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THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN INJURED IN AN ACCIDENT

This article addresses things that you might want to think about if you have been injured in an accident and seek compensation for your injuries.  It represents a sort of “primer” for you. The article does not address all possible issues, and should not be relied upon in deciding if and when to bring a claim.  It nevertheless gives the personal injury claimant a basic idea of the “lay of the land” in the personal injury claims process.

A Description of the Litigation Process

It is important to preserve evidence relating to your accident: pictures of your damaged vehicle, the scene of the accident, or your injury; the actual product that has injured you; names and addresses of persons who witnessed the accident. An attorney can help you with this evidence collection and preservation. Law enforcement personnel will typically give persons involved in an accident a accident report number, before the actual accident report has been prepared. It is important to retain this number, and to follow-up with the law enforcement agency in question to obtain a copy of the actual police report once it is completed. If you are incapacitated, have your attorney or someone else obtain a copy of the accident report. Do not be surprised if the report is not entirely accurate. There may be steps that you can take to remedy this situation. Consult your attorney about the options.

Pictures are also important to memorialize what has occurred: pictures of vehicles, pictures of the accident scene, pictures of your injuries, pictures of people, animals or things involved in your injury. If you have not taken such pictures, make sure your attorney, his investigator, or someone else does this for you.

There may be other documents that are essential in your case: police reports, repair estimates, statements, notes made at the scene of the accident, or any number of other items. Consult with your attorney about the possibilities in this regard.

Sometimes it is important to preserve the “instrumentality of injury,” in its un-repaired state for subsequent litigation. When I use the expression “instrumentality of injury,” I mean anything that caused or been involved in your injury: vehicles, products, helmets, medicine, food, or whatever. Ask your attorney if your have any doubt, and always error on the side of preservation.

Witnesses must also be secured: both identifying who they are, and obtaining their names, addresses, and telephone numbers. If you have a written or recorded statement from a witness, all the better. An attorney or investigator can help you find witnesses you may not have considered. Witnesses most often make or break a case – turning a he-said, she-said credibility contest into something more in your favor – so it is very important that adequate attention be given to this question. Determining whether the witnesses have short or medium terms plans to leave the area is also a good idea.

One must also keep an eye on time-limits for bringing suit. This is typically two years from the date of the accident for personal injury claims, at least in California, but there are exceptions. Defamation and wrongful imprisonment cases may be one year from the date of the wrongful act. If there is a government entity involved, you must lodge a government claim within six months of the accident. This short treatment of time limits for bringing suit is provided for general informational purposes but is not meant to be relied upon, and a personal injury claimant must always consult with his or her own attorney.

Immediate Needs

People who have been injured in an accident will have immediate needs: finding medical care, figuring out how to pay for it, handling the disposition of a damaged vehicle, obtaining leave from a job, protecting their income, taking care of children and other family matters. A good attorney can often provide suggestions or advice on how to handle these problems.

A reoccurring issue is how to pay for medical care. This becomes a particularly pressing question when an injured person is without medical insurance. Surprisingly enough, sometimes even persons with medical insurance are denied coverage when an insurer or medical care provider finds out the claim arises out of a “third-party” accident situations. There are a number of ways of handling these problems. Not infrequently, an injured person’s own insurance may provide “med-pay coverage,” which provides for medical benefits up to a certain amount (e.g., $5000), for injuries or conditions arising out of automobile accidents. Alternately, doctors and health care providers sometimes will work on a lien-basis when an injured person is without medical insurance or substantial assets. In other words, such providers will wait for payment until the injured person makes a recovery from a third-party who has caused his or her injury. A related service provided by such providers is reduced fee service for persons without medical insurance or substantial assets. Government assistance is also sometimes available to cover the cost of medical care. Consult with your attorney about these and other options.

