While rare, I have been asked at an initial auto accident free consultation, “How much is a case like mine worth?” Even some attorney ads (especially the 1-800 type referral services) will invite auto accident victims to call and “find out what your case is worth!” This short blog will address a few points on the subject.
First, early in a case, most of the time it is virtually impossible to even estimate the value of a personal injury automobile accident claim. At an initial consultation, many times all a personal injury attorney knows is that he or she has a new client with symptoms of spinal pain, knee pain, etc. One of the reasons that not even the most experienced trial attorney can tell you your claim’s value is that diagnostic studies have frequently not been done. Therefore, it is unknown if there is damage to the intervertebral disc(s), knee, shoulder, etc.
Even after a client’s injuries are better understood, there is still no magic legal formula that will provide the proper amount of compensation a client should expect. To help explain why assigning value to a personal injury claim is difficult, let’s compare it to a real estate transaction. When one sells real estate, the goal is to get “fair market value” or better. A good starting point would be an appraisal, in which a professional searches comparable properties (“comps”) in the same geographical area, as well as recent transactions for those properties. Armed with this data, a range can be determined as to what the seller might expect to receive for the property.
As in real estate, an experienced personal injury attorney, armed with years of negotiating and litigating similar cases, can use such “comps” as a basis to form an opinion as to an expected fair offer of settlement. Other resources such as that attorney’s own trial results, and jury verdicts in other similar cases, can also be considered. There are nearly countless variables that go into the analysis, including preexisting history, severity of the collision, a client’s ability to testify and relate subjective complaints, lost wages and impairment of future earning capacity, and the results of objective diagnostic studies. However, this is where the similarities end between appraising real estate value and that of an injury claim.
If your claim does not settle, this is what it is worth: Whatever six people you’ve never met before (the jury) say that it’s worth.
The reason that the amount can be seemingly arbitrary is that damages like pain and suffering come down to a jury instruction that compensation should be based on what is “fair.” What is fair to six people one day could be entirely “outrageous” to a jury of new jurors the next day! You, as an injured client, will rely heavily on your attorney at trial to try your case so that a jury will understand that you deserve proper compensation for your injuries.
I want to make it clear that an auto accident victim understandably relies on his or her experienced attorney for advice on the proper settlement value of a case. An injury attorney is involved in these claims day in and day out, and has a duty to advise a client of a typically fair case value based on the evidence. However, even the most seasoned trial attorney cannot tell a client the result of a future trial, decided by six strangers.
Beware of any attorney that would ever tell you that he or she will get you a certain amount. Towards the end of medical treatment, I can certainly advise a client what a case like hers would typically settle for, but I will never be able to tell her what a jury will decide. Jurors have their own biases, and if an attorney tried the exact same case in front of two different juries, the results may very well be dramatically different. We do not have the luxury of knowing who our jurors will be before the case is tried in Court. What I can promise clients is that I will be fully prepared and ready for trial, and that their case will be presented to the jury in a highly competent manner. After I have done that, we will both be waiting to see what the jury comes back with after deliberations. Anyone who thinks differently, I would love to have his crystal ball!