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Should you file your own personal injury case in California without a lawyer?

By Daniel Amos

Is personal injury DIY a good idea?

If you are in a car accident or suffer an injury due to somebody’s negligence should you hire a personal injury lawyer, or can you handle a personal injury case on your own? The answer is: it depends. There are pros and cons on both sides of this question. For example:

  • If you hire a personal injury lawyer you won’t have to do all the work yourself, which will save you a lot of time and make your life a lot easier.
  • If you decide to handle your personal injury case on your own, you won’t pay attorneys' fees. So which is better for you?

In this article, I am going to give you some simple tools to help you decide if hiring a personal injury lawyer in your case will be an investment or a rip-off.

I have been a personal injury lawyer since 1985 and I practiced in this area of law for 25 years before I started Higher Legal, A California State Bar Certified Lawyer Referral Service (LRS#130) that helps people find great lawyers. As a result, you might think I’d suggest that everyone in an accident hire a personal injury lawyer. Well, that's not my recommendation, because not every accident case needs a personal injury lawyer. There is way more information than I can put in one article on this topic, but the tips in this article will help you decide what’s best for you.

If you have questions after reading this article, please send me a message and I’d be happy to speak with you.

I’ve always told my clients the most important decision they make in their personal injury case is the lawyer they decide to hire. But I also explain they first need to determine if they need a personal injury lawyer in the first place. So here are some of the most crucial issues to consider:

What type of injury case do you have?

What type of personal injury case do you have? This is a great place to start. The type of case you have matters a lot. Is it a simple car accident, or is it a wrongful termination from work case? Is it a dog bite, or is it an elder abuse case? Does it require a government tort claim filing, or is it against a private person or entity?

The type of personal injury case you have really matters a lot because there are certain types of personal injury cases that a non-lawyer could not properly handle. In fact, there are some types of personal injury cases (like an elder abuse case or a medical malpractice case) that most personal injury lawyers don’t even know how to properly handle.

Some personal injury cases are more “generic” when it comes to the law so they are easier to navigate without a lawyer. For example, a simple car accident (like a rear-end accident) is a “negligence case” and does not generally require an expert witness to testify on the issue of liability (i.e. who is at fault). This means it is much easier for a non-lawyer to handle. The facts about what happened in a simple car accident are known to the people involved in the accident, so sometimes it’s possible to handle a car accident case like that on your own.

There are other times however when a car accident is not so simple and not something you should handle on your own. This might include a multi-vehicle car accident with significant damages where several parties will be involved and will be blaming each other. Or an accident where someone was speeding and there is an argument about the length of the skid marks which will be used to calculate the speed of the vehicles and who was at fault. Car accident cases like these can get very complicated and often should not be handled by a non-lawyer.

So the first thing to consider is what type of case you have.

One great resource in California that you might find helpful in determining if you can understand the law in your type of case is to look at the CACI CIVIL JURY INSTRUCTIONS.

If you click on this link and go to the “2020 Edition” it will take you to a PDF of the actual laws in California that are read to a jury when a case is decided. On this link take a look at page 32 of the PDF which is a table of contents for car accident case law, and then look at page 616 where you will find the actual laws. I think you’ll find this really interesting! Read through these laws and ask yourself if you think you can understand them because that is how you will be required to prove your case if you decide to handle it on your own. If you don’t think you can understand this on your own you should hire a personal injury lawyer who has experience in your type of case.

If you’re in an accident and you are trying to decide if you need to hire a personal injury lawyer, first take a look at the law and what you need to prove to win your case. This will give you some idea if you think you can handle it. If you have questions after reading this, send me a message and I’d be happy to help you out.

Do you have time to handle your own case?

After you have checked the law involved in your case and you think you can understand it the next question to ask yourself is:

Do you have the time necessary to properly handle a civil case?

Handling a personal injury case can be a lot of work. It can be very time-consuming. Don’t be under the misconception that all you have to do is call the insurance company, tell them your story, and they will send you a check. That’s unfortunately not how it works. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The insurance company will fight you the whole way.

Let’s use the example of possibly the easiest type of personal injury case imaginable, a simple low impact fender-bender car accident where the other person has admitted the accident was their fault. You would think this is so simple you could just contact the insurance company and they will send you a check to fully compensate you for your medical expenses, your time lost from work, your car rental, the repairs to your car, and for your pain and suffering. Well, they won’t.