Another immediate concern is what to do with a damaged vehicle: how to pay for its tow, where to have it stored, how to pay for storage, whether to salvage the vehicle, and what is fair compensation for its damage. These questions can often be particularly troublesome in the immediate aftermath of a serious accident, where neither the injured person or his or her family are emotionally and sometimes physically able to deal with them. Your attorney should be able to help you with these problems. The primary issue often revolves around the value of the vehicle both before and after the accident, and what the insurer of the person who hit you might be willing to pay for the loss. Generally speaking, a person whose vehicle has been damaged in an accident may recover the lesser of the cost of repair to the vehicle, or the diminution in the value of the vehicle caused by the accident. Many people cannot understand or accept this principle, and this writer understands why. What if you have an old Volvo that is the most reliable car you have ever had, but it’s only worth $2000 on the market? What if that same old Volvo is damaged and the repair cost is $5000? The most the insurer will pay for the vehicle is $2000 less its salvage value (think $250 or so for salvage value). It may be difficult if not impossible to find a replacement vehicle for $1750 that is reliable as your old Volvo. Here as elsewhere the law is not perfect. A good attorney should be able to help you maximize compensation for your property damage.

Securing replacement income is another serious problem for persons disabled in accidents (if only temporarily). If they are fortunate enough to be an employee somewhere, they may have private disability insurance or state disability insurance which will provide some cushion for the income loss associated with personal injury. If a person does not have disability insurance, finding replacement income is more difficult. If someone is self-employed, the disabled person may hire someone to fill in for him or her, paying the replacement less than the disabled person normally charges, and recovering the difference. If disability persists, making a claim for disability benefits under the Social Security system may make sense (typically requiring a waiting period of five or more months).

Again, a good personal injury attorney will help you address these various issues.

Preserving Your Claim

It is important to preserve evidence relating to your accident: pictures of your damaged vehicle, the scene of the accident, or your injury; the actual product that has injured you; names and addresses of persons who witnessed the accident. An attorney can help you with this evidence collection and preservation. Law enforcement personnel will typically give persons involved in an accident a accident report number, before the actual accident report has been prepared. It is important to retain this number, and to follow-up with the law enforcement agency in question to obtain a copy of the actual police report once it is completed. If you are incapacitated, have your attorney or someone else obtain a copy of the accident report. Do not be surprised if the report is not entirely accurate. There may be steps that you can take to remedy this situation. Consult your attorney about the options.

Pictures are also important to memorialize what has occurred: pictures of vehicles, pictures of the accident scene, pictures of your injuries, pictures of people, animals or things involved in your injury. If you have not taken such pictures, make sure your attorney, his investigator, or someone else does this for you.

There may be other documents that are essential in your case: police reports, repair estimates, statements, notes made at the scene of the accident, or any number of other items. Consult with your attorney about the possibilities in this regard.

Sometimes it is important to preserve the “instrumentality of injury,” in its un-repaired state for subsequent litigation. When I use the expression “instrumentality of injury,” I mean anything that caused or been involved in your injury: vehicles, products, helmets, medicine, food, or whatever. Ask your attorney if your have any doubt, and always error on the side of preservation.

Witnesses must also be secured: both identifying who they are, and obtaining their names, addresses, and telephone numbers. If you have a written or recorded statement from a witness, all the better. An attorney or investigator can help you find witnesses you may not have considered. Witnesses most often make or break a case – turning a he-said, she-said credibility contest into something more in your favor – so it is very important that adequate attention be given to this question. Determining whether the witnesses have short or medium terms plans to leave the area is also a good idea.

One must also keep an eye on time-limits for bringing suit. This is typically two years from the date of the accident for personal injury claims, at least in California, but there are exceptions. Defamation and wrongful imprisonment cases may be one year from the date of the wrongful act. If there is a government entity involved, you must lodge a government claim within six months of the accident. This short treatment of time limits for bringing suit is provided for general informational purposes but is not meant to be relied upon, and a personal injury claimant must always consult with his or her own attorney.

Potential Claims

In most personal injury litigation, the central claim is negligence: that the person who caused the accident did not exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to avoid injury to the injured party. This time-honored claim may seem to many people exceedingly ambiguous. What does it mean “reasonable care?” What is the standard? One person’s “reasonable care” is another person’s “unreasonable care.” How is the question decided? The short answer to all these questions is this is what juries do: they decide whether the person who caused the accident exercised or failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. They look at all the circumstances: whether the defendant ran a red light or violated some law causing the accident, the defendant’s speed, whether the defendant was driving too vast for driving conditions, and numerous other factors.

