People with a potential personal injury case usually need a lawyer sooner rather than later, and slip and fall cases are no exception.
There are some types of injury cases where you do not necessarily need a lawyer -- some workers' compensation cases and small car accident cases, for example -- but, if your injury is at all serious, you should look for a lawyer rather quickly. The reason that you can handle a small car accident case by yourself is that, in a car accident, if the defendant is at fault, the fault is usually obvious.
In contrast, defendants' fault in slip and fall cases is not often obvious, and insurers in slip and falls cases will rarely acknowledge liability to an unrepresented person. If you have a slip and fall case and do not have a lawyer, you will generally not get very far with your case.
Thus, the attorney's first job in a slip and fall case is to get the attention of the defendant and the insurance company. You cannot settle a personal injury case without having a line of communication with the insurer.
But even in a small case, a lawyer can help you in many ways. All personal injury litigation boils down to proving liability and damages, and a lawyer will recognize all of the different factors that can affect liability and damages, both positively and negatively.
In order to get your case in a position to be settled or go to trial, you have to prove liability. This means that you and your lawyer have to prove that, more likely than not, the defendant was negligent, and that the defendant's negligence played a part in causing your injury. This is often straightforward in a car accident case, but can be far more subtle and complex in a slip and fall case.
The first thing that the lawyer needs to do is to confirm with you how your injury occurred. Falls happen very quickly, and many people do not understand exactly how they went from going up or down stairs to being on the ground and injured.
Here is an example. Let's say that you fell down some stairs. But that is just the beginning of the inquiry. How did you fall down the stairs? Which foot missed the stairs? What were you wearing on your feet? Were you holding onto the handrail? What, if anything, were you carrying? Which hand were you carrying it in? Were you on the phone? Were you texting? Did your foot trip or slip? Where were you looking while you were going down the stairs?
All of these facts, and many more, are critical facts that the insurer, the defense attorney, and, yes, the jury will want to know before offering or awarding you any money.
But all of this just addresses the physics of how you fell. Now the attorney has to figure out how to hold the defendant legally responsible for your fall. Here are some possibilities for why you fell:
Not all of these theories are the defendant's fault. A premises owner is not legally responsible for you tripping over your own clothing and falling down the stairs. But the premises owner is certainly responsible for a poorly constructed staircase, such as one with risers of varying heights.
A good lawyer will examine the scene, discuss all of these possibilities and more with you, and help you to figure out exactly why and how you fell. Then he/she will review the applicable state, federal, and local laws to determine if the condition of the premises violated any of those laws and retain an expert witness, if necessary, to testify as to the defendant's negligence.
Proving damages is not just a matter of saying, "I broke my leg, and was out of work for two months." You and your lawyer have to properly document your lost income through your employer's pay records and tax forms and your tax returns. Your lawyer must obtain and organize all of your medical records and bills. It can be surprisingly difficult to obtain a complete copy of your medical records. You are of course entitled to receive all of your medical records, but health care providers are often more preoccupied with providing health care than with photocopying the medical records of former patients. Many personal injury lawyers have someone in the office whose main job is to track down and obtain all of the clients' medical records and bills.
Then, if your medical records do not contain a legally sufficient opinion that your accident caused the conditions that you are suffering from, your lawyer will have to write your doctor and ask him/her to write a medical report or letter specifically addressing causal relationship. These letters can cost up to $1,000 or more. Finally, your lawyer has to carefully review your pain and suffering with you so that he/she can present it in the best possible light to the insurer.
Obviously, hiring an attorney is going to cost you. In a personal injury case, lawyers typically work on a contingency fee -- that is they only get paid out of your final settlement or jury award. This works well because you don't have to worry about paying your lawyer up front to handle your case, and you are not "out" legal fees if the case turns out badly for you. On the flip side, you'll give somewhere between 25-40% of your settlement money to your attorney. You could keep all the settlement money if you handled the slip and fall claim yourself, but you may be missing out on a much larger settlement that a professional would be able to negotiate.