Updated October 2021
Have you been harmed in a vehicle collision or another situation that most people would call an accident? If so, accident attorneys may be able to help you get benefits, settlements, or other compensation for the situation.
However, not every incident falls under what accident attorneys deal with. In this guide, you will learn more about what accident attorneys do, how they might be able to help you in qualifying situations, how lawyers become accident attorneys, and get answers to some common questions that people have.
What Are Accident Attorneys?
Accident attorneys are a type of personal injury attorney that specializes in accident-based sections of tort law. That’s a mouthful of industry jargon, so here’s the breakdown of what these are and why they matter.
A tort is an action, or an omission, that creates harm for another and amounts to a civil issue for which courts can impose liability. This is different from criminal law, which is what most people are more familiar with.
Tort law, therefore, is the segment of law in a particular region (usually a state) that deals with wrongful acts. Personal injuries are a specific segment of tort law that generally covers physical and psychological harm. Typically, if one person alleges that another person hurt them in either of these ways, it will be a personal injury case.
Most areas do not define the term “accident attorney.” However, while it lacks a formal definition, groups often use it as a shorthand to refer to personal injury lawyers who specialize in cases involving vehicles and machines. Pedestrian accident attorneys may work with cases involving no machines, so you can see how loose the definition is.
For example, bus accident attorneys and motorcycle accident attorneys fall under the broader category of accident attorneys. However, personal injury lawyers who specialize in things like dog bites, medical malpractice, or defective products usually don’t advertise themselves as accident attorneys.
What Kinds of Cases Do Accident Attorneys Handle?
Most accident attorneys specialize in cases involving certain types of vehicles and machines. Of these, car accident attorneys are easily the most common. Some attorneys may specialize further, becoming semi-truck accident attorneys, bicycle accident attorneys, or even construction accident attorneys.
The main reason attorneys specialize in these areas is that the laws for different vehicles and machines can vary greatly. It includes everything from proper warning signs and symbols to weight limits, visibility, and more. Attorneys who specialize find it easier to get a reputation for winning cases of that type and not making mistakes in the process.
Accident attorneys typically aim to prove that another party was at fault and should provide compensation or demonstrate that their client was not at fault and shouldn’t be held liable for the incident.
What Is Liability?
Liability is a complex concept in law, but it usually refers to a person or group’s responsibilities and obligations. For example, you are liable for following the rules of the road. Most people use liability as an exclusively negative term, but this isn’t technically correct. While you are liable for your wrongdoing, you are also protected from liability if you’re following the rules. This holds true for accidents just as much as other areas of the law.
To put it another way, if you did everything you should have and didn’t omit to do anything, you’re probably not liable for damages. Many accident cases focus on establishing liability in court or lack thereof for the defense.
For example, a vehicle crashing into another may make it look like the driver is at fault. However, an investigation may show that the crash happened because the brakes on the vehicle failed.
If the vehicle’s owner can show that they’ve been following all recommended maintenance, the liability for the collision could rest with the car’s manufacturer instead of the driver. Accident attorneys often research matters like these when deciding whether to proceed with a case.
What Usually Happens If an Accident Attorney Wins a Case?
The most common outcome of any case involving auto accident attorneys is that court orders the loser to pay the winning party. These payments can include compensation for medical bills, emotional harm, loss of income, and similar things. The court may also order the losing side to perform various tasks or avoid certain behaviors.
In most cases, the loser in a case like this is not at risk of going to jail. That’s why these are civil cases and not criminal cases. However, if an attorney can demonstrate a particularly egregious issue that goes beyond the scope of a civil case, it could become a criminal case. This turn of events is more likely to happen if someone died.
Outline of an Auto Accident Case
The best way to understand accident attorneys is to know how the cases they work with tend to unfold. Cases aren’t guaranteed to follow the outline below, but the majority will typically proceed in something close to this order.
Part One: The Accident
This is the inciting issue. For the purpose of this example, we’ll say that it’s a car accident where Patricia Plaintiff’s car was struck by David Defendant’s car when David ran a red light.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, numerous witnesses give statements to the police describing their account of the incident. Patricia also provides a statement, but it’s only a brief one because she’s being taken away by emergency medical responders concerned about her health following the accident.
Most people focus on the physical injuries here. Patricia is physically harmed. However, her vehicle is badly damaged, and she doesn’t have an easy way to replace it. That means that, even if she were perfectly healthy, she would have a hard time getting to work and earning money to pay her bills.
The main thing to understand about any accident in a case like this is that it can cause multiple problems. Patricia’s physical and psychological injuries, her loss of property, and her loss of ability to earn money are all potential aspects of a civil case. Accident attorneys try to look at the whole picture for an accident, not just the apparent harm.
