Serious or Fatal Car Accidents in Florida: How to Protect Your Claim and Secure Your Future

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2 Legal Disclaimer This book is designed to provide information about the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the author and the publisher are not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If legal advice or other professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. Every effort has been made to make this book as complete and as accurate as possible. However, there may be mistakes both typographically and in content. Therefore, the text should be used only as a general guide and not as the ultimate source of the subject matter covered. The author and the publisher shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by the information covered in this book. This book is the exclusive property of the publisher and/or the author and is protected by copyright and other intellectual property laws. You may not modify, transmit, publish, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, display or in any way exploit, any of the content of this book, in whole or in part. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 2

3 Table of Contents Serious or Fatal Car Accidents in Florida: Legal Disclaimer... 2 Introduction... 5 Chapter 1: Car Accidents at a Glance... 6 Does your car accident warrant a personal injury claim?... 6 I m pretty sure I have a case now what?... 6 Chapter 2: Types of Car Accidents and Insurance Claims... 8 The Many Faces of a Car Insurance Claim... 8 Chapter 3: Immediate Steps to Take after a Serious Car Accident Chapter 4: The Parties Involved in a Personal Injury Claim Chapter 5: How Your Auto Insurance Policy Works in an Injury Claim The Main Types of Car Insurance Coverage How Stacked Coverage Affects Your Injury Claim Getting Help Understanding Your Car Insurance Coverage Chapter 6: Fault and Negligence in a Car Accident Claim What is Negligence? Determining Fault in a Car Accident Personal Injury Lawsuits and Florida s Negligence Laws Chapter 7: Dealing With Your Injuries and Damages Soft-Tissue Injuries and Whiplash Life after a Serious Injury Paying for Your Medical Treatment Chapter 8: Filing a Personal Injury Claim after a Serious or Fatal Car Accident Florida s Statute of Limitations Laws and Your Personal Injury Claim The Importance of Evidence in Your Personal Injury Claim Negotiating a Settlement for Your Personal Injury Claim Chapter 9: Dealing with Insurance Companies Common Tactics Insurance Adjusters Use to Deny or Damage a Personal Injury Claim Things to Avoid when Negotiating with an Insurance Adjuster Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 3

4 Estimating the Value of Your Personal Injury Claim Chapter 10: When It s Time to Hire a Florida Personal Injury Attorney The Do I need a personal injury attorney? Checklist Why You Should Consider Hiring a Personal Injury Attorney Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 4

5 Introduction Florida is one of the leading states for serious and fatal car accidents, accounting for 2,558 of the 30,797 fatal accidents annually in the U.S. These accidents result in thousands of insurance claims every year and billions of dollars in insurance settlements. Not every car accident warrants a personal injury claim, but those that do often can become complicated, particularly when you re trying to recover from your injuries or the loss of a loved one. After more than 20 years of helping Florida residents settle their personal injury claims with the auto insurance companies, we understand how frustrating and confusing car insurance and accident claims can be. This book was created to serve as a guide to understanding your rights after a serious or fatal car accident and help you make an informed decision of whether or not you should seek legal help for your claim. At Wolf & Pravato, P.A., we strive to empower our clients with the knowledge they need to determine if their cases are worth pursuing BEFORE they hire an attorney. Our firm handles all manner of motor vehicle accidents -- passenger vehicle, motorcycle, pedestrian, commercial vehicle (i.e., semi-truck, 18-wheeler, tractor-trailer, etc.), and school bus as well as serious accidents that stem from defective vehicle parts and defective tires. The knowledge we gain from each case we pursue helps us gain more insight into how the insurance companies may handle your claim and allows us to help guide you in avoiding the pitfalls of the insurance industry. After reading this book you may find that you can handle your personal injury claim alone. However, if your injuries have caused serious financial and personal losses and you would like professional legal help, we are here to listen to you and provide honest answers. Once you ve read our book and gained a general idea of how a personal injury case progresses, you can make the decision to file your claim alone or seek help from a personal injury attorney. Before making any decisions, make sure you have reviewed your options if you are unsure about how the insurance company is handling your claim, you may want the advice of a personal injury attorney. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 5

