Questions about auto accident law and lawyers are put to Manhattan Beach lawuyer Ron Sokol who answers some common questions for those interested in legal fees after auto accidents and how lawyers are paid. He also answers a common query from those involved in auto accidents as to the insurance questions about the ‘at fault’ driver. This is from the Daily Breeze.
Q: I was injured in an auto accident and hired a lawyer. When we settled, all the money went to him first. Why can’t it come to me, and I pay it out?
— R.Z., Torrance
A: We probably won’t find a statute on the point that requires the payment to go to the lawyer, but we will find long-standing custom and practice. Typically, the insurance company (or the lawyer handling it for the other driver) has been dealing with your lawyer. Presumably, the settlement was negotiated with your lawyer, and the settlement agreement was sent to him (then to you and back).
The retainer agreement with your lawyer likely sets forth how any settlement proceeds are to be handled. Thus, if there is a lien or two, your lawyer wants to make sure — for your sake as well as his or her sake — to get those paid. In fact, your lawyer may have negotiated the liens. And, if the monies go to you, and you stiff the lawyer, what does the lawyer do? OK, the lawyer can sue you, but if the lawyer gets the check, and does not deposit it to the Attorney-Client Trust Account, and does not accurately account and pay out, the lawyer can face significant State Bar discipline (let alone claims you may make). In sum, the way it was done in your case is the norm.
Q: We want to find out how much insurance the other driver has. She’s at fault, and I don’t have much uninsured motorist coverage. I’m concerned that if I wind up with a bunch of bills it will eat into any recovery, which could be a mess if the other driver has minimum coverage ($15,000).
— R.G., Gardena
A: Two ways to find out the extent of coverage under the other driver’s insurance policy: You or your lawyer asks, and prods the other side, if need be. Or, you sue; one of the first things you are entitled to learn in discovery is what insurance coverages the other driver has. Sometimes, if the other party is reluctant to voluntarily come forward with the information, show the person how simple it is to get it once you sue. It may help to convince the party that disclosure makes the most sense (i.e., avoiding litigation can be a real plus).
Q: I don’t want to sound bitter, but I am really hurting from a bad car accident. The insurance company for the other driver is offering a lot less than ought to be paid. My lawyer says, “Sorry, but if we sue there is a real chance you won’t get all that much more.” Do I just throw in the towel and take whatever I can get?
— H.L., Long Beach
A: How much time do you have? I don’t mean in terms of how long your lawsuit may take. I mean in terms of how long we can discuss what it means to get what you feel is a modest offer, compared to the chance you will get more if you sue. In my experience, usually “going for it” bears fruit (i.e., you get more but the process is no walk in the park). And, suing can be a real “roll of the dice.”
Bottom line, talk it out very carefully with your lawyer. Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper — list the pros on one side, and cons on the other. See where you wind up. What the pertinent records say, what the bills actually amount to, what your future expenses and condition will be given the injuries all have to be assessed and analyzed “in the cold hard glare of objectivity.”