Here is how a claim really works

Instead of just agreeing to pay for everything and send you a check, the insurance company will probably make you go to their body shop or their property damage estimator, who will likely low-ball the property damage estimate to your car. Then they will fight with you about the cost and extent of the damage to your car, they will deny your claim for the diminution of value to your car, and they will fight you on the type of car rental you want and how long you can keep the rental car. I have handled thousands of these cases and something as simple as just fixing your property damage can become a complex headache.

They will also fight you on your medical bills. They’ll say your medical bills are inflated and excessive, they’ll say your injuries are fake or not related to the accident, they will claim you are exaggerating your injuries, they will say that you could not have been injured in the accident because the impact wasn’t strong enough, and they may even hire their own doctor to examine you to prove you are a fake. I say this because I have fought against this type of insurance company abuse for many years.

I use this example simply to show you how much time it is going to take you to gather your evidence and prove your case. And remember, the example above is a case where they have admitted the accident was their fault! Even in that situation, they will fight you on a host of other issues.

It gets even more complicated in cases where there is a dispute about who is at fault. A case involving an issue of who is at fault (i.e. the issue of liability) may require you to get statements from witnesses, opinions from medical experts, and possibly require you to retain traffic or accident reconstruction experts. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It all takes a lot of time.

So your second consideration should be, even if you think you could do all of the things necessary to present your case, do you have the time to do it?

Why do you want to handle it on your own?

The third thing you should consider if you have decided that you think you understand the law in your case and you have time to handle it on your own is whether you really want to handle your own case.

Ask yourself WHY you want to handle it;

  • Is it because you are interested in learning more about the law?
  • Is it because you think you’ll save money by not hiring a lawyer?
  • Or is it because no lawyer will take your case?

Let’s talk about all three of these situations.

You find the law interesting

Some people like to handle their own injury case because they are interested in learning more about the law. This may be a legitimate reason to handle your own case, but rather than take the risk of handling the case on your own, you may be better off hiring a personal injury lawyer who is willing to let you work closely with them on every aspect of the case. You might even learn more about the law and how these cases are handled than if you do it completely on your own.

You want to save money

Some people want to handle their own personal injury case because they feel they will end up with more money in their pocket if they don’t have to pay an attorney. This may sometimes be true, but usually not. One situation where it might make sense for you to not hire a personal injury lawyer would be if you are in an accident and the value of your case is much higher than the insurance limits available to the responsible party. For example, if your case is worth $100,000+ and the other party only has $15,000 of insurance and no assets to recover, the insurance company will probably want to offer you the full $15,000 policy limits to settle the case. In this situation, it might not make sense to hire a lawyer who would take a $5,000 fee (33.3% fee) for doing virtually no work.

This however an exception to the rule and most of the time you are going to get more for your personal injury case if you have an attorney. Most of the time in my experience the amount an attorney can get for your case exceeds the fees you will have to pay the lawyer. Insurance companies fight these cases for a living and they know all the tricks and if you handle a case on your own you are usually at a great disadvantage.

You can't find a lawyer to take your case

Some people have to handle their own personal injury case because they can’t find a lawyer who will take it. This happens all the time.

There are lots of reasons you might not find a personal injury lawyer to take your case. One frequent reason is that personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. That means they don’t charge you by the hour, instead, they agree to take a percentage of your recovery if they win your case. If they don’t win your case, they don’t get paid. This is why they are so selective in the cases they take. There is a lot of risk for them when they take a case on a contingency fee basis.

If you can’t find a personal injury lawyer to take your case and you feel like you deserve your day in court, in California, you might decide to file your case in Small Claims Court because it’s much easier to do than filing your case In Pro Per in Superior Court.

In California small claims court you can sue for up to $10,000 if you are an individual or a sole proprietor. Corporations and other entities are limited to $5,000. In addition, a party (individuals or corporations) can file no more than two claims exceeding $2,500 in any court throughout the State of California during a calendar year. You can learn more here: Small Claims Court

If you need help with this let me know and see the blog post and YouTube video I made on using Small Claims Court. You can also refer to the California Courts website for more information.

Here's the bottom line, I don’t want to dissuade you from handling your own case, I just want to make sure if you do, that you are ready to fight because it won’t be easy.

Hiring a personal injury lawyer levels the playing field

One big consideration when deciding if you should handle your personal injury case on your own is to consider your opposition. The insurance companies fight these cases for a living, and you don’t! It’s their business. They are massive “for-profit” companies, some of the largest in the country, and they have a mountain of information, lots of lawyers, and unlimited resources to make sure you lose your case. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know your legal rights?
  • Do you know what you are entitled to under the law?
  • Do you know all the tricks used in these cases?