6 Chapter 1: Car Accidents at a Glance It happens every day in Florida: negligent drivers causing car accidents that can result in a serious or fatal injury. A serious car accident can cause irreparable harm to you or a loved one, both physically and financially. In times like these, most victims must rely on their auto insurance company to make things right but the path to a fair settlement isn t always clear. Does your car accident warrant a personal injury claim? When you re attempting to determine whether or not you may have a personal injury claim, the two main factors to identify in a car accident are: Was the other driver at fault (at least partially) for causing the accident? Is there enough serious damage to persons or property to warrant a claim? If you answered no to either of these questions, you may not have grounds for a successful claim with your insurance company. Did you know? Even minor injuries like small cuts and bruises can turn into serious problems if not treated properly. Always have injuries evaluated by paramedics before deciding to treat them on your own. The first thing to consider after a car accident is determining who is at fault for causing the accident. A valid personal injury claim can be filed against the other driver when it can be proven his or her negligence caused the accident. Next, consider your damages and injuries: Are they substantial? If you didn t require medical treatment, and your car only has a few paint scratches, you do not have a solid basis for a personal injury claim. I m pretty sure I have a case now what? The typical car accident may involve two vehicles, two drivers and a lot of finger-pointing. However, each car accident is unique, and when you start to add additional factors such as multiple vehicles, fatal injuries or drunk drivers, your typical car accident can become much more complicated. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 6

7 An average of about 6 million car accidents occur every year in the U.S., and more than half of these result in some sort of injury. Of these injury cases, not all of them will require the help of a personal injury attorney but it is always within your right to seek legal advice after a car accident injury. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 7

8 Chapter 2: Types of Car Accidents and Insurance Claims Did you know? Many car accidents occur during the holidays. In 2010, 191 of the 2,444 fatalities reported in Florida from car accidents occurred during major holiday weekends. Labor Day was the most deadly weekend with 29 victims killed during the 3- day period. Source: S2010.pdf As we said, every accident is unique, but there are some particularly common types of crashes that can cause serious or fatal injury. Some of the more common incidents involving motor vehicles include: rear-end collisions; head-on collisions; single-vehicle accidents; side impacts (t-bone); rollovers; and spin-outs. Also, there are vehicle-specific accidents to be aware of. Motorcycle riders are often the victims of head-on collisions when another vehicle makes a left turn or switches lanes in front of them. Tractor-trailers are prone to certain accident types such as jackknifing, override or underride crashes, and rollovers. A car accident can be a minor fender bender with little to no damage, or it can be a catastrophic, head-on collision resulting in serious injuries or loss of life. In the latter case, it may be necessary to seek compensation for your damages and losses by filing a claim with the car insurance companies. The Many Faces of a Car Insurance Claim There are two main types of insurance claims you may need to file after a serious or fatal car accident: property damage and personal injury. Property damage claims seek compensation for the expenses you incur due to damage to your vehicle, items in your vehicle, or other physical property damaged by another driver s negligence. Filing a property damage claim is typically a straightforward process handled between you and your insurance company. It s relatively easy to obtain repair estimates for your damaged property on your own, and if there were no serious or fatal injuries, you ll most likely be able to settle this type of claim without the help of an attorney. Personal injury claims vary in severity. Depending on the nature of your car accident and severity of your injuries, you may have a Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 8

9 straightforward claim that only takes a few weeks to settle, or a complex case that requires months of litigation and negotiations. Just as with property damage claims, you may not need an attorney to settle your personal injury claim. The following car accident scenarios do not normally warrant contacting a personal injury attorney: Did you know? Medical records are some of the most important pieces of evidence in a personal injury claim. They not only can help prove your injuries and expenses, but they also can harm your claim if you sign a release to allow the insurance company access to your past medical records. Car accidents with minor or no injuries if you do not need to seek any medical treatment, then you won t need to file a personal injury claim. You are evaluated by a doctor and found to have no medical concerns aches and bruises are common after a car accident, and if a doctor s evaluation reveals no serious initial damages or concerns for long-term consequences, you most likely will not need to file a personal injury claim. However, do retain these medical records in the event later injuries manifest some types of injuries can surface over time rather than being immediately obvious. Your injuries only result in minor expenses if you ve only seen a doctor once or twice, and the medical expenses are well below your insurance coverage limits, then you may be able to handle the claim on your own. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 9