Other claims that may be brought in personal injury litigation typically involve some variation on the negligence theory. For example, the liability of owners of automobiles driven by someone else, or the liability of the employer of a person causing injury, still involve the question of whether the driver or employee was negligent. This type of liability is called “vicarious liability” because liability is imposed on individuals or companies who did not actually cause the injury, but the law holds liable anyway as a matter of public policy. Similarly in products liability cases, the analysis is whether a product is unreasonably dangerous given its intended use: again a sort of negligence or reasonable man standard. Likewise, in trip and fall and other cases involving the dangerous conditions of real property, the question is whether there was an unreasonably dangerous condition on the property and whether the owner knew or should have known of its existence, the analysis again coming down to whether the owner exercised reasonable care, all things considered.

There are more unusual sorts of claims applicable to special situations. In dog bite cases, for example, there is a statute or a written law that basically states that the owner of the dog is strictly liable for injuries caused by the dog. There are, at least in California, no “free bites.” Defamation and false imprisonment are other unique sorts of claims covering special circumstances: defamation relating to the publication of false statements about individuals, and false imprisonment relating to the imprisonment of someone without proper authority. These have there own particular elements and showings, which an attorney can discuss with you where appropriate.

Potential Defendants and Sources of Payment

This is an area that is not always self-evident: who might have contributed to your injury and so be liable. For example, in an automobile accident not only the driver, but the owner of the vehicle, the person who entrusted the vehicle, the employer of the person that drove the vehicle, the partner of the person who drove the vehicle, and others might be liable for the negligent act of the driver. In the case of a slip and fall, persons liable may include the operator of the premises, the lesser of the premises, the property management company, as well as the owner.

Another consideration for personal injury claimants is alternate sources of payment. Uninsured or underinsured insurance coverage is often available to pay compensation where the person who caused the accident does not have insurance, or does not have adequate insurance to cover damages he or she may have caused. The availability of uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage is normally easy to determine by examining the coverage card that one receives from his or her insurance company. Uninsured and underinsured coverage represents an excellent alternate source of compensation in many instances, insuring full compensation to an injured claimant. There are, moreover, advantages to proceeding under such insurance claims, as the insurance company owes duties of good faith and fair dealing to the injured person that the parties who injured that person (or their insurance company), do not owe.

These are just a few examples of situations where there are many potential defendants or sources of payment for a personal injury claimant. A good attorney should be able to determine the full range of potential defendants and sources of payment. This in turn increases the likelihood that an injured person will receive full compensation.

Oh, and Don’t Talk to the Defendant’s Insurance Company

Another thing to do – or not to do – is to give statements to the insurance company of the person that hit you. The company is not your friend. Let your attorney control the flow of information to the other side. He can explain why this benefits you. Remember, the insurance company of the person that hit you is not your friend.

Things to Think About Before Bringing Suit

With some limited exceptions, a lawsuit is a public act. Complaints and other papers that are filed in a case are public records. Trials and hearings are public events. Anyone who is interested can drop in and see what’s going on. Persons who bring lawsuits for personal injury, or wrongful termination, or other such claims, are required to answer questions about many personal matters: e.g., their medical history, their earnings history (if making a claim for personal injury), and similar matters. There are, of course, limits to questions that can be asked, but one must keep in mind that bringing a lawsuit is, in a certain sense, consenting to be asked questions and to provide information that one would not otherwise have to divulge, and sometimes to do it in a public forum. A good attorney can limit the disclosures and embarrassment that a lawsuit may entail, and will be prepared to discuss this with you.

Why Bother with an Attorney?

An injured person might ask himself or herself whether an attorney is really needed to handle a personal injury claim. The short answer to this question is that the person that hit you will have an attorney, including the seemingly nice insurance adjusters that want you to take $1500 to walk away from a claim worth 50 times that amount. The longer answer is that there are many facets of the personal injury claims and litigation process that are not self-evident, and that a good attorney will help you navigate to your benefit. I would hope that this article explains why this is so. I like to tell people that having a good attorney levels the playing field.

Sometimes people have reservations about making personal injury claims. It is against their religion, or personal philosophy, for example. I tell people that there is nothing to be ashamed about in protecting their health. If Microsoft, Standard Oil, and countless other corporations can spend millions of dollars to protect their corporate assets, then there is nothing wrong about people protecting their health, the most precious of all our assets.

