35 Quick Tips for Handling Your Own Pennsylvania Personal Injury Car Accident Settlement
Perhaps you’re considering handling your personal injury case on your own, without the help of an Erie injury lawyer. You’ve come to the right place. Here are a few quick tips to consider as you consider how to proceed with your car accident injury case.
1. Make sure that you’ve got the correct address and identity of the person(s) responsible for the accident. If there was more than one potentially at-fault driver involved, make sure that you get everyone’s identity. Remember, the police report is a good place to start, but it may not be correct. Sometimes, the police make mistakes (just like everyone else).
2. If any of the involved drivers was working for someone else, make sure that you get the correct name and address of the employer.
3. Get the contact information of any witnesses to the accident.
4. Get the name and contact information of the insurance companies who insure the drivers who caused the accident.
5. Get pictures of the scene. The police may have taken some pictures, but these probably won’t be produced if you just ask for the report. Make sure to follow up and request copies of their photos. Be ready to pay a fee for the photos and for the report.
6. Get pictures of the vehicles.
7. Get pictures of your injuries.
8. Make first contact with the insurance carrier for the at-fault driver(s).
9. Get the insurance carriers to tell you how much insurance the at-fault driver(s) bought. They won’t want to tell you. In fact, they don’t have to tell you. But you can’t meaningfully evaluate whether you’ve got a potential underinsured motorist claim if you don’t know how much insurance the at-fault driver has. So, make it clear that you won’t negotiate without being given the declarations sheet for the at-fault driver(s).
10. Remember to ask whether the at-fault driver has any other policies that might apply. Are there other resident relatives in his household? How many cars does he own? Did he elect stacking on his policy? Did he purchase an “umbrella” policy or a personal catastrophe policy? If you have doubts or reservations about whether you’re getting accurate information, consider whether you’ll need an affidavit of no other coverage.
11. If you suspect that the coverage available to the at-fault driver may not be enough to compensate you for your injuries, find out whether you have UM/UIM coverage and, if so, how much. Did you elect stacking? Are there other vehicles in the household which may apply to you? Do you have any other policies with riders that may provide additional coverage?
12. Consider whether you’ll give a recorded statement to the other guy’s insurance company without a lawyer being there to represent you. We almost always advise against this, but the other guy’s insurance company will probably refuse to negotiate seriously with you without a recorded statement.
13. Try asking the insurance company if you can take a recorded statement from their guy. If they agree, call us! To our knowledge, this has never happened and we’d like to know the first time it does.
14. Consider what type of medical authorization you’ll agree to give the other guy’s insurance company. Will it be limited in time? Will it be limited as to a provider? Or will it be completely unlimited so that they can go back as far as they want and get whatever record there is to get? Do they have to give you copies of the records they get? Will you have to pay them for your own records? Make sure you know what you’re giving them and make sure the language of the authorization is consistent with what you decide.
15. Track down your own medical records (all of them) for the last 10 years, at least. And read them before the other guy’s insurance company reads them. Do not make mistakes when you talk about your medical history.
16. Figure out how to get your medical bills paid. Your insurance company has to pay certain amounts that are reduced according to Act 6. After those limits are exhausted, you’ll have to get a document confirming the exhaustion of the limits for your health insurance company. Then your health insurance company will have to be persuaded that there really isn’t any other coverage before they’ll start to pay. You’ll have to make sure this is taken care of because the other guy’s insurance company keeps you on the line asking for more and more information. When weeks and then months (and sometimes years) pass without a decision by the other guy’s insurance company, you’ll have to make sure that your medical providers are paid or they’ll stop treating you and start pursuing you for collection.
17. If your medical bills were paid by a health plan through your employer, find out if the plan was a fully self-funded ERISA qualified plan. If the plan claims it is such a plan, you’ll need to get the documents to prove it. You may want to review ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) and see if the plan is entitled to be repaid out of your recovery. They may be entitled to be repaid, but, on the other hand, they may not. Whether they are entitled to be repaid depends on the plan documents and other details. You’ll need to know one way or the other because not only will it make a difference as to whether the plan gets repaid, but it also makes a difference as to how much you are allowed to recover in “special” or “economic” damages from the at-fault driver.
18. If your medical bills were paid through Medicare or DPW or some other government entity or government-funded entity, then you should contact them and figure out who they paid and how much. Then, you’ll need to figure out their formula for determining how much they are entitled to be paid later if you get a recovery.
19. If your medical bills were paid through a workers’ compensation plan, then you need to contact them and get the same information. They have a different formula that you can find in the workers’ compensation statute. You’ll need to study it to figure out how it applies to your case and how much you’ll need to repay them if you get a recovery in your auto case.
20. Remember that time matters and that there are limits on how long you can wait while trying to settle your claim before you must file a lawsuit. In some cases, there are special time limits and special notice requirements that apply to special classes of persons, like people who are working for the government at the time of an accident.