Part Two: Medical Treatment
The next part of an auto accident case is where someone may experience further losses. Not every accident case requires physical harm, but this will likely occur since we’re using a car accident as our example.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Patricia is diagnosed with several traumas and injuries, including dislocated vertebrae in her spine, internal bleeding, and broken bones. The doctors treat what they can and announce that she’ll need at least several months for recovery, with additional time in the hospital before release.
Healthcare is often expensive, and that’s especially true when dealing with trauma. Patricia does have health insurance, but she knows she’d have a high payment because her insurance won’t kick in until she’s spent at least several thousand dollars on care.
Patricia firmly believes that the accident wasn’t her fault and that she shouldn’t have to pay all of the bills she knows are coming. With that in mind, she decides to get some help.
Part Three: Getting an Accident Attorney
Patricia wants an attorney, but frankly, she’s in no shape to find one herself. She’s hurt and on medication, but she wants to get help as soon as possible. After some thought, she decides to ask her husband Patrick to hire an attorney on her behalf.
Patrick looks through local listings, trying to find a well-rated auto accident attorney in the area. He also talks to a few friends, including a workers’ compensation attorney he knows, and eventually, he gets a reference to Larry Lawyer. After a little more research, Patrick decides he’s found a good candidate.
Patrick calls Larry and gives a brief explanation of the case. Larry agrees that this case may have some merit, and he asks if Patricia is in any state to talk to him directly. Patrick checks with the doctors, who give their approval, so Patrick and Larry head to the hospital to discuss the matter in person.
After hearing Patricia’s tale, Larry explains that he believes the Plaintiff family has a strong case and that they are entitled to various damages. He also discusses a little more about topics like lost wages, loss of future earning capacity, and the upcoming medical bills.
This phase is only the preliminary part of a case, so the details of potential compensation aren’t final. It’s Larry’s job to try and get as much compensation for the Plaintiff family as he can. Patrick and Patricia know this, and finally, they ask the big question weighing on them: how much do accident attorneys charge?
Part Four: Hiring the Attorney
Larry’s given the Plaintiff family a free consultation, but they haven’t hired him yet. For that, they need to agree to the fee arrangement.
Larry explains that he uses a system that’s common to accident attorneys: the contingency fee arrangement. This arrangement means that he will get a part of any earnings he can successfully get from the case, and he usually charges 33%. If he can negotiate a one-million-dollar settlement, he’d receive $330,000.
However, Larry adds that this was a recommendation from that worker’s compensation attorney. That gives the Plaintiff’s family a discount. Larry will only take 25%, and the other attorney will get 5% as thanks for the referral. The Plaintiff family gets to keep an additional 3% of any settlement he can negotiate.
That may not sound like much at first, but it adds up quickly when you start talking about settlements in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.
Larry also explains that his fee includes various payments that the Plaintiff’s family would otherwise need to make, such as court costs, filing fees, and so on. Other lawyers might not cover those fees, but he recognizes that the family is unlikely to have much money until after the case, so it’s much easier on them to do it this way.
Patrick and Patricia like what they hear, so Larry uses the document-sharing service Sizle to give them copies of all the legal documents. He’s also a responsible lawyer and says that they should read all of the information on the papers before they sign. They’re welcome to contact him at any time if they have questions.
Patrick and Patricia spend a day reading the documents and get a few questions answered, then formally hire Larry Lawyer. This is when things really start moving.
This part of a case is easily one of the most crucial parts. Hiring the right attorney can make or break a lawsuit, so it’s vital to do whatever due diligence you can. Most lawyers aim to make this process as easy as possible, but in the end, only you can decide who to hire.
Part Five: Gathering Information
Larry Lawyer reviews his notes for the case and considers several past lawsuits on which he has worked. He decides that he’s got a good start so far but needs to get more information if he’s going to maximize the Plaintiff family’s earnings for the case.
He starts by collecting records and information, including statements held by the police from witnesses who saw the accident. He also takes some time to talk with medical experts and therapists, getting written records about how Patricia’s injuries are likely to affect her life, earning capacity, and general well-being.
Larry also talks with a few mechanics who examined Patricia’s car after someone towed it following the collision. They explain that the vehicle is damaged so heavily that there’s no point in repairing it. Insurance usually covers the cost of replacing a car, but Larry knows that Patricia’s insurance company doesn’t want to have to payout. That’s what David’s insurance is for.
At this point, Larry decides that he has enough information for his case. He contacts Patricia’s insurance company and explains that he will be representing her in this case. The insurance company is used to working with lawyers in cases like these but states that they don’t yet believe the claim that the car is unfixable because an approved mechanic didn’t do it.
