In related posts, I’ve talked about how to select a personal injury lawyer and how much a claim (the value of an accident caused by a driver who was impaired) is worth. This post addresses another common question for someone injured in an accident caused by an impaired driver: Do I have to go to court? The quick answer is, “probably not, but it depends.” A personal injury lawyer, at least one here in midtown Atlanta and Fulton County, will base this decision on several factors: (1) whether the insurance company accepts responsibility; and (2) whether the insurance company issued a reasonable settlement “offer” (a personal injury lawyer makes settlement “demands” while insurance companies make settlement “offers”).
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Whether the Insurance Company Accepts Responsibility. For an accident caused by a driver who was impaired, nearly everyone makes the false assumption that the insurance company “will do the right thing” and accept responsibility. This is not my experience. Whether the insurance company accepts responsibility for an accident caused by DUI is a function of “negligence” facts (whether the impaired driver who was impaired did something wrong) and whether their “insured” (the at-fault impaired driver who caused the accident) accepts responsibility. If negligence is disputed, then the insurance company will deny responsibility. In that instance, they may offer a nominal settlement (which these days is very low; perhaps $2,500 or so) or they may deny “liability” altogether. Liability refers generally to the insurance company’s obligation to pay a claim caused by their insured DUI driver. Technically, liability refers to the combined legal issues of negligence and causation, which I will address in future posts. So, just because an accident was caused by a driver who was impaired, does not automatically mean the insurance company will rush to pay the claim. If the driver who was impaired tells his insurance company that he didn’t cause the accident (even if he is lying), they may refuse to accept responsibility. If the insurance company feels they can make an argument that will defeat negligence (even if ridiculous), they may deny negligence. Or, they may low ball the claim and pay only a small fraction of what the DUI case is worth. I see this quite often and is the reason why injured people need the help of a quality personal injury attorney here in midtown atlanta who focuses on representing people who have been injured in a DUI accident. This is where the use of crack investigators can make the difference between a mediocre settlement and a great one. Hire a cheese ball lawyer (mega volume lawyers who advertise heavily) and you’ll end up with a mediocre settlement because they want to push cases not work them. I would expect this to be true in other areas of Georgia but certainly here in Atlanta, Fulton County, Decatur and Dekalb County.
Whether the Insurance Company issued a Reasonable Settlement Offer. Another misperception is that an insurance company will fall all over itself to throw money at a case where an accident was caused by a driver who was impaired. This has not been my experience. It is true that there is a strong correlation between accidents caused by impaired drivers and higher settlements. This is because juries typically punish intoxicated drivers and are more likely to award punitive damages to deter future bad behavior. However, it is common for insurance companies to low ball offers even where there are very strong negligence facts for a DUI accident. There are several possible explanations. The most basic is that the insurance company just simply wants to save money. Another explanation is that the insurance company does not fear the lawyer or feels the lawyer will not try the case (such as with a “cheese ball lawyer” or mega volume law firm). Or, the insurance company may have assigned a novice adjuster who has no awareness of the true value of the claim for an accident caused by an impaired driver. Now that insurance companies are heavily marketing on television, they are employing low paid front line adjusters who have little experience.
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Where the insurance company refuses to accept responsibility or refuses to offer a reasonable settlement figure, the next logical step is to file a lawsuit. Once a lawsuit is filed, the case progresses to court. Eventually, the case will be tried by a jury if not settled. Another misperception is that once a lawsuit is filed, the case will not stop until it is tried in front of a jury. This has not been my experience. A case can settle at any time even if a lawsuit has been filed. In fact, the vast majority of cases settle even when filed in court (on the order of say 90% or more personal injury cases settle). The difference is that the insurance company now has more at stake in the settlement process. It has to hire lawyers or use it’s “in house” lawyers (lawyers who are employees of the insurance company) to defend the claim. Again, the insurance company will not fall all over itself to pay a claim just because a lawsuit is filed. However, my experience has been that the further a personal injury lawyer drives a case through litigation, the more “reasonable” an insurance company will become. This is because the process of litigation produces evidence. In turn, evidence drives settlements because it reflects what the personal lawyer will show a jury. And, what a jury will likely award sets the value of a personal injury claim for accidents caused by an impaired driver.
Finally, “going to court” (or the process of progressing through litigation once a lawsuit has been filed) is relatively painless for the client if the personal injury lawyer is doing his job well. A good personal injury lawyer will copy the client on all communication and court filings as they occur. A good personal injury lawyer will immediately respond to client questions about the process. A good personal injury lawyer will spend whatever time is necessary to prepare the client for their deposition and court appearance. In my experience, this effort dramatically reduces whatever anxiety the client feels about filing a lawsuit. Hire a cheesball lawyer and chances are they’ll never file a lawsuit. If they do, you may be part of a “pod,” not a client.