The honest answer from us, and any reputable car accident attorney, is “it depends”. Any car accident attorney who tries to tell you what your car accident case is worth immediately after the accident – or what they may promise they can get for you in a settlement – is not being straight with you and frankly, should not be trusted with your injury case.
Instead, what we do, and what good reputable car accident attorneys do, is explain what factors go into evaluating a car accident case and explain what information is needed before being able to give a realistic range of proper case worth.
Below outlines the main factors that go into an evaluation of car accident case value.
As a simple starting point, the more severe the accident and the more severe the injuries the higher the case value. This is not rocket science but understand it is a double-edged sword for car accident victims. Our clients who are more severely injured and have their lives more severely impacted are the ones who receive higher settlements and jury verdicts. Conversely, our clients who are less injured are the ones who receive lesser settlements and jury verdicts. But, to a person, our clients would rather take the option of a lesser injury following a lesser severe accident that resulted in a lesser settlement or jury verdict. So, having a case that is ‘worth more’ is not always a great thing.
The bottom line is insurance companies place great importance on how ‘bad’ the accident was. Juries do as well. A picture is worth a thousand words and a much better settlement from an insurance company and a much better verdict from a jury will be obtained with this picture:
vs. this picture:
Clearly one can see how it is more likely for a motorist to become more severely injured in the first picture vs. the second. The insurance companies and jurors are making that same assumption and they expect more severe injuries and higher case values to come from the more severe accidents.
More severe the accident = typically a higher case value.
The type of injury suffered is equally as important in arriving at proper case value. The types of injuries that arise from a car accident include:
-broken bone such as leg, neck, back, neck, arm, hand or ribs;
-closed head injury to include headaches, dizziness and memory loss;
-torn ligaments in ankle, wrist, knee, shoulder or hand;
-whiplash and sprain to back and neck;
The types of damages available for recovery include:
- Past medical bills;
- Future medical bills;
- Lost wages/loss of earning capacity;
- Pain and suffering;
- Loss of consortium;
- Wrongful death
More severe the injuries = typically a higher case value.
Looking at each a little closer.
Insurance companies will try and sort injury claims into 3 buckets:
-soft tissue injuries (strain/prain type injuries)
-broken bone/surgical injuries
As one would expect, the insurance companies’ ability to play hard ball with settlement offers and case values lesson as you move up the spectrum of case severity – both in type of injury and in what part of your body is injured. For example, insurance companies view broken legs as more severe (ie. more valuable) than broken arms. Insurance companies view whiplash as less severe (ie. less valuable) than a sprained wrist.
Soft tissue is a word that is often associated with car accident injuries. The insurance company is extremely fast to throw around those words in an attempt to minimize case value. Insurance companies define soft tissue injuries as anything that is not in the category of a broken bone or a torn ligament or a torn tendon.
Soft tissue typically refers to an injury where diagnostic tests (MRI scans/X-rays) do not show the injuries listed above (broken bone, torn ligament, torn tendon) and instead categorize them as sprains or strains. The insurance companies will play doctor and expect for these types of injuries to heal in a matter of months with rest, medication, and a limited amount of physical therapy and/or chiropractic care. Expect the insurance companies to take very hard lines in how they evaluate these cases – especially if there is plenty of available liability insurance. You can expect the insurance companies to try and value these types of cases by offering the medical bills and perhaps $3,000-$5,000 in addition for pain and suffering.
The cases with broken bones, torn ligaments and torn tendons often involve surgery and can be life altering. These are perhaps the most important category of cases to hire a reputable car accident attorney because depending on how the injury claim is presented to the insurance company and to a jury can lead to wild deviations in case value.
Some of the ways we enhance the value include capturing all medical costs past, present and future; documenting hardware insertion and future hardware removal; testimony from treating physicians on the painful nature of the surgery and recovery; medical illustration boards to demonstrate the injury on paper; statements from friends, families and co-workers; life care plans and day in the life videos.