21. If the at-fault driver was charged with a traffic violation, make sure that you attend his hearing.
22. In fact, call a Pennsylvania Court Reporter to attend the hearing and make an official transcript of everything that is said at the hearing so that you can actually use that testimony later. Remember, there is no record made of most traffic offense hearings — so unless you bring your own court reporter, you may be unable to effectively use any of the other guy’s testimony against him later, even if he completely changes his story.
23. If you’re receiving disability payments, you’ll need to figure out if that entity wants to be repaid; if they’re entitled to be repaid; and how much they’re entitled to be repaid.
24. When all your treatment is done (or you’ve gotten to some baseline), get a narrative report from your physician that includes a statement of proximate cause, a prognosis, and a description of any disabilities.
25. Collect all your wage and salary and tax information for the last five years.
26. Make sure that you’ve really got all the medical treatment records. It’s not enough just to have your bills or those “Explanation of Benefit Forms.” Also, a lot of doctor’s offices don’t give you all the records even when you ask for them. You need to review the records you get and see if there are any that are missing. Sometimes, you can tell that there are missing records because the records you have will refer to records you don’t have. You’ll need them all to be submitted with the “Demand Package” that you are going to create.
27. Keep all your receipts.
28. Are you a person who elected limited tort? (If you are, go find the insurance agent who sold it to you and fire them.) You didn’t elect limited tort? Are you sure? You may be bound by an election made by someone else in your household.
29. If you or someone in your household has bound you to limited tort, are you sure it applies? There are many, many exceptions. For example, limited tort does not apply if the at-fault driver was convicted of DUI or entered into ARD for DUI. If you were driving a commercial vehicle (which has a specific definition that you can find at Title 75), then the limited tort option may not apply. You should find and read the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (the “MVFRL”) to determine whether one of the exceptions to limited tort applies to your case.
30. In fact, while you’re reading the MVFRL, you should also review its complementary provisions on recovery of certain “First Party Benefits” and a corresponding provision limiting “subrogation” rights of third party payors. But be careful: once you’ve got that figured out, you’ll also have to remember that Pennsylvania law is superseded by federal law in some instances. And you’ll have to remember that there are plenty of exceptions to the general rules of subrogation and recovery outlined in the MVFRL.
31. Research and evaluate to determine the reasonable settlement value of your injury case in the jurisdiction where your case would be tried (usually where the accident happened, e.g., Erie County, Crawford County, Mercer County, Warren County, Venango County). This is harder than you think. It’s not simply a matter of finding a case with similar injuries. Much depends on the unique circumstances of each case. Do the best you can.
32. Make a demand that will get you full and fair compensation for all your losses, not just the medical bills and lost wages but also the pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, annoyance, scarring, disfigurement, and other “non-economic” harms. But don’t make a “wacky” demand. A wacky demand will probably just be ignored.
33. If the insurance company responds to your demand and you like what they are offering, take it….but FIRST make sure that you’ve fully considered and acted to protect the possibility of an underinsured motorist claim (a “UIM Claim”). Remember that the value of such a claim may be very different than your direct claim against the at-fault driver for legal reasons (such as an exception to the limited tort rule that applies in your claim against the driver but not against your own insurance company for policy benefits you paid for) and for tactical reasons (cases tried against an insurance company may be perceived by a jury differently than a case against an individual). If you have any thought of making a UIM claim, then you will have to put your carrier on notice of your proposed settlement BEFORE you accept a settlement and give them a chance to “waive subrogation” or buy out your settlement.
34. Carefully read and evaluate the General Release that the insurance company will send you to make sure that you aren’t unintentionally releasing important rights.
35. If you don’t like what the other guy’s insurance company is offering you, call us. We’ll tell you if you’re getting a fair offer or not. But don’t wait too long. We don’t accept “stale” cases. And there may be nothing we can do for you if you’ve made mistakes like missing a statute of limitations or signing a release for an unfair settlement amount.
Hopefully, you’ve picked up on the tongue-in-cheek approach we’ve taken to this article. It’s not meant to be legal advice (even though the information we’ve provided is valid and interesting). Obviously, we can’t summarize in this one article three years of law school and 20-plus years of experience as injury lawyers in Erie County, Warren County, Forest County, Crawford County, Mercer County, and Venango County, PA. So, consider that the above information is helpful but also remember its limitations. The truth is that we almost never advise people to handle their own cases. You could do it, perhaps. But it’s not a good idea for most people.
We offer a free book, tons of free videos, reports, articles, and blogs on this site. Call us for a visit to one of our Pennsylvania law offices, but don’t wait too long. We really can do our best for you early in the case and there really are important time limitations on when you can and must give notice or begin a legal claim. Each case is different, so we don’t list all the time limits here.