One of the most frequent questions we get is when someone calls a matter of weeks or days after they were in a car crash with the question, “How much is my case worth?”
Any good attorney should basically answer that question by saying something like, “It is impossible for me to even begin to answer your question without obtaining a great deal more information, some of which will take some time to obtain.”
Who is liable for the crash?
In order to determine what a case is worth, we want to know first, if there is a strong theory of liability against the prospective defendants. For example, in a car crash case, is it a scenario where the other vehicle rear-ended my client or ran a stop sign or a red light? If so, it is likely that we can prove that the defendant is 100% at fault. If the liability or fault is not as clear cut, it does not mean that we cannot prevail, it just means that we might need to take additional steps to assist in proving the case. In some cases, there may even be some evidence of shared responsibility between both drivers. In those cases, the injured person’s damages are reduced by their percentage of culpability. So, for example, in a 50/50 situation, damages are reduced by half.
What insurance coverage is available?
Secondly, we need to know what insurance coverage is available to our client. In the car accident scenario, we first look to the policy of insurance on the car that was at fault. In New York, current law allows drivers to carry as little as $25,000 in liability or bodily injury. (Obviously, this is a ridiculously low amount when you consider the grievous injuries that arise from car accidents and the law needs to be revisited). We then look for other potential sources. If the driver of the car is not the owner and he/she owns a different car, then a claim can be made for that coverage as additional or “excess” insurance. If the at fault driver was working as a ride share driver or was employed by a company and doing something employment related, there are likely to be additional sources of coverage. If the at fault driver was impaired by alcohol, there might be a viable claim against the bar or restaurant that served him, again a possible source of more coverage.
New York’s SUM coverage
Finally, in New York, insurers are required to offer supplemental under insurance coverage (or SUM), which is relatively inexpensive. Every driver should acquire SUM of at least $100,000, as some protection against all the cars driving around with the state minimum of $25,000. So, we will need to look at all of the policies in our client’s household to see what SUM coverage is available.
Evaluating injuries and damages
We also need to evaluate injuries and damages. This requires obtaining the medical records, monitoring continuing treatment, and determining the impact on all aspects of life in the future: wages, shortened work life, medical expenses, etc. Often, we need to request information from treating doctors and engage vocational and economic experts to help with this analysis. One rarely knows what impact serious injuries will have on a person’s life until enough time passes and clear determination can be made about how they will be and what they will need for the next five years, ten years, and for the rest of their life.
So, there is a great deal that goes into determining what a case is worth and no good attorney would even attempt to answer that question without doing a thorough analysis, which leads me to what is perhaps the most important factor in determining what a case is worth, the quality and experience of the attorney who handles it.