Negotiating a Personal Injury Settlement Without a Lawyer

You can save money on legal fees by handling your own personal injury claim, but make sure you're prepared and know when to ask for help.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law


You aren't required to hire a lawyer to handle your personal injury claim. You might be able to resolve your claim faster and get more compensation for your injuries if you go it alone instead of hiring a lawyer and paying attorneys' fees. You'll need to understand how the claims process works and be prepared to put in the time and work to figure out how much your claim is worth and write an effective demand letter. You'll also need to be able to recognize when you're in over your head and would benefit from the help of a personal injury attorney.

When To Consider Self-Representation

It's possible to represent yourself in a personal injury claim and get fair compensation. You'll either need some experience handling legal matters or the ability to learn how the accident claims process works. You'll also have to be willing to stand up for yourself and your case.

If you're considering self-representation, think carefully about the following factors.

Your Injuries

If you slip and fall in a grocery store and sprain your wrist, the store may be willing to quickly compensate you for your injuries without putting up too much of a fight. You'll get some money to cover your medical bills (with a little extra thrown in for your "pain and suffering") and the store will save money on legal fees.

But if you're involved in a serious car accident, think twice about representing yourself. You'll need to pay for your extensive medical treatment (now and in the future), compensate for lost income, and deal with extensive pain and suffering as a result of your injuries. Working with an experienced personal injury lawyer will increase your chances of receiving fair compensation for your accident-related injuries and losses (called "damages").

When your injuries are serious, the stakes of your claim are higher and you're more likely to encounter resistance from your opponent. Lawyers are trained to handle adversarial situations and can credibly threaten to take your case to court if necessary.

Fault

If it's obvious your opponent is to blame for your accident—you've got witnesses who will testify on your behalf, for example—you'll have an easier time proving fault and getting a satisfactory settlement on your own.

But, as with the severity-of-injury issue, you can expect more of a fight if it's not so clear whether your opponent is responsible for causing the underlying accident. The defense may even point the finger back at you and say that you weren't watching where you were going when you slipped, or you were driving too fast and could have avoided the car accident. Again, when fault is at issue, it's usually worth the cost of hiring a lawyer.

Important First Steps and Tips

Here are a few first steps to take before you send a demand to your opponent (and your opponent's insurance company):

  • Take pictures of the property damage, the accident scene, and your injuries.
  • Get a copy of the police report (for example, after a car accident report).
  • Get medical treatment as soon as possible.
  • If you have it, use "personal injury protection" ("PIP") insurance coverage to pay initial bills, and then use your health insurance. Keep all records and receipts.
  • Don't give a recorded statement to your opponent's insurance adjuster.
  • Make sure you understand the time deadline to file your claim—called the "personal injury statute of limitations." Deadlines vary from state to state.
  • Don't write about your accident on social media. Your opponent may be able to access these statements and use them selectively to damage your case or minimize your injuries.

Estimating Your Damages

There are two types of damages in most personal injury cases:

  • damages capable of exact calculation (called "special" or "economic" damages), and
  • damages not capable of exact calculation (called "general" or "non-economic" damages).

Damages Capable of Exact Calculation—Special Damages

Special damages include property damage (costs to fix or replace your car after an accident), lost income, lost earning capacity, medical bills, and other financial losses attributable to your accident. These damages are capable of exact calculation because you can typically put a dollar value on them. Calculating medical bills and property damage after an accident is pretty straightforward, but calculating lost earnings is more complex.

Lost Earnings

Lost earnings are exactly what they sound like—how much money you've lost, and how much you stand to lose as a result of your injury.

How does this work? Let's say you earn $50,000 per year. You've been totally disabled for one year due to a serious back injury suffered in a car accident. You're now able to return to work, but only part-time, earning $25,000 per year. You have lost income of $50,000, and a lost earning capacity of $25,000 per year for the remainder of your work life expectancy if your injuries are long-term.

If your claim requires you to calculate lost earning capacity, talk to a lawyer. Lawyers often rely on experts to calculate their clients' work-life expectancy based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics and other government data. If you're dealing with a long-term injury, this is a calculation you don't want to get wrong.

Present Value

Because future lost earning capacity involves a calculation of losses that may extend for many years into the future, it generally has to be calculated in terms of its present value. Present value is a financial concept that involves determining the value of a future stream of income (your monthly paycheck for example) as if it were all in a bank account today.

In other words, you'll have to figure out how much money your employer needs to put in your bank account today to cover your salary for, say, the next twenty years. This is a complex financial calculation and, once again, should be done by an expert.

Damages Not Capable of Exact Calculation

Some things are hard to put a dollar amount on, including the mental and physical pain you suffer after an accident. These types of intangible losses aren't capable of exact calculation.

How to Value Pain and Suffering in Trying to Settle Your Case

Pain and suffering is one of the most contentious issues in personal injury cases. Lawyers and insurance adjusters often use a "multiplier" to estimate pain and suffering. The multiplier method works by multiplying the total amount of your medical expenses by a number (the "multiplier") between 1.5 and 5. The multiplier is based on many factors including how obvious and painful your injuries are.

Juries don't use multipliers when they are in the jury room trying to figure out your damages, and many other factors affect the outcome of a case, including:

  • the nature and extent of your injuries
  • how likable and credible you are
  • how likable and credible your opponent is
  • whether your injuries are easy for the jury to understand, and
  • what kind of medical treatment you received (hospital and doctors' bills tend to be valued more than chiropractors and acupuncturists).

Sending Your Demand Letter

A demand letter is a jumping-off point for serious settlement negotiations on the timeline of most personal injury claims. But you typically send a demand letter only after you investigate the circumstances of the accident (including fault) and know or can reasonably forecast the full extent of your losses.

In short, it's best to send a demand letter only after you've taken a thorough look at the impact of your injuries on all aspects of your life and have made a reasonable valuation of your injury claim. This is important because in your demand letter, you will be detailing for your opponent:

  • why your opponent is liable for the injuries
  • the nature and extent of your injuries and resulting medical treatment
  • your accident-related financial losses
  • the value of your pain and suffering, and
  • how much you're willing to accept to settle your claim.

Here are some sample demand letters to get you started.

Countering and Accepting a Settlement

Most personal injury claims are settled outside of court, typically through the insurance claim process. When you first start negotiating, the insurance adjuster will probably make you a low-ball offer. It's okay if your demand is on the high side—this will give you and the adjuster room to meet somewhere in the middle.

If you and the adjuster can negotiate an acceptable settlement, put the agreement in writing. You'll eventually have to sign a release saying you give up your right to sue your opponent in exchange for the settlement money. If you can't come to an agreement, get ready to file a personal injury lawsuit in court.

You may be reluctant to settle your claim, but going to court is risky. The jury may decide the case in favor of your opponent and give you nothing. A fair settlement amount should reflect this risk. Settling out of court also means you'll get compensation more quickly, and you'll avoid many court appearances and high litigation costs.

To get the best outcome possible in your case be polite to the adjuster, have reasonable expectations, and explain your story in a compelling way. You'll need to show clear liability and records of all your injuries.

Learn more about working with an insurance adjuster to settle your personal injury claim and dive deeper into the question of when to hire a personal injury lawyer or handle your own claim.

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