day one - RUN!!! Stay as far away from them as possible. They are only trying to scam you to get your business.
How Much are your Total Accident Related Medical Bills?
Same thing here! How is it possible to know how much your accident related medical bills are going to be in the very early stages after an accident? Unless your lawyer has a magic crystal ball in the back room, it's just not possible to know how large your accident related medical debt may grow. Medical bills, obviously, are another giant factor used in determining the overall value of a claim. My office has seen cases with accident related medical bills ranging from as little as a couple thousand dollars to upwards of a million dollars by the time the case is concluded. Will you be sent for an MRI down the road due to lingering pain? Will you need surgery? Cortisone shots? How many months of physical therapy will you need before you reach a medical end result? Will ongoing chiropractic care be needed? Only time will tell, and medical bills are one of the primary factors that go into valuing a claim. So, as I stressed above, don't fall for it when someone claims they can tell you how much your case is worth on day one.
Is there Permanent Scarring or any other form of a Permanent Disability?
Generally speaking, unless you suffered a truly severe or catastrophic injury (such as a lost limb or loss of eyesight, for example), you will not know right away if your injury is going to be later determined by a trained medical professional to constitute a permanent disability. Such a determination is usually reserved until after therapeutic treatments fail and further diagnostic testing is done. As for scarring, as a general rule of thumb, a formal scar evaluation is not done until at least six months (sometimes up to a year) after an accident. To properly value a scar, it takes time to first see how it heals. These are things that just aren't known, and can't be properly valued, in the preliminary stages of a case.
What is the likelihood of Additional Medical Treatment being needed after a Settlement?
Another factor negotiated into a settlement, at least by personal injury lawyers who know what they're doing, is the likelihood of additional medical treatment being needed after a settlement. Is the client at a medical end result, or will there be future medical treatment needed? If unsure, what's the likelihood based on the type of injuries in question? If needed, what is an educated approximation of these potential future medical costs? Once you settle a claim, it's over. You can't go back and get more money afterwards because you unexpectedly needed another surgery a year later. These things need to be determined before the settlement of a case, not afterwards. This is precisely why many personal injury cases drag on as long as they do. A good lawyer will explain this to the client, and purposely wait until the client is either at a medical end result, or at least at a point where future medical costs can be adequately estimated, before finalizing the settlement of a case. It's certainly not an estimation any lawyer can make at an initial consultation with a new client.
What are the total Lost Wages and/or Loss of Earning Capacity?
How much time did you miss from work, or how long were you unable to seek gainful employment due to the accident related injuries? This is yet another big piece of the puzzle when it comes to properly valuing a claim. If you are still out of work at the time of your initial consultation with a lawyer, how are they to know exactly how long you will remain out? If you haven't missed any time from work or are back to work already at the time of your consultation with a lawyer, who's to say you won't need to miss time from work in the future due to a flare up of your injury, or the discovery of a condition caused by the accident that will require surgery. Lost wages (or loss of earning capacity) can often significantly increase the value of a claim, and only time will tell how much.
Liability - Will you be found to be Partially At Fault for the Accident?
Once the approximate value of a case can be properly determined after taking into consideration the many factors mentioned above, will that valuation be affected by a contributory negligence finding? Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 231, section 85 governs contributory negligence in the commonwealth. Contributory negligence does not bar recovery so long as the plaintiff's negligence is not greater than that of the defendant, but the percentage of negligence attributed to a plaintiff will proportionately decrease his or her recovery. So let's use the following example: It is determined that the overall value of a plaintiff's case is $200,000.00, but it is ultimately agreed through negotiations (or determined by a Judge or Jury) that the plaintiff was 20% at fault (i.e., the defendant was only 80% at fault). In this example the net value of the plaintiff's case would be $160,000.00. Although liability often seems clear from the start, additional evidence can surface over the course of a case to change that. Also, Jury's in Massachusetts are highly unpredictable. So, if a lawyer is being honest with you, it's impossible to know for sure right from the start. But a good lawyer will navigate your case through the claims process, taking advantage of all the evidence in your favor, to limit your exposure to any potential contributory negligence finding and maximize your overall recovery.
What are the Limits of Available Insurance & Does the At Fault Driver have Assets Worth Pursuing?
I could fill a book on this topic. There are so many different places an experienced lawyer can look for available funds to increase a client's overall recovery. For the purpose of this legal guide, I need to glaze over the surface and simply give you a quick summary. But do be on the lookout for a future legal guide from me covering this topic in far more detail.
To state it simply, not all insurance policies are created equal. Some have Med Pay (separate coverage for medical bills), and some don't. With automobile insurance policies in some states, for example, one can even waive certain coverages to save money on their monthly premium (like Personal Injury Protection and Collision deductibles, or opting not to have Med Pay). Also, although some states have mandatory minimums (requiring all registered drivers to have a designated minimum amount of insurance coverage), consumers can always purchase more than is required in order to make sure they have a sufficient amount of coverage to help shield them from any personal exposure. Some other states, such as New Hampshire for example, do not require automobile insurance at all.
Let's use Massachusetts as an example. Massachusetts requires that all registered vehicle owners carry a minimum of $20,000 per person ($40,000 total when more than one person is injured) in bodily injury liability insurance. So if there were four people injured as a result of a driver's negligence, and they had what is referred to as a $20,000/$40,000 bodily injury policy, and assuming for this example that all four victims had similar injuries, the most they could get is $10,000 each from the insurance policy (assuming it's split evenly four ways). Well, if you have an injury case valued significantly higher than $10,000 in such a scenario, where can you look for additional funds?
A full & detailed answer, as I mentioned above, could fill an entire book. But here are some of the more common stones that a good personal injury lawyer can turn over in an attempt to obtain additional funds: (1) Are there additional insurance policies that can be 'stacked' to provide for more overall coverage? (e.g., if the at fault driver was driving someone else's vehicle at the time of an accident, does that at fault driver have an insured vehicle of their own that you can go after as well?); (2) Do you have something referred to "Underinsured Motorist Coverage" on your own automobile insurance policy, with higher limits than the at fault vehicle, that you can tap into when the defendant's insurance policy is insufficient?; (3) Is there an 'umbrella', or other excess insurance policy available?; (4) Was the person at fault for the accident working in the scope of his or her employment and is there a potential for additional coverage if they were?; and of course: (5) Does the person at fault for the accident have any assets worth chasing above and beyond the available insurance?
So much to consider, which helps to explain why it's impossible to determine the value of a case instantaneously at an initial consultation, and why it's so important to have an experienced lawyer helping you to maximize your ultimate recovery.