Attorney-Client Agreements

Personal injury claims and many other types of claims brought against wrongdoers are typically handled on a contingency fee basis: i.e., the attorney takes his or her fee out of the client’s final recovery. Sometimes there can be a mixed fee, where a client pays part of the fee out of his or her pocket, and part out of the recovery. Most or many times, the attorney will agree to advance costs. Other times, the client will pay some or all of the costs.

What it All Means

We are very fortunate in the United States, and in California in particular, to have ready access to the courts. Here, juries of average citizens decide disputes, and not a judge appointed by a particular political party, or an arbitrator paid for many times over by a large insurance company. Many people believe that the United States has the finest legal system in the world. I am one of those people. There are very few other places where the average citizen can sue the most powerful companies and people around, including even the United States government, and win if the cause is just. This is one of the truly great things about this country, and something very much worth preserving.

Why is this significant in this article about personal injury claims? It is because claimants in this country and in this State have an opportunity to protect one of the most precious, if not the most precious of our natural gifts: our health. There is nothing to apologize about in doing so. There is nothing less valuable about our health than the countless other things that are the continual subject of lawsuits costing millions of dollars without question or criticism: from the name of a company, to intellectual property such as software, to a reputation, to a piece of real property, to any and everything else under the sun .

So, the bottom line, is know what you are getting into in bringing a personal injury claim. Go into the process with your eyes open. Find a good attorney. Make no apologies. Fight the good fight, and win!

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CATASTROPHIC PERSONAL INJURY AND EXPERIENCED ATTORNEYS

CATASTROPHIC PERSONAL INJURY AND EXPERIENCED ATTORNEYS

Persons suffering catastrophic personal injury, as well as their families and representatives, need immediate, substantial, and expert assistance in handling the consequences of such injury to preserve claims and minimize trauma and disruption to the lives of both the injured person and his or her loved ones. The group of persons requiring assistance includes but is not limited to persons suffering death, dismemberment, and traumatic brain injury. The Law Offices of Matthew J. Witteman has substantial experience in such situations and can make a difference.
People who have been injured in a serious accident will have immediate and pressing needs: finding medical care, figuring out how to pay for it, handling the disposition of a damaged vehicle, obtaining leave from a job, protecting their income, taking care of children and other family matters, and preserving evidence. A good attorney can and should provide or suggest solutions to many or all of such problems,

A recurring issue in catastrophic personal injury cases is how to pay for medical care. This becomes a particularly pressing question when an injured person is without medical insurance, or inadequate medical insurance. Surprisingly enough, sometimes even persons with medical insurance are denied coverage when an insurer or medical care provider finds out the claim arises out of a “third-party” accident situations. There are a number of ways of handling these problems. Not infrequently, an injured person’s own vehicle insurance, for example, may provide “med-pay coverage,” which provides for medical benefits up to a certain amount without questions of fault or liability. Alternately, doctors or health care providers sometimes work on a lien-basis when an injured person is without adequate medical insurance or substantial other assets. In other words, such providers will wait for payment until the injured person obtains a recovery from a third party who has caused his or her injury. A related service of some health care providers is reduced fees for services. Government assistance is also sometimes available to cover the cost of medical care. Experienced attorneys such as the Law Offices of Matthew Witteman, can assist you in addressing and solving these problems.

Another immediate concern is what to do with a damaged vehicle, how to pay for its tow, where to have it stored, how much to pay for storage, whether to salvage the vehicle, and what is fair compensation for its damage. In catastrophic and serious personal injury cases, sometimes problems like this recede into the background in light of the gravity of other issues. Nevertheless they are there, complicating the lives of persons whose lives are already complicated, and a competent, engaged attorney should help injured persons and their loved ones solve these problems.

Similarly, steps should be taken to preserve evidence relating to the injured person’s accidents and claims. Early retention of an experienced attorney will help to preserve evidence, sometimes with the assistance of a private investigator, sometimes without. Pictures or the damaged vehicle, the scene of the accident, or the injury, the actual product that has caused injury, names and addresses of persons who witnessed the accident or have information relating to it, collection of statements, and similar matters.