10 Chapter 3: Immediate Steps to Take after a Serious Car Accident The moments immediately following a serious or fatal car accident are critical for many reasons. If you are involved in any type of car accident, you should take these three immediate steps: Did you know? Even cell phones that are not activated with a carrier or have run out of minutes can still dial 911. Even if your cell phone can t make normal calls, it can always contact emergency service as long as it has power and there is an antenna signal nearby. Step 1 Contact emergency personnel. Calling 911 will help in two ways. First, it will provide medical attention if necessary to any injured victims. Second, it will allow a police officer to assess the situation and create an accident report to document your car accident which can be critical evidence should you decide to file a personal injury claim. Step 2 Gather evidence. Take photographs of the accident scene, damaged vehicles and injuries if you are able to do so. If you are incapacitated, try to have another passenger or witness help you do so. Document as much as you can while still at the scene. Step 3 Gather witnesses. Obtain the contact information of anyone who witnessed the accident including the other driver. Witness testimony often can help support your personal injury claim as evidence. While at the scene of the accident, it s important to watch what you say and to whom. Florida s negligence laws put serious emphasis on who is at fault in a car accident, and a few damaging comments could impact your chances at a full and fair financial recovery. Placing outright blame on the other driver or offering opinions on how the accident happened could harm your claim. Answer only the questions asked by the police or emergency personnel and remember your right to have an attorney present before making any official statements. Do not leave the scene until you are either transported by medical personnel or the police officer says you are allowed to leave. Make sure that you have documented as much as possible at the accident scene before leaving, and if your vehicle is towed, know where it is being taken and stored. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 10

11 Chapter 4: The Parties Involved in a Personal Injury Claim It s not just the drivers and passengers that will be involved in filing, negotiating and settling a personal injury claim. Many other parties may either help or hinder your ability to obtain the full extent of the damages you are entitled to for a serious or fatal car accident. Some of these parties include: Did you know? Even if the other driver was not injured in the accident, he or she may have an attorney. Remember that both sides of a personal injury lawsuit have the right to an attorney! insurance companies and their adjusters; personal injury attorneys; witnesses; medical professionals; accident reconstructionists; and police. In many cases, the two most important players in your personal injury claim will be you and the insurance companies. Remember that the insurance companies are in business to make money not to pay out every claim their clients file. It will take substantial evidence and serious damages and losses to warrant monetary damages from the insurance company. Insurance adjusters often will make attempts to downplay the severity of your car accident and hire their own doctors and specialists to disprove your accident evidence. While the insurance company may hinder your attempt to seek compensation for your damages, witnesses, police, and your own attorney and doctors may help your claim. These parties can help provide critical evidence for proving fault in a car accident and evaluating the extent of your injuries and damages. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 11

12 Chapter 5: How Your Auto Insurance Policy Works in an Injury Claim When a car accident results in serious or fatal injuries, your car insurance policy becomes a major factor in seeking compensation for your damages and losses. It s important to gain a good understanding of how car insurance works in Florida with regard to coverage types, compensation limits and how much insurance the law requires you to carry. The Main Types of Car Insurance Coverage There are two basic types of car insurance coverage: mandatory and optional. Each state has its own laws for mandatory coverage types and limits, as well as what types of coverage are optional. Before filing a personal injury claim in Florida after a serious car accident, you should review your policy to determine what coverage applies to you and the limits of your policy. An attorney also can help you to review your policy if anything seems confusing. The following types of car insurance are mandatory in Florida: Did you know? Florida has the lowest state minimums for car insurance coverage. Most states require at least $20,000-$25,000 in PIP. Personal Injury Protection (PIP): Florida law requires a minimum of $10,000 in single person coverage and $20,000 in total accident coverage to purchase and maintain a Florida license plate and registration. PIP coverage provides coverage up to the limits you choose for your injuries, injuries to your child, members of your household and certain passengers who do not have their own PIP insurance. Property Damage Liability (PDL): Florida law requires a minimum $10,000 in coverage to purchase and maintain a Florida license plate and registration. PDL coverage pays for damage you cause to other people s property in car accidents. The following types of car insurance are optional but important in Florida: o Bodily Injury Liability (BIL): This covers injury or death sustained by another party involved in your car accident. If another party in the car accident files a claim against you for their injuries or the death of a family member, this insurance coverage covers compensation up to the limits you have set and provides legal defense in the case of a lawsuit. This doesn t cover you or others on your policy. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 12

