“…not everyone needs a lawyer for their case, but everyone needs to talk to a lawyer about their case. People tend to think they can do this on their own, which they can but it will not work out as planned.”
As part of Avvo’s ongoing mission to provide transparent and comprehensive legal assistance, we’re pleased to launch Avvo 1-on-1, a new question-and-answer article series featuring candid interviews with attorneys in various specific fields of law.
The goal of the series is to humanize intimidating law topics for the everyday person through stories, anecdotes, and other real-life experiences shared by attorneys.
For the first Avvo 1-on-1 we spoke to Richard Hastings, a personal injury attorney who has been practicing for 35 years in the state of Connecticut.
Hastings is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and the Fordham University School of Law. He has also received negotiation, mediation and alternative dispute resolution training at the Harvard Law School, MIT, the Windsor Faculty of Law in Toronto, Canada, Quinnipiac University School of Law and the Center for Mediation in Law. He has also been trained as a negotiation instructor at the Harvard Law School.
Q: What are the first steps a person should take after being in a car accident?
A: At the accident site if the police officer asks, “Do you want to go to the hospital?” You should say, “Yes.” Number one, you want to make sure that you don’t have some horrible problem, you go home and then you later find out that the injury has gotten worse because you didn’t go to the hospital. The first thing you want to do is get checked medically.
One of the problems these days is a lot of people either have state insurance or no insurance. So, they don’t want to go to the doctor or if they have private insurance they have high deductibles. So, people are saying things like, I don’t want to use my insurance, they won’t accept my insurance or I’m going to have to pay out of pocket. So, that’s a big challenge that clients face.
You also want to tell the police officer at the accident site why the other driver was at fault. When the insurance adjuster of the at fault driver contacts you, you do not want to talk to that person because what the insurance adjuster will say is, “We’re so sorry about the accident. I need to get some more information from you before I can process your claim. I need to know what happened, what medical care and treatment you had and I need to know what prior injuries that you had.”
They don’t need any of this information from you. They can get the police accident report that has all the information, they can get the medical records that have all the information but they want to have you say that you’re responsible for this accident in some way shape or form, at least partially. Like, you could’ve hit the brakes or you were going a little bit over the speed limit or you could’ve turned left or you could’ve turned right because they want to implicate you so they don’t have to pay you as much money. It’s a business.
Q: What is the benefit of having a lawyer for a personal injury case?
A: I tell people this, not everyone needs a lawyer for their case, but everyone needs to talk to a lawyer about their case. People tend to think they can do this on their own, which they can but it will not work out as planned.
There was an independent institute that did a study on people that were represented by lawyers and people that were unrepresented and the results of the study found that people that were represented by lawyers ended up with three and a half times the money in their pockets even after they’ve paid legal fees and cost than people that represented themselves.
Q: What can a client expect after hiring an attorney?
A: It depends on a great number of issues. Attorneys can’t attempt to resolve your case until you’ve reached what’s called maximum medical improvement which is when your doctor says, “There’s nothing more we can do for you; you are as well as you’re going to be.”
That doesn’t mean you don’t have a life-long injury, it just means that you’re not going to get any better. At that time we’d get together all of the medical bills, medical records, lost wage information, future medical bills, future loss wages and we will amass that in a settlement demand package. We will then speak with the client and we’ll get the settlement demand package to them for their review. I’d send it to the insurance company and then we’ll attempt to negotiate a settlement.
If we cannot negotiate a settlement, we put the case into suit and these cases are all driven, in large part, by the insurance companies, the defense lawyers and what they’re willing to pay and how reasonable they are. Sometimes it’s related to the situation that the plaintiff is in. Sometimes the plaintiff says, “Listen, I just need to get as much money as I can get in the next three months, so whatever that number is let me know and I’m going to have to take it because of my financial situation.”
Most people are not put in that situation. There are some who go to funding companies where they borrow money against their future settlement which is a disaster because they have to pay so much back to these companies.
Q: What if a personal injury victim doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer?
A: It amazes me as a practicing lawyer how much of a secret this is. The answer is that our office and most law offices handle personal injury cases on a contingency fee basis. We also advance the cost to develop someone’s case. So, if you just filed for bankruptcy yesterday and you got into a serious car accident today, you wouldn’t have to come up with 10 cents to have us represent you. So, there is literally no financial risk to you. We assume all the financial risk so we level the playing field against the big insurance companies because, as an injured party, you couldn’t pay someone to represent you as you’re going through this. You have medical bills, you have lost wages, you’re unable to work and are in a bad way emotionally. The last thing you want to do is worry about additional financial responsibilities.
Q: Is handling personal cases on a contingency fee basis firm-by-firm or state-by-state?