The answer is, probably not, but the insurance companies do. What I’m trying to say is that when it’s you vs. them, it’s not a fair fight. The big insurance giants reward their employees for making sure you get as little money as possible. So from the very start, it isn't a level playing field. It’s like challenging your friend to an open book test where he gets to use the internet and you only get to use an old encyclopedia. You’re likely going to get clobbered!

Remember, when you make a personal injury claim it creates an adversarial relationship. The insurance company is not your friend and they are not trying to help you. In fact, they are trying to make you go away. Their job is to pay you nothing, or pay you as little as possible. Their lawyers and claims adjusters are getting paid to do that.

If you’re like most people, you don’t like being in that type of confrontational situation. Life is stressful enough with our jobs, our families, and our day-to-day tasks of paying the bills. If you ever experience fighting a personal injury case against a giant insurance company and their teams of lawyers, it’s a stress you'll probably never forget.

That’s why it is usually a good idea to have someone on your team who knows the rules and has experience doing this type of work. Personal injury lawyers (also known as plaintiff’s lawyers) are professionals at representing people who have been injured in all sorts of accidents. There are personal injury lawyers who even specialize in certain areas of personal injury law, such as slip & fall cases (premises liability), medical malpractice cases, elder abuse cases, insurance bad faith cases, defective product cases (product liability), wrongful termination and workplace harassment cases (employment law) and even car, truck and motorcycle accidents to name just a few. And these personal injury lawyers do this for a living. They know the tricks the insurance companies and their lawyers use to make sure injured people recover as little as possible.

So if you decide you can’t or don’t want to handle your own case, be sure to hire the very best personal injury lawyer to represent you.

The insurance companies are not your friend

The insurance companies are not your friend and they are pros at playing the marketing game and making you think they are, even before you are in an accident. Insurance companies have spent billions of dollars conditioning us into liking them and thinking they are the good guys.

Insurance companies have creative branding campaigns and logos, calling themselves the “Good Hands” people (Allstate), creating cute little “Green Geckos” (Geico), and they have even created imaginary representatives like the friendly “Flo” from Progressive, and everyone’s best friend “Jake from State Farm”.

Don’t be fooled!

This is just good branding. It's not who they really are. The insurance companies are billion-dollar for-profit money makers, and they are not your friend. They have spent billions of dollars creating deceptive public personas so you will let your guard down. They want you to think they are on your side. They're not.

In fact, the problem of insurance companies taking advantage of people is so pervasive and so bad that an entire area of law has developed over the years to try and stop them from taking advantage of you. It’s called "Insurance Bad Faith" law (we have a separate blog and video on that), and there are personal injury lawyers who specialize in fighting insurance companies that break the law.

So if you are thinking of handling your own personal injury case, just don’t be fooled. You only have one case, and there are no second chances. When I was in court fighting for one of my clients in a personal injury case, I would often make this part of my closing argument to the jury. I would remind the jury how important this day was to my client, pointing out that the judge had many more cases waiting to get into the courtroom, and the lawyers all had many more cases back at their offices to work on, and even the court reporter and court staff had many other cases to work on, but the one person in the courtroom who would never forget what happened that day was the plaintiff, because this was their one and only case. It was their one and only opportunity to be fairly compensated for their injuries.

So if you are going to try and negotiate or fight your own personal injury case without a lawyer, remember, once you sign the settlement release to end the case - it’s over. It’s done, forever. You can’t go back, even if you find out the insurance company hid information from you, even if you learn your injuries are worse than you thought, once it's over, it's over. So be careful if you do it on your own.

Finally, here is a brochure published by the California State Bar entitled, "What Consumers Should Know Before Hiring an Attorney" that you might find helpful.

The State Bar recommends that consumers contact a certified lawyer referral service to make sure you find the best lawyer for your case. Higher Legal is one of these certified lawyer referral services (LRS #130) and we would love to help you.

I hope this article has provided you with some helpful information so you can decide if you can handle your personal injury case on your own.

If I can help you find an experienced personal injury lawyer, please let me know. Tell Me About Your Case

If you have an idea that you would like to see a Higher Legal YouTube video on, please mention that in the YouTube comments on the video that goes along with this post.

If you need a referral to a great personal injury lawyer, send me a message through the Higher Legal website contact and I will get right back to you. Higher Legal has been helping people find the best personal injury lawyers since 2009.

If you want me to get right back to you, the best and the fastest way to reach me and to get a response is through a message on the Higher Legal website.

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Daniel Amos Attorney since 1985 Founder of Higher Legal