First things first, the internet is lying to you. Inevitably, if you have been injured, this blog is not the first place on the internet you’ve visited to find the answer one of your most important questions – what’s my case really worth? More likely, you started with asking the search-engine lawyer and sifted through mounds of results. Here’s the thing – while you can find enough reading material to read for days, the results are probably pretty unreliable. Many times, injured people come into our office and have a valuation of their case that far exceeds reasonable expectations for a settlement or verdict.
However, it’s not their fault. The internet returns results from outlier cases with million-dollar verdicts. Or, more troubling, it returns web pages from legitimate lawyers and law firms with published settlements. Some law firms advertise case settlements and judgments. Now, the Florida Bar allows this as long as they are verifiable, so, fair enough. However, what is left out from many of these advertisements are the details of the case. High verdicts come with one common thread – high damages. And, to get to high damages, it means someone was hurt badly and permanently, someone died, and/or the person or entity responsible did so with such a high degree of culpability that the court allowed, and the injured was awarded, punitive damages.
So, what the point? The point of this article isn’t to tell you can’t trust anything you read about settlements and judgments. Instead, it is to point out the issues and give you some guidance on how a lawyer evaluates your case. Essentially, it is part mathematical formula, part experience, and part research. When your lawyer first meets with you, he or she is evaluating not only the extent of the injuries and the facts that prove up the case, but he or she is also trying to gauge potential issues with the case – maybe even intangible issues. To simplify things, we’ve broken basic valuation into eight categories.
- How much money have you spent out of pocket?
Pretty much the easiest category. If you’ve spent money due to the injury, track it and keep evidence of it. Generally, this is going to be things like medical co-pays, insurance deductibles, and property damage. Depending on the type of case, there could be other items, but the idea is to keep receipts or other proof of payment and let the lawyer decide what’s in and what’s out.
- How much money have others spent on you (i.e. how much has health insurance spent on you?)
Again, nothing hidden here – if someone else has spent money on you as a result of the injury, record it and keep evidence of it. Now, that’s pretty easy when we’re talking health insurance or something like Medicare/Medicaid. Your lawyer will request the billing records and get the amounts. It is important to understand that while these numbers are important in giving a valuation to your case, it doesn’t mean you get money back for what someone else spent on you. It’s a bit of a complicated procedural matter, but make sure your lawyer explains subrogation rights – essentially, what part of recovery must go back to your health insurer or to Medicare/Medicaid.
You may think, why even use these numbers if you can’t get money from it. Well, the total of your medical bills is often used by insurance adjusters (and juries) to put a number on “pain and suffering.” While that’s by no means a scientific methodology, it’s the truth, and you need to be aware of it.
- How hurt are you – from your doctors’ perspectives?
This is an important one – what do your medical records say? Your lawyer is looking for notes and diagnoses from your doctor(s) that describe severity, permanency, treatment, and, if possible, causation. As I mentioned, in order to get a higher value, it means severe or permanent injury.
- How hurt are you – from your perspective?
We’re looking for the intangible here. How’s the pain – on a scale of 1-10? What were you able to do pre-injury and how are you limited now? This is the place where you put into your terms what the doctor put in medical terms. Your lawyer needs to know how your injuries are affecting you and your life. He or she needs to know how you describe the pain, the limitations, the effects on you.
- Missed work? Can you work?
Here’s where we start putting numbers on missed days of work and limitations on work. Your lawyer will review pay stubs and tax returns and will want to know if your doctor has placed any limitations on your work. Are you on paid leave? Do you have unpaid leave? Do you qualify for disability? This is an area that is a little more complicated than it may seem on its face. Your lawyer will be able to explain the ins and outs, but it comes down to the limitations and using your documentation to apply the numbers.
- How are your relationships with friends and family since the injury?
This is more of a special damage, but the law, in certain circumstances, allows for what’s called “loss of consortium.” Essentially, these damages are fact-sensitive, but it comes down to what the injury has done to your closest relationships – namely your husband or wife. It is a very sensitive and personal subject but can be easily overlooked in valuing your case.
- Do we have punitive damages?
Many times, when the internet tells you a number with many zeros, it is because the person or entity that caused the injury did it not with negligent actions, but with something more reckless and intentional. The Court has to allow these based on the facts, but if they do, the jury can grant them. To be VERY clear, these types of damages are extremely rare – most likely, these will not be applicable in your case, but make sure to address them with your attorney.
- How will a jury perceive your case?
Most likely, your case, if it goes all the way to trial, will be decided by six strangers. From your first consultation, your attorney is evaluating the facts of your case combined with his or her experience. Perception is reality and though the verdict in your case is clear to you, everyone brings their own biases and experiences into their assessment, so they may not come to the same conclusion you would. The importance of this evaluation is for your benefit. Trial is stressful – you’ll be put on the stand, put in the spotlight. Your medical history, any criminal history, everything about you may be on display, and the final outcome is ultimately left up to six strangers. Nevertheless, it is important to have an ongoing discussion with your attorney as to his or her assessment of how strangers are likely to perceive your case.
In short, putting a number on your case is difficult, but this is what attorneys are there to do. Do not rely on search engine results or even the results published on a lawyer or law firm’s web page. While those are verifiable, they are the settlements and judgments on a totally different case than yours – different injuries, different circumstances, different jury. Have a frank conversation with your attorney and understand the categories upon which they value your case. You may be disappointed to learn that the internet put a big value on what you perceive as a similar case and your lawyer offers a more realistic valuation, but keep in mind that a proper valuation leads to the best possible outcome for you.