13 o Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (UM): This covers you, members of your household and your passengers in the event you sustain serious or fatal injuries in an accident with a driver who does not carry adequate car insurance to pay for your medical expenses. This coverage is also important when you or your passengers are injured by a hit-and-run driver because it will supplement your PIP coverage up to the limits you set on your policy. o Accidental Death and Dismemberment: This covers you, and in some plans your family members, while driving or riding in any passenger vehicle if you suffer death or dismemberment in a car accident. o Accidental Death Benefit: This coverage provides a death benefit if you or a family member covered in your plan is killed in a car accident. How Stacked Coverage Affects Your Injury Claim Did you know? Stacking your UM coverage only increases your premium by a nominal amount. So, it s definitely worth the expense in the long run. See how much stacking would change your premium before you decide to take it or leave it the price difference may not be as much as you think. If you elected to add uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage to your car insurance policy, you are given the option to stack your coverage. This applies only to policies with more than one vehicle registered. By stacking the coverage on two or more vehicles, you increase the amounts of UM coverage you set. For example, stacking a two-vehicle policy with limits of $50,000/$100,000 will double your coverage to $100,000/$200,000. You ll want to discuss stacking with your insurance agent to determine how it may affect your premium. The other way stacking can impact your personal injury claim is when you or your passengers carry separate stacked UM coverage. You may carry $25,000 UM coverage on 3 vehicles, and if you are riding in a friend s car that carries $15,000 UM coverage and you are in a car accident caused by an uninsured negligent driver, then you will have $90,000 in UM coverage. This total is the $75,000 in stacked coverage from your own policy and the $15,000 of your friend's policy on the car you were riding in at the time of the accident. Getting Help Understanding Your Car Insurance Coverage While it s too late to add additional car insurance coverage or increase your policy limits after an accident, you can still get assistance in understanding how your policy will factor into a personal injury claim settlement. Your insurance agent can review your policy to explain your Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 13

14 coverage types and how much each is limited to so you can better evaluate a settlement offered by the insurance company. A personal injury attorney will be best suited to help you review your policy and determine if an insurance company is offering an adequate settlement based on your insurance policy limits or the limits of the other driver s policy. Car insurance policies can be complicated, and if you re not prepared to negotiate you may accept a settlement far less than what you are entitled to. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 14

15 Chapter 6: Fault and Negligence in a Car Accident Claim One of the first qualifiers for a successful personal injury claim is that the accident that resulted in your injuries was caused by the negligence of another party. The term negligence is often referred to as fault in a personal injury claim. What is Negligence? Negligence is defined as acting in a way that no rational person would act, or failing to act in the way that a rational person would. This means that performing certain dangerous actions or failing to perform certain reasonable actions can be grounds for a negligence claim. In a serious or fatal car accident, negligence comes in many forms. Some of the most common acts of negligent driving include: Did you know? Of the 2,444 fatal accidents reported in Florida in 2010, 794 were related to alcohol use. Source: 10.pdf distracted or impaired driving; driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol; failing to obey traffic laws and signals; driving with a damaged vehicle; and reckless driving. Drivers themselves are not the only parties who may be found negligent in a car accident. Pedestrians can be negligent in obeying traffic signals; bicyclists can be negligent in wearing proper safety gear; and motorcyclists can be negligent in following speed limits. An example of negligence due to irrational actions would be a driver who decides to drive while drunk someone who is not acting negligently would have given their keys to a friend, called a taxi or found a place to stay until they were sober. An example of negligence due to failure to act is a driver who was found to be texting while driving and did not stop at a traffic signal the driver failed to devote his or her complete attention to driving. Once you have established that negligence of another party was a factor in causing your car accident, you will need to prove to what extent the other party was at fault for the accident and your injuries. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 15