Larry considers this, then points out that the shop Patricia’s car got towed to is highly reputable within the area and can provide fair and accurate evaluations. The insurance company would need to pay for moving the car and getting another assessment, which would probably get them the same response.
After some thinking, the insurance company agrees to accept the existing evaluation of the car, and they explain that they’ll be in touch later.
This stage shows how quickly an auto accident case can get complicated. There may be several insurance companies involved, each with competing priorities and other businesses and professionals that a lawyer needs to speak with while managing a case.
The auto attorney’s job is to understand and keep track of all these different groups to help make a case.
Part Six: Preparing a Lawsuit
After collecting enough information for the case, Larry decides that he has a good measurement of the situation and can proceed with the lawsuit. Working with some of his staff, he drafts a personal injury lawsuit against David Defendant.
Once he’s done, he contacts the Plaintiff family and uses Sizle to share a copy of the lawsuit. Here, Larry details what he will include in the case and why and his estimate of how likely it is that he can win compensation for each issue.
The Plaintiff family is not familiar with this aspect of the process. Frankly, they have no way to even evaluate Larry’s judgment. Recognizing their limits, they decide to go ahead and trust him, asking him to file the lawsuit in the local court as soon as he’s ready.
Patrick and Patricia receive a surprise: Larry tells them he doesn’t want to file the lawsuit yet. Neither of them expected that, and Patricia asks why. Larry just smiles and says, “Settlement negotiations.”
Part Seven: Settlement Negotiations
Larry contacts Patricia’s insurance and asks their lawyers to evaluate the proposed lawsuit, as they’re involved with the case. The company has plenty of lawyers to do this, and they suggest a few corrections for the case. It’s nothing major, but they know Patricia’s car had some special audio systems installed, so it’s worth more than Larry initially thought.
Once they agree, Larry contacts David’s insurance company and explains that he has a lawsuit ready to file. He includes evidence, an evaluation of the damages, and an explanation for each claim. The total comes to about five million dollars.
David’s insurance company, unsurprisingly, doesn’t like that number. They counter with an offer saying they’ll pay half a million dollars as a settlement, which is less than the maximum that David’s insurance plan covers.
Most auto accident cases end at this point. While the specifics of a settlement may vary, the vast majority of cases stop here when insurance companies and an accident lawyer reach a number on which both sides can agree. Settling out of court is easier for everyone, and attorneys often recommend that clients accept the negotiated amount.
However, this is a sample showing the outline of an auto case, so we can’t stop here. Larry tells David’s insurance that their offer is unacceptably low because it doesn’t even cover Patricia’s actual losses, never mind his fee on top of that. They don’t want to go to trial, so they increase the offer to three-quarters of a million, but Larry still refuses.
Negotiations have broken down, so it’s time to go to court. Larry heads to the courthouse the following day and files the lawsuit.
Part Eight: An Active Lawsuit
Here, things seem like they slow down a little as each side maneuvers for advantage. Larry files Patricia’s lawsuit on her behalf, David hires a defense attorney who files counterclaims, and both sides go through the discovery process to get more information.
David’s defense rests on an allegation that Patricia’s light was out, something none of the witnesses would have seen from their angle. Larry doesn’t think this is a good defense because David definitely ran the red light. Still, David’s attorney is trying to claim that if Patricia’s light had been working, David would have reacted differently.
There’s no way to prove David’s allegation true or false. Both sides continue settlement negotiations as the case continues, but it eventually heads to trial.
This is a civil case, so it eventually goes to a trial by jury. The trial starts about a year and a half after Larry filed the initial lawsuit. Patricia’s insurance has been covering the costs so far, mostly without complaint since they believe she has a strong case and can get repaid for what they’re spending.
The jury hears testimony on the case and sees the evidence, including the notes from doctors, statements from witnesses, and other material relevant to what happened. Patricia can attend, but she’s still visibly limited by her spinal injury.
The jury is sympathetic to her case, but they don’t agree with the amount for which Larry asked. Rather than awarding five million in damages, they find that David was at fault and give Patricia two-and-a-half million.
David has nowhere near that much money himself, but his insurance policy covers up to three million dollars in damages. However, they don’t want to pay out that money, so they try to appeal the case to a higher court.
Part Nine: Resolving the Case
It takes several months to get a response, but the appeals court refuses the case because they couldn’t find any wrongdoing in the original settlement. At this point, the insurance company finally pays out.
Larry gets his 25%, the lawyer who recommended him gets 5%. The insurance company receives another 30% to cover what they paid for Patricia’s medical expenses while the case went to trial. Patrick and Patricia get the remaining 40% of the total award or about one million dollars in cash.