A wrongful death claim is the worst type of case we handle. Nothing is more painful than meeting with a grieving family after they have lost a loved one in a car accident. Wrongful death claims are filed by survivors of an individual killed in an accident. Technically, compensation is designed to cover the lost income, leftover bills, and funeral expenses survivors face and to compensate them for less specifically quantifiable aspects of a wrongful death. In reality, a wrongful death claim after a car accident is ‘worth’ whatever the maximum amount of insurance that is available. It is the rare occasion that an insurance company should not pay out the maximum amount of available policy limits following a death to a motorist in a car accident.
Medical bills are referred to as ‘economic damages’ and are the most easily identifiable bucket of damages as they are outlined with specific costs incurred from a medical care provider after a car accident.
If you are hurt in a car accident you should get the medical care needed to get better. Period. Medical care comes at a high cost and those bills are what make up this element of damages in a car accident case. These costs include, but are not necessarily limited to, ambulance ride from the accident scene, Urgent Care/Hospital ER, and follow-up care by an orthopedic doctor, physical therapist and/or chiropractor.
We have handled car accident cases where our clients incurred as little as a few thousand dollars in medical bills:
To as large as approaching seven figures of medical bills.
Regardless of the number, the amount of medical bills is typically the starting point, and candidly, the easiest part, of determining the value of a car accident case. A settlement offer from an insurance company MUST include all your medical bills. If the offer does not, barring some unforeseen circumstances, that is NOT an offer you should consider taking.
Big picture, more severe injuries create the need for more medical care which will lead to higher medical bills – so what follows are cases with higher value.
- Amount of Future Medical Bills
Sometime the injuries sustained in a car accident are permanent and will require a lifetime worth of medical care and attention.
When you settle your car accident case the obligations the insurance company have to you will end. In exchange for the agreed upon settlement payment, you will be asked to sign a document that will forever release and discharge any claim you may have against the person who caused the accident and the insurance company who is making the payment. Meaning, that if you end up requiring another medical procedure 5 years after the settlement you cannot go back and make another claim.
An experienced car accident attorney will make sure to spend time with you and your doctors forecasting the need for any additional care and what that will include. If it is ‘more likely than not’ in the opinion of a medical professional that you will need a particular type of future care, this needs to be outlined with specificity in the demand letter to the insurance company and the presentation to the jury.
There are many ways we do this. One way is to ask a doctor to set forth a written narrative outlining future procedures and associated cost projections. Here is an example:
Another way is to hire an expert witness called a “Life Care Planner” who will put together a projection for all future costs and treatments that may be needed.
Many of our clients are forced to miss work after a car accident. You are entitled to compensation for those lost wages – however big or small they may be.
If you are an hourly worker, the computation is an easy math problem: multiply your hourly wage by the days (hours missed) to arrive at the number. If you are a salaried worker, it can also be an easy math problem: divide your yearly salary by days a year worked and then multiple by the days missed. This holds true even if you did not technically miss any wages because you used PTO or vacation days. We successfully argue PTO and vacation days should be used for a trip to the beach – not a trip to the doctor’s office.
While it can be a little trickier for self-employed clients it is still an element of damages to seek. If you are self-employed or a small business owner, sit down with your car accident attorney and really discuss and explain how to accurately show what wages you lost. For example, we recently represented a client who owned a painting business. He was physically unable to work for 2 months after the car accident. To keep his business going, he hired out sub-contractors to do the work. We collected the checks to these subcontractors, made the below spreadsheet for the insurance company and was able to collect almost $8,000 in lost wages for him.
Pain and suffering is referred to as “non-economic damages” and can be the most challenging bucket of damages to property identify, and to put better, quantify, after a car accident.
This category of damages will be different for each individual car accident victim. There is no Staples ‘Easy Button’ to push and have a number magically spit out. This depends on each client’s story and how the accident affected them. We spend time talking with our client’s and their family members learning how the accident changed their lives.
Maybe they cannot exercise like they once did. Maybe they cannot play with their children or grandchildren. Maybe they have a favorite hobby they can no longer do. Whatever it may be, our job is to find it out and then present it to the insurance company with compelling arguments on how their suffering translates to a monetary figure.
To help. we ask our clients for videos, pictures, and statements from friends and families. We then use our experience from previously handled car accident cases to come up with a fair and reasonable number for pain and suffering compensation.