Securing replacement income is another serious problem for persons disabled in catastrophic accidents. If such persons are fortunate enough to have private disability insurance through their employer or otherwise, or state disability insurance, this will provide some cushion for the income loss associated with serious personal injury. If a person does not have disability insurance, finding replacement income is more difficult. If someone is self-employed, the disabled person may hire someone to fill in for him or her, paying the replacement less than the disabled persons normally charges, and recovering the difference. If disability persists, making a claim for disability benefits under the Social Security system may make sense. An experienced attorney in serious personal injury cases can advise on these important subjects.

Development of a catastrophic personal injury case should occur from a very early stage, including in the hours, days, and weeks following the accident causing injury. Collecting medical records and following of the course of an injured persons’ medical condition are crucial. Interviews of treating doctors and other health care professionals often become necessary. Timely retention of experts is critically important – including accident reconstructionists, biomechanical experts, medical experts, vocational experts, life care planners, and economists. Accident reconstruction videos and models, photographs, and other expensive exhibits must also be secured. An experienced attorney in serious personal injury is necessary both to select the appropriate experts, exhibits, and evidence, and advance the funds to secure this evidence.

Accident reconstructionists are experts that help explain how and why an accident has happened, what caused the accident and, by extension, who caused an accident. This becomes particularly important in accidents causing catastrophic injury, where there are not infrequently high speeds or complex machinery involved. This is true even if someone at the scene of an accident admits fault, or places fault squarely on another person.
Once an insurance company is involved in the claims process, its adjusters and agents will work diligently to undermine admissions of liability and obscure what should otherwise be a clear case.

Biomechanical experts are persons specially trained to determine whether a particular force or accident can cause a particular injury. These experts are often first retained by a defending insurance company, again to obscure what treating doctors often determine to be clear-cut causation. When insurance companies employ such experts, it falls to plaintiff’s counsel to rebut their nonsense by securing biomechanical experts that will actually tell the truth. Again, the selection and payment of such an expert is why the employment of a seasoned attorney in serious personal injury is necessary for catastrophic personal injury claims.

Vocational experts help to establish an injured person’s post-injury wage earning capacity, and life-time care planning experts help to establish nursing and other special costs that an injured person or his family may incur. Economists similarly assist in calculating the overall damages and costs to deceased or seriously injured persons because of the negligence of others.

In summary, substantial experience is required of any attorney who handles catastrophic personal injury cases. The Law Offices of Matthew J. Witteman is a firm with such experience. Call for a free consultation.

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BICYCLE LAW

Whether a bicyclist, motorist, or pedestrian is liable for injury or criminal sanctions on California roads requires a case-by case analysis. An experienced and knowledgeable attorney in California law as it relates to bicycles, motor vehicles, and pedestrians should be consulted to determine where liability lies.

Under California law, a bicyclist on public roads is generally subject to the same laws as a motorist on public roads. Section 21200 of the California Vehicle specifies that “(a) Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway or any paved shoulder shall have all the rights and shall be subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, which include, but are not limited to, the provisions dealing with driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, or the combined influence thereof, Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000, and Division 17, commencing with Section 40000), except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.”

The general sense of this is that bicyclists are governed by the same rules of the road as motorists under California law, including but not limited to provisions requiring stops at traffic lights and stop signs, those limiting a vehicle’ speed, those requiring the surrender of the right of way generally and to pedestrians established in a crosswalks, and those preventing wrong way driving. In the case of Velasquez v. Superior Court (2014) 227 Cal.app.4th 1471, a California Court of Appeal in a 2014 case held that a bicyclist could be convicted of reckless driving of a vehicle causing specified bodily injury where an intoxicated bicyclist ran into a pedestrian at a high rate of speed causing serious injury.

Section 21200 specifically excepts “those provisions which by their very nature can have no application,” which is a provision which is left to the courts to construe, as the Velasquez decision above illustrates. Some obvious Vehicle Code provisions that would be excepted from the reach of section 21200 would include those relating to motor vehicle registration, licensure, and specific motor vehicle safety features.

The particular applicability of the California Vehicle Code and general rules of the role to bicyclists in a given situation requires a case-by-case determination. Not infrequently, experts can be retained to explain and elaborate the general duties of care and rules of the road of both bicyclists and motorists. An experienced and knowledgeable attorney in California law as it relates to bicycles, motor vehicles, and pedestrians should be consulted to determine where liability lies in a bicycle accident on California roads.