In the moments after a car crash, so many questions swirl in your mind: Is everyone OK? How much damage was done to the car? Do I need to call the cops? Is my auto insurance going to cover this?
But once the initial shock has worn off, another question might pop into your head: Do I need to hire an accident attorney? As with many things in life, the answer depends largely on the complexity of the accident and the severity of your injuries or a passenger’s injuries.
What is an accident attorney?
An accident attorney — also known as a personal injury attorney — can help you seek damages after a car crash. Those damages can cover financial losses, medical expenses, lost wages, car repair bills and, in some states, wrongful death, according to legal information site FindLaw.com.
If you were in an accident where the other driver was at fault and acknowledges it, there’s likely no need to hire an accident attorney, Loretta Worters, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute, says. The same is true if the crash involves minor injuries with low (or no) medical bills or other expenses, she adds.
In those instances, you can generally file a claim with your insurance company instead of seeking counsel.
When is an accident attorney necessary?
The answer changes, though, if the accident is serious and the circumstances are complex — say, for instance, you were severely injured, your car was heavily damaged and you’ll be out of work for six weeks. Under that scenario, you might want to hire an accident attorney.
You also might want to look into a lawyer if you or someone else in your car was injured and you don’t feel like your insurance company or other driver’s insurance company is offering enough compensation.
Once you’ve hired an accident attorney, your insurance company no longer will discuss the case with you, Worters says. Instead, the insurer will communicate only with your lawyer.
Do I need an accident attorney if I’m getting sued?
If you’re being sued post-accident and have a comprehensive auto insurance policy — or, specifically, liability coverage — your insurance company will typically represent you. But there are limits to liability coverage (more on that here), and, if you exceed them, you could be on the hook for the difference. If you suspect you’ll be held responsible for an amount well over your coverage limits, it might be time to hire a lawyer — but we’re not talking personal injury attorneys here. Instead, you’ll want to hire someone with experience defending against personal injury lawsuits.
How to find an accident attorney
Ask lots of questions — and for referrals from family and friends — before you decide to work with an accident attorney. You can also vet candidates by reading online reviews or calling your local Bar Association.
Factors to consider when choosing a personal injury attorney include their experience, skills, commitment, location and fee structure, according to Findlaw.com.
Request the attorney’s fee structure in writing, Worters says.
"If you win the case, the settlement check will be sent directly to your attorney, who will deduct his or her fee and expenses before sending you the rest," she says.
However, if you lose the case, you might have to cover the expenses your attorney racked up , such as expert witnesses, copies of medical reports and court filing fees, says Worters.
By the way, if an accident attorney contacts you by phone or mail before you’ve had a chance to consider legal representation, be very careful, legal website Avvo.com advises. That marketing tactic is known as "ambulance chasing" — and it’s illegal in most states.
Confused about what’s covered in an auto policy post-accident? Check out our primer on how car insurance works.