You may read on the Internet about a ‘multiplier of medical bills’ method to determine pain and suffering. That is a lazy approach and one that we reject.
- The Insurance Limits of the At Fault Party
The one aspect of a car accident case that is out of everyone’s control is how much liability insurance coverage the person who hit you carries. And oftentimes it can be the most important factor.
On Day 1 of a car accident case, we make a request to the at fault insurance company to provide us a sworn and certified declarations page outlining all available insurance coverage. The declaration page will look something like this:
The key section is Bodily Injury Limit of Liability Per Person. That is the maximum amount the insurance company will ever pay (barring a Bad Faith scenario) for in a car wreck case. This available coverage amount guides many aspects of the remainder of how the case develops and is handled.
One of the hardest parts of my job is to deliver news of only a minimum limits ($25,000) policy being available to compensate a car accident victim who has been in a bad car accident and underwent surgery or died. What that means is that the insurance company is only obligated to pay up to $25,000 (or whatever limits of insurance exist) regardless of the severity of the accident or the injuries or the medical bills or lost wages. I have had more of these hard conversations with clients than I would like to admit.
The logical follow-up question we get from clients is: “well, if that is all their insurance is going to pay, can I sue them personally and get their assets”. The answer is sure for a couple hundred dollars you can sue anyone; however, in practice we have never seen it successfully result in an additional recovery for our clients. While this is painting with a broad brush, the types of individuals who carry minimum limits policies are generally the same type of individuals who do not own their own home, or have a large bank account or high paying job or other property that can be collected to satisfy a judgment. As they say, you cannot get blood from a turnip.
In these situations of inadequate liability insurance coverage, we look to any available Underinsured/Uninsured Coverage that our clients owns. This issue is discussed at length in other posts but the short answer is that UM coverage that a client has purchased with their own insurance company that applies when the person who caused the wreck does not have sufficient insurance to cover the damages caused.
- The County (Venue) where the Case would go to Trial
Venue means the county where your car accident case will go to trial. While there are some exceptions, the person who hit you is entitled to be sued in the county where they live. Where the car accident victim lives or where the accident happened generally will not matter.
A good car accident attorney knows which venues are more likely to award higher verdicts and which are likely to award lessor verdicts. Insurance companies spend millions of dollars studying potential jury pools in certain venue and they know it as well. This means the case value will fluctuate based on what county the person who hits you lives – another thing out of everyone’s control.
The most liberal Plaintiff friendly counties in Georgia are concentrated around Atlanta (Dekalb, Fulton, Clayton), Macon (Bibb), Columbus (Muscogee) and Savannah (Glynn).
The more conservative and defense friendly counties in Georgia are found in the more rural areas.
As said, there are a few exceptions to this Venue rule, and a reputable car wreck attorney will know how to take advantage of those exceptions when it can result in having the car wreck cases tried in a more Plaintiff friendly venue.
More Plaintiff friendly venue = typically a higher case value.
- The Credibility/Believability/Likeability of the Plaintiff
How you present on your own behalf means A LOT! In my opinion, it is often the most important aspect of your case. Ultimately, the only true way of knowing the exact value of your case is by having a jury of 12 of your peers render a verdict. The bottom line is the more the jury likes you, the more likely they are to award you more money. The opposite is also true – the less they like you the less likely they are to award you money.
The insurance company is trying to determine if you will be liked by the jury or not. They comb through your background and hire defense attorneys to meet you and question you in a deposition setting to gauge how you will present. The more they like you the more they think a jury will like you and the more they will offer you as a settlement.
More likeable Plaintiff = typically a higher case value.
- The Credibility/Believability/Likeability of the Defendant
How the at fault driver presents on their own behalf also means A LOT! Ultimately, the insurance carrier is also gauging how a jury is going to assess and view the defendant. The worse the defendant presents, the higher the expected verdict for the Plaintiff will be. Juries make decisions based on people and who they like/do not like. If they do not like the defendant, they will award a punishing verdict.