The Plaintiff family uses this settlement to pay off some lingering debts, then sell their house and move to a remodeled home two states away that’s easier to live in for someone with Patricia’s back injuries. They put the rest of their money towards a retirement fund.
Patricia is somewhat surprised here because she thought their family might only get 10% when all was said and done. Larry explains that personal injury cases are usually nontaxable, so they don’t need to treat it like earned income. However, they should talk to an accountant to be sure they report it correctly if required. He doesn’t deal with that kind of financial issue.
After completing the remaining paperwork, the Plaintiff family is done and discharge Larry’s services. That ends the relationship and the case.
How Do Attorneys Become Accident Attorneys?
Whether focusing on general accidents or specializing in specific roles like truck accident attorneys or bike accident attorneys, most lawyers follow a fundamentally similar path towards this role.
It all starts with earning a legal degree. Most lawyers get a Juris Doctor degree, which is a three-year graduate degree at American schools. Most states require these degrees to come from accredited schools, although there are occasional exceptions.
Occasionally, attorneys take another route by pursuing a Master of Law degree. However, this is relatively rare among accident attorneys because this route usually specializes in particularly complex areas like banking or tax law.
After getting a degree, attorneys prepare for the bar exam. This test is generally the only way to join a bar association in a particular state, which is a fundamental requirement for working as an attorney. The bar exists to ensure that lawyers meet specific skill and educational requirements, and states usually refuse to permit any lawyer in a court if they’re not part of the bar.
For context, as of 2019, only about 58% of applicants passed the exam. Good schools typically have higher pass rates, so where lawyers study significantly impacts how soon they can start practicing law.
Once lawyers are part of the bar, it’s time for additional education. Accident attorneys usually study and research relevant matters like medicine, anatomy, and even biomechanics. Auto accident lawyers generally study the latest practices and procedures for the industry, including taking part in continuing education to stay familiar with technological advances.
Many attorneys spend some time with existing law firms to gain experience in different areas. Doing this gives a better opportunity to see how much they enjoy working in other areas, ultimately settling into their roles as trained accident attorneys.
One of the significant benefits of this route is that it means accident attorneys usually have experience with at least several accident cases before striking out on their own. Don’t hesitate to ask your attorney for more information about their experience with cases like these.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions that people have about accident attorneys.
Is It Worth Getting an Accident Attorney?
This question is hard to answer because some cases are more worthwhile than others. An experienced attorney can give you a realistic assessment of your case, including how much you’re likely to get from it and what your odds of success are.
If you’re unsure, you can get opinions from several lawyers before you contact them. If all of the lawyers are good, you’ll probably hear similar numbers from all of them. If one lawyer’s numbers are too different from everyone else’s, that’s a sign they either know something the others don’t or are giving a poor estimate for the case.
What Happens If I’m Not Insured and a Big Settlement Happens?
Many different things can happen if you don’t have the money to pay for a settlement. Generally, courts can take almost anything from you to help pay off debts, including savings, homes, and most other assets.
However, there are a few exceptions to this. Most retirement accounts are exempt from liability lawsuits. Cars may also be exempted from it, especially if you can present evidence that you need it to earn money to help pay off the rest of what you owe.
Can Accident Attorneys Make Someone Go To Jail?
Generally, no. Accident attorneys only represent people at trial and don’t determine the actual punishments. Further, most personal injury lawsuits only have financial penalties, not any risk of jail time.
The main exception is if an attorney can demonstrate that someone in the case, usually a defendant, committed a criminal act that caused an injury. Your accident attorney can use this to help negotiate settlements.
Note that prosecutors, including accident attorneys representing plaintiffs, are not necessarily obligated to present evidence of criminal activity. For example, an attorney may conclude that the evidence is too incomplete to make a case, and they may simply leave it out in favor of civil charges that are easier to prove.
When Should I Contact a Lawyer After an Accident?
Contact a lawyer as soon as possible after your accident. Try to talk to as few people as possible before you have the chance to speak with an attorney. However, you may need to exchange insurance information with anyone else involved or give statements to the police.
Experienced lawyers can help you avoid accidentally saying something that would harm your case. Saying the wrong thing could make you admit liability in the eyes of the law, even if you didn’t intend to, and that can jeopardize your chances of obtaining a settlement.
How Are Settlements Paid Out?
Settlements can be paid out in several ways. Most personal injury cases have either a single lump sum or a series of regular payments. The court may determine what form the payout should take, considering factors like the defendant’s ability to pay and the presence of any insurance options.
It’s complicated to change a payment plan once it’s settled. If you don’t like the terms, you should tell your lawyer as soon as possible. They may be able to argue for an adjustment in your favor.