Frequently Asked Questions About Personal Injury Claims
After an accident, we can help you understand your legal rights
If you've been hurt due to someone else's negligence, the last thing you want to worry about is handling a complicated legal case. You need to focus on your recovery. That's why we've created this list of questions and answers based on attorney Richard E Lewis' 30 years of experience helping injured people in Spokane and eastern Washington.
- What should I do if I've been hurt in an accident?
- Can I file a personal injury claim myself?
- What is "negligence," and how does it apply to personal injury cases?
- How long do I have to file a claim?
- What types of damages can I recover?
- What if I was partly at fault for my accident?
- Should I accept a settlement offer?
Every personal injury case is unique, but these answers should give you a starting point to understand the legal issues surrounding your accident. We'd be happy to hear about your specific circumstances and help you understand your legal rights. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Safety should always be your top priority after an accident. Once you have made sure you're out of danger, take pictures of the accident scene and of any visible injuries. Get contact information for any witnesses to the accident. Depending on the nature of the incident, you may need to contact law enforcement as well.
See a doctor right away, even if you think your injuries are minor. It's quite common for certain injuries, such as internal injuries, to not become readily apparent until days or weeks after an accident. Seeking immediate medical attention is the safest option for your health. Moreover, a doctor can help you document your injuries for use in a future claim - whereas if you do not see a doctor, an insurance company may use your delay in seeking treatment against you.
Finally, contact us as soon as possible. Getting in touch with an attorney right away will maximize your chances of recovering financial compensation for the accident. We can start our investigation and field any questions from insurance companies on your behalf.
In principle, you can file your own claim, but we don't recommend doing so. There are strict deadlines to be met at every stage of the legal process, and missing one or improperly filing a document can affect your legal rights. Moreover, the insurance companies have well-paid attorneys on their side, and if you go up against them alone, you'll be at a severe disadvantage.
If you are concerned about the cost of hiring a personal injury lawyer, we understand completely. That's why we work on a contingency fee basis. Richard Lewis Law, P.S. will cover all costs associated with your case up front, and we'll only get paid if we can negotiate a favorable settlement or win a verdict on your behalf. Our fee is simply a fixed percentage of your award.
A person is said to be negligent if he or she owes a "duty of care" to another person and fails to meet that duty of care, causing injury. For instance, motorists have a duty of care to other people on the road to drive safely. If a motorist causes an accident, he or she has breached that duty of care. That means the motorist is legally liable for any injuries and property damage caused by the accident.
In many cases, the negligent party is a business or government agency rather than an individual. Again, the entity in question - or one of its employees - must owe a duty of care to the injured person that is breached, causing injury. For instance, a store can be held accountable if someone slips and falls due to unsafe conditions inside the store. A trucking company can be held liable if one of its truck drivers causes an accident.
A few types of personal injury cases do not require us to prove negligence. For instance, Washington's dog bite statute imposes strict liability on the owner of the dog. That mean a dog's owner can be held liable for injuries inflicted by the dog even if he or she was not negligent. For the most part, however, to sue for damages in a personal injury case, we need to prove that your injuries were caused by a person or organization's negligence. That's one of the reasons why having an experienced lawyer on your side can make a huge difference.
In Washington, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases is three years. That means you have three years from the date of your injury to file a claim. While that may seem like a long time, it's in your interest to take legal action as soon as possible, while witnesses' memories are still fresh and evidence remains intact. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to prove that your injuries were caused by someone else's negligence.
For cases involving injuries to children, the statute of limitations is "tolled" until the child's 18th birthday, which means you should have until the victim's 21st birthday to file a claim. This is because the true extent of many injuries to children does not become apparent until years later, when the child has grown.
In general, there are three types of damages (financial compensation) that come into play in personal injury cases. These are:
- Compensatory damages. These damages are intended to compensate you for financial losses suffered as a result of the accident. Compensatory damages include both past losses, such as lost wages and medical bills, and future losses, such as the cost of ongoing physical therapy. They also include compensation for losses that aren't strictly financial in nature, such as pain and suffering or loss of consortium (that is, the loss of companionship or intimate relationship with a spouse; Washington also allows children to make claims for being deprived of a parent's care).
- Nominal damages. These damages are a typically small sum of money awarded by the court if a judge determines that the other party wronged you, although there was no substantial financial loss.
- Punitive damages. In cases where the other party's conduct was intentional or particularly egregious, the court may decide to award damages above and beyond the actual cost of the accident. Punitive damages are intended to send a message and deter future irresponsible behavior. You may also be awarded punitive damages if an insurance company acts in bad faith.
Note that damages awarded in a personal injury lawsuit are exempt from income tax. The law views these funds as making you whole again, not as taxable income.
Washington uses a legal principle called "comparative negligence." This means any damages you are awarded will be adjusted based on your percentage of fault for the injury. For instance, if you are awarded $100,000, but the court finds that you were 40 percent responsible for the injury, the damages would be reduced by 40 percent, leaving you with an award of $60,000.
Insurance companies often offer "low-ball" settlements shortly after an accident in order to limit their costs and close out the claim. In many cases, these settlements do not come close to covering the full cost of the accident.
While we understand the temptation to just take the money, remember that accepting a settlement from an insurance company means you forfeit your right to sue for additional damages later. That's why we encourage you to complete your medical treatment and be cleared by a doctor before you even entertain any settlement offers - that way, you won't have to guess at future medical expenses. Moreover, you should speak with us before accepting the offer. Often, an experienced attorney can negotiate a significantly larger settlement, one that pays for the full cost of the accident.