Background checks should be run on at fault drivers to find out any criminal history, prior car accidents, prior lawsuits, etc. Open Records Requests should be sent to the responding policy department to see if there is any Body Cam footage showing how the at fault driver acted at the accident scene. All helpful information should be sent to the insurance carrier in the demand package to educate their decision makers on how their insured will present at trial. Finding ‘dirt’ on the defendant will always increase the case value.
Less likeable Plaintiff = typically a higher case value.
- Pre-Existing Injuries or Background of the Plaintiff
Make no mistake about it – the insurance company will do their homework on you. They have access to databases that show if you have been in accidents before, been injured in an accident before and whether you filed a claim for injuries following an accident before. They will comb through your medical records and look for reference of any prior treatments or care for body parts that were injured the accident. They will ask you to sign Health Authorization Forms to grant them access to your prior medical records – NEVER SIGN THESE DOCUMENTS without first consulting a car accident attorney.
Not surprisingly, if you have been injured before, the insurance company will attempt to use that information to argue you were somehow not hurt in this accident – but instead already hurt. Oftentimes are clients have been in car accidents before and have been injured in car accidents before. That does NOT mean they are disqualified from receiving compensation from the present car accident. When injuries are similar to prior problems a reputable car accident attorney will spend a lot of time talking with their clients about what is different now vs before the car accident.
-How are their pains different?
-How has lives been effected?
-Were they healed before the accident and not experiencing any pain and now since the accident they are in pain?
-were they not seeing doctors before and now they are seeing a doctor?
Most of our clients were doing fine before the accident and are now not doing fine. If our clients do suffer from prior problems, we will then shift gears to calling the present car accident an ‘exaggeration’ or an ‘aggravation’ of a prior injury. It can then be turned it into an advantage for our clients by arguing this so called ‘pre-existing problem’ made them more susceptible to problems following the subject car accident.
Georgia law has what is called an eggshell Plaintiff theory – this means the plaintiff has some condition or underlying/preexisting health problem that make the injuries after a car accident even more severe for them. A reputable car accident attorney will be able to successfully argue the insurance company has to account for all damages caused by the car accident, not just damages that a “normal” person would suffer.
Here are 10 examples of Car Accident cases we have handled to show how the many differences in case values based on the factors above.
- $250,000 – Client suffered a sprained hand and had less than $15,000 in medical bills BUT the at fault driver was DUI at the time of the car accident and a background check showed this was his second DUI. The liability policy limits were $250,000 and based on the circumstances of the wreck and the background of the defendant the entire policy was paid to our client.
- $25,000 – Client suffered a broken leg that required surgery. The liability policy limits were only $25,000 which unfortunately meant that was the maximum amount able to recover.
- $100,000 – Client suffered a torn rotator cuff, incurred $60,000 in medical bills and underwent surgery. The liability policy limits were $100,000 and the entire policy was paid to our client.
- $23,000 – Client suffered back and neck injuries which required physical therapy and rest. Medical bills were $13,000 and the insurance policy was $100,000.
- $47,855 – Client suffered back and neck injuries which required an ER visit, physical therapy and multiple cortisone injections. Medical bills were $20,000.
- $2,500,000 – Client suffered a brain injury. Her medical bills were only $40,000 but her injury impacted her ability to work, finish graduate school and parent. The insurance policy was $3,100,000.
- $25,000 – Client suffered only minor injuries that healed with rest and one visit to the ER. HOWEVER, the at fault driver was DUI at the time of the accident so the full liability policy limits were paid.
- $395,000 – Client was hit and injured his knee and shoulder. Both required surgeries. His medical bills were $100,000.
- $0 – Client hit and killed by a driver who had no liability insurance and was driving without a license.
- $3,600 – Client involved in a minor car accident who went to Urgent Care to get checked out and then did a month of chiropractic care. His total bills were $1,900.
Joshua Stein is the Managing Partner of the J. Stein Law Firm. Following graduation from the UGA School of Law, Joshua worked for 2 years as In-House Counsel at Progressive Insurance Company and then 12 years for Goodman McGuffey, a regional insurance defense law firm, where he became an equity partner. In 2017, Joshua ‘switched sides’ and began using the inside knowledge he learned from representing insurance companies to represent those hurt in car wrecks.