A: I don’t know any lawyers that handle these cases on an hourly basis. All the lawyers I know take these cases on a contingency fee basis. Some states set forth what the maximum is. For example, in Connecticut we have tort reform which says you can only charge a third of the first $300 and then 25 percent of the next $300 and then 20 percent of the next $300 so there’s a scale that goes down. Some states don’t have that. Basically the market will drive what the fees are.
Q: When hiring an attorney for a personal injury case what should I be aware of?
A: When people get into an accident and are in the hospital some law firms have runners. They’ll say, “Oh, you were in an accident. Here’s a card; call this person.” You’d never want to call someone like that.
Many times people will hire the lawyer that’s on the side of a bus or the lawyer that has a billboard on the highway or the lawyer that has all the commercials on TV. What happens many times is these firms take on very high volumes. They take in lots and lots and lots of cases. So, is your case going to get the attention it deserves or are you going to be thrown into a corral with 100 other cases that one lawyer is handling. Another thing is once you hire a lawyer, can you get in touch with this lawyer? Can you get the person to call you back? Is the person responsive?
Q: Should I be worried about insurance companies and their tactics?
A: If you’re injured in a car accident with a herniated disk and have $10,000 worth of medical bills, 15% permanent impairment of your lumbar spine, you’ve lost $5,000 in income…and I ask you, “What is the value of your case?” You’d say, “I don’t know.”
However, if you’re dealing with the insurance company, they’re going to say, “We’re going to pay you $20,000 and not a dime more because that’s what your case is worth.”
It’s like the show “Pawn Stars.” When people go into “Pawn Stars” they have an object and they say, “I’d like to sell this.” The guy behind the counter says, “How much do you want for it?” You want $10,000. So, the object is really your case. You want $10,000 and the guy says it’s not worth $10,000. They then have their own expert come in and say this is only worth $1,000 and then the guy behind the counter says we’ll pay you $500. You kind of go back and forth and you say, “If it’s only worth $500, i’ll take it.”
It’s the same thing with the insurance adjuster. The insurance adjuster is going to tell you what your case is worth and you don’t have an idea. So, you would be in the position of saying, “Well I might as well accept it because that’s what my case value is.” That’s what the adjuster is telling you and you’re assuming they’re being honest with you. You haven’t gotten a second opinion and you don’t know whether or not you’ve done the right thing in settling the case for whatever number they offer you.
This is a big business. I mean, insurance companies aren’t there to do the right thing. They’re not there to provide you just, reasonable, and fair compensation. One of the ways these companies do well is by paying less money to people that are injured and one of the best ways they have to do that is if they have someone who doesn’t have an attorney.
Q: Can you speak about some of the most peculiar cases you’ve encountered?
A: We resolved a case not that long ago where we had a client who went to a 4th of July party. He helped the party host, who was his friend, move fireworks from the house to the back of the property and then he went back to stand with his friends and drink a beer. One of the neighbors there had made a homemade pyrotechnic device. He lit it off, a piece of the device broke, shot out and severed his arm from the elbow down.
The claim by many of the insurance companies that were involved in the case was he was involved in the activity itself so therefore he doesn’t have a claim. We put the case into suit and fought for years and we were able to obtain the maximum insurance coverage from all of the responsible parties. The big takeaway from that case—and all of these cases—is the fact that insurance companies by their very nature are a business that are looking to maximize profit to their shareholders.
I had one case where a guy called me up; his wife had a fall about a year prior. He calls me and says, “I just want to ask you a question. I got a letter from the insurance company and they said if my wife is 1% liable we can’t collect.”
I said that’s an absolute lie; in Connecticut you can collect. We have what’s called modified comparative negligence. You have to be 50% or less at fault. So, I said, “They lied to you. This is what you do: You tell them you’re going to file a complaint with the insurance commissioner’s office and you tell them the demand is $30,000.” The guy wrote a letter and they had to pay him $30,000 and he didn’t have to pay me a dime. You don’t need me to do this you can do this on your own. So, if someone can handle their case on their own I’ll tell them what they should do and I’ll send them on their way and say good luck, you don’t owe me anything.
Q: What are the biggest differences in personal injury laws from state to state?
A: In New York you have to meet a certain threshold before you have to put a case into suit and other states like Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—they have contributory negligence. So, if you’re 1% at fault, you don’t get to recover any money. So, there are significant differences from state to state. Then New Hampshire is the only state in the country where you don’t have to have automobile insurance.
Q: In your 35 years practicing law have there been any notable changes to personal injury laws?
A: Up until 1994 Connecticut was a no fault state. We now have anti-stacking rules that apply. We also have tort reform that applies and in many states they have caps on medical malpractice cases, how much money you can get for non-economic damages, for pain and for suffering. So, there’s been lots of changes in that regard and one of the reasons is because the insurance lobby is so powerful and they have lobbyists that go out there and say listen this is costing consumers a fortune and in reality it’s saving insurance companies from paying larger amounts of money.