Most of us have no expectation of ever being a plaintiff. Often, the first visit by a seriously injured person to a personal injury attorney may be his or her first visit to any attorney. It’s simple enough to find accident lawyers in a search engine. But similarities between finding and retaining legal counsel to represent you after you’ve been harmed and hiring most other service providers mostly end there.
Meeting with a lawyer about a personal injury can seem intimidating. It’s a feeling that might not go away as you begin to question lawyers about your potential case. In fact, it could well get worse. You are likely, for example, to quickly find that you are the one expected to answer most of the questions. Questions that may seem repetitive, unnecessarily personal, or focused on irrelevant details about what happened to you or your loved one.
In Damages, author Barry Werth describes a medical malpractice attorney’s first meeting with a potential client:
A short, bearded, middle-aged lawyer named Joel Lichtenstein came out of one of the downstairs offices to greet them. They had expected to meet with Mike Koskoff, but Lichtenstein explained that he screened the cases Koskoff argued in court. Unlike most of the firm’s other lawyers, he never tried cases. Instead, he culled from the parade of sorrow that trudged through his office those tragedies that appeared at the outset winnable, and valuable enough, for the Koskoffs to take on. Donna had assumed she was the one who was shopping, but in truth it was the other way around. The firm turned down 95 percent of those who came in with possible malpractice claims. It never advertised. Largely because of Lichtenstein, it didn’t have to.1
Because personal injury cases are usually handled on a contingent fee basis, in which you pay no attorney fee unless compensation is received, cases must be considered carefully. But the fact that you might not recall every detail might make you may feel even more intimidated about talking with an attorney about a serious injury. Knowing that the facts of your potential case will be critically important from the lawyer’s perspective—and knowing also that not being able to recall each and every one of them does not automatically prevent you from having a case—should make your experience easier. It should also help you find an attorney who will take your case, work well with you, and ultimately achieve the best outcome for you.
A lawyer must consider facts as they apply to numerous legal issues: possible claims, liability, damages, defenses, statutes of limitation, and many more. If the facts make the case weak on any single point, the defendants’ insurer is likely to know immediately and offer a lower settlement amount or none at all, or plan to go to trial confident of a defense verdict.
Unfortunately, when trying to recover from harm caused by someone else’s negligence becomes the most important thing in someone’s life, the details of how that harm occurred can fade. And even when negligence causes an injury that is less severe, it usually happens when we least expect it. If we fall suddenly in a grocery store or a careless driver unexpectedly hits us from behind at a stop light, for example, we might not remember much about what the moments right before it happened.
But gaps and weaknesses in the facts that you can personally recall do not necessarily prevent a case. They certainly should not discourage you from talking with a lawyer. Many other sources may be able to fill in gaps and eliminate apparent weaknesses. You might have documents like written records, insurance policies, purchase receipts, diary entries, product packaging, photographs, or letters. You might know how to contact a witness who saw the injury happen. You might be able to prepare a detailed timeline of events in the days or weeks before the injury. It may take you some time to gather such information, but you can be sure that it will be time well spent.
You can’t change the facts that are there. But the more time you spend searching your mind to find them, the more a lawyer may be able to do to help you. If you or a loved one have suffered a serious personal injury you should seek professional counsel from a specialized attorney.
1. Barry Werth, Damages 43 (1999).