Third in a series covering the most important subjects on which I’ve given citizens direction over the 15 years I have been privileged to write this column.

Motor Vehicle Mishaps

  • When do you have to contact the authorities?

N.C. law generally requires you to report even a minor wreck ($1,000 in property damage or any personal injury.) But if you are not at fault, this generally benefits any damage claim you may have, too. If the insurance adjuster for the other party has any basis to claim you were just a little at fault, N.C.’s harsh contributory negligence rule (if you are at fault at all, even 1 percent) will bar any personal-injury or property-damage claim and almost certainly increase your own insurance premiums because you will now have a collision coverage damage claim on your own policy. (Nearly all other states have comparative negligence laws.) “He said/she said” opinions about how the wreck happened, without an independent officer to sort out the facts, put you at risk.

  • When do you need a lawyer when you have been in a wreck?

As seasoned lawyers will tell you, unless you have a lasting wreck-related injury — beyond just going to the ER — the expense of a lawyer for a small claim may outweigh the overall value to you.

But sometimes your injuries, or the severity of them, do not become fully apparent until you can’t stand the unanticipated pain. You finally go to the doctor and you discover you do have an unresolved injury that clearly is related to the wreck.

Go to the doctor if you are hurt. The longer you wait to go to a doctor the more the adjuster may (properly) claim the injury may not be (fully) related to the wreck. But don’t settle until you get a full read on your injuries. (You generally have three years to assert a non-work-related N.C. accident claim.) Once you settle, you can make no further claim, even for personal injuries related to the wreck which you did not know about before you settled.

If you have a wreck-related ongoing injury, I suggest this cost-benefit test to determine whether you should hire a lawyer: If you would likely have more “walking out the door” dollars, even after paying the lawyer’s fee (usually of your recovery, plus costs, if a lawsuit does not have to be filed), it is probably worth hiring a lawyer. If you do not reasonably believe you can pass this cost-benefit test, you (and the lawyer you consult, too) may conclude you should handle your own claim.

A little known statistic, based upon a study of a prominent insurance company, suggests that insurance companies pay non-represented claimants $3,000 on a personal injury claim that otherwise is objectively valued as a $10,000 claim.

We should all be thoughtful before we hire a lawyer. We surely do not want anyone to think we are trying to “get” something to which we are not entitled. But as my wise non-lawyer father would often say, we don’t know what we don’t know, as this insurance study demonstrates. A courtesy “heads up” on what you should know before you settle makes sense.

If you have a property damage claim, or a relatively minor but resolved bodily injury claim, ask a lawyer friend (and his experienced paralegal ) to give you some courtesy tips about how to maximize your recovery. A little bit of direction in these circumstances saves you paying a lawyer a contingent fee on a property or minor bodily damage claim.

Remember: An informed choice is a smart choice.

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Mike Wells is a partner with Wells Law, PLLC in Winston-Salem. His email address is mike@wellslaw.us and his telephone number is 336-283-8700.

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