DennisBeaverMarch 16, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Have you recently been in an auto accident which was entirely the fault of the other driver? Car damaged, sustained injuries, had a difficult time with insurance companies, and yet unable to find a lawyer to take your case? 

Does it seem that when you call a personal injury firm they are not interested? Or have you been told, “Great case, but we are just too busy right now.”

Today, it is indeed more difficult to find a lawyer for the types of personal injury cases that would have members of this profession drooling only a few years ago.

From about the 1960s until late l980s, if you were a lawyer, the best game in the house was personal injury. It was routine to see minimal injury auto accident cases being settled for many times the medical bills plus lost wages. Cases where, at times, there was no visible damage to the cars — the so-called low-impact collision — would end with thousands of dollars from insurance companies going into the pockets of clients and their lawyers.

Depending upon where you lived, the 1970s and ’80s saw the ranks of chiropractors and physical therapists grow dramatically. If you had Medical Payments Coverage (MPC) on your car, this was a guaranteed ka-ching on the cash registers of “health care professionals” who routinely treated until all the med pay was used up, and then cut loose a still-suffering patient.

Historically it was incredibly rare for a lawyer, physical therapist or chiropractor to earn an income close to or in excess of a million dollars a year, but in those years many did. They could only see their practices and billings increase, and many took on massive debt, certain the party would never end.

But end it did in 1988, when the California Supreme Court freed the insurance industry from what had become legal extortion. Research conducted by the well-respected Rand Institute concluded several years later that once third-party bad faith was eliminated, “there were fewer, less severe and less expensive injury claims.”

“It only took a few months for the insurance industry to adapt to the changes in the law, but adapt they did, slashing settlements, sending the pendulum too far the other way, and that is where it remains today,” commented Hanford personal injury attorney Rissa Stuart.

“Today, insurance companies take a tough stance on medical necessity for treatment, length of treatment and who their insured are seeing. Unless there is real property damage — a major hit, tow truck, ambulance, emergency room, and substantial injury — they may not even offer enough money to pay your medical bills!” Rissa stressed.

And because these companies have forced lawyers to trial, guess what? With fewer plaintiff verdicts of any real size, lawyers aren’t taking “iffy” cases.

“What was a solid case 15 years ago is today’s iffy case,” Rissa explained. “Today, even with a clear rear-end case and substantial property damage, the reality is that a soft tissue injury — a typical whiplash situation — may only bring a settlement offer of either just the medical bills, or the medical bills plus a minimal sum for pain and suffering. Today, lawyers are taking two-thirds fewer personal injury cases than they did just a few years ago,” she told me.

So what should a person do when it seems clear they aren’t going to easily find an attorney to take the case? Rissa had this bit of legal advice, with which I completely agree:

“If an attorney does not take the case, then you have to become your own attorney. This means gathering up your medical bills, wage loss, and reasonable expenses chargeable to the accident. Present this in a businesslike manner with typed, properly prepared correspondence, and have realistic expectations.”

“If you had an auto accident case years ago — during those go-go, wild ’70s or ’80s, realize that the same kind of case today would settle for dramatically less, and that is true no matter who you hire. The insurance industry is routinely low-balling settlement offers, telling the public how generous and fair they are. It is propaganda, generally, but in truth, most cases settle for far less that in the past.”

“I tell people that with a small case, it is in their best interest to handle it on their own. The reason is that if I take it, yes, I will be paid my one-third, but the accident victim after paying medical bills and fees may have little left over. This just isn’t fair to the client, and ethical lawyers will shy away from enriching themselves at the expense of the client,” my Hanford colleague concluded.

Yes, there are lawyers who will refuse a case when to take it would harm the client. Those are the lawyers you want to see the next time a legal problem crops up.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.