16 Determining Fault in a Car Accident No amount of yelling and finger-pointing can establish fault after a serious or fatal car accident. To validate your claim that the other party was responsible for causing the accident, you must have solid evidence to support your case. The police report from your car accident is a good place to start when proving the other driver was at fault for the accident. The report will have been generated at the scene using police observation and witness accounts. To accompany the police report, you will also want to have your own photographs or video of the accident scene, as well as contact information for any witnesses. Even with substantial evidence supporting your claim that the other driver was at fault, Florida is a no-fault insurance state. No matter who is found to be more at fault, you must file a claim with your own insurance company and rely on your policy coverage limits to pay your medical expenses and damages. The exception to this no-fault rule that does allow you to file a personal injury lawsuit is when a car accident results in serious or fatal injuries. This is generally for cases when losses of major bodily function, permanent disability, significant disfigurement or death occur from the accident. Personal Injury Lawsuits and Florida s Negligence Laws Did you know? Florida s no-fault insurance laws make it particularly difficult to file a personal injury lawsuit. This is where a personal injury attorney can be of great help in determining whether or not you are eligible to take your case to court. If you are in a serious or fatal car accident in Florida you may have the ability to file a personal injury lawsuit if you are unable to reach a reasonable claim with your insurance company. When you do so, your case goes to trial before a judge and jury and will be decided based on the Florida negligence laws. There are two main types of negligence laws in the U.S. contributory and comparative negligence. Florida is one of 13 states that follow the pure comparative negligence law. Each party in a car accident can be found to be at fault for their injuries and still recover damages. For example, if John and Bill are in a car accident in Florida and the jury finds that Bill is 75% at fault for causing the crash, he can still recover Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 16

17 25% of his settlement on a personal injury lawsuit. So if the jury awards $100,000 for the accident, Bill can recover $25,000 in damages. Proving negligence, determining fault and filing personal injury claims can be difficult steps in seeking compensation for a serious or fatal car accident injury. These matters can be easier when you work with a personal injury attorney. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 17

18 Chapter 7: Dealing With Your Injuries and Damages The main reason that a person will choose to file a personal injury claim is to seek compensation for their medical bills. The cost of a serious injury can be extremely high in some cases, several thousands of dollars just in the initial treatment alone. Factor in long-term treatment, rehabilitation and the chance of permanent disability and you could be looking at medical expenses that soar well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your insurance company usually won t accept claims for minor injuries like small cuts, bruises and sprains. Filing a personal injury claim is suggested when your car accident results in death or serious injuries such as: Did you know? Many permanent injuries like loss of limb or paralysis will require drastic life changes. The additional expense of prosthetics and therapy, house and vehicle modifications, and in-home care are all matters to consider in a long-term settlement value. loss of limb; Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); spinal cord injury; severe fractures; head trauma; internal hemorrhaging; and 2nd- or 3rd-degree burns. While these injuries typically are diagnosed immediately following your car accident, there are other injuries that may not manifest until later. A common type of delayed injury is soft-tissue damage, in which the tendons, ligaments or muscles near your joints or spine are damaged. Soft-Tissue Injuries and Whiplash Whiplash is one of the most common injuries reported from car accidents. Whiplash occurs when the soft tissues in the neck are stressed by a sudden jerking or whipping motion of the head. In a front or rearend collision, the sudden impact to your vehicle often causes the head to jerk back and forth quickly, which can damage the sensitive tissue surrounding your upper spine. Whiplash can cause a number of physical and neurological damages. Chronic pain, stiffness of the neck or upper shoulders, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, cognitive difficulties, and headaches can all be symptoms of whiplash injuries. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 18

19 Life after a Serious Injury Some injuries will heal completely given enough time and treatment, while others may result in permanent changes to your life. A serious or fatal car accident can result in injuries that cause lifelong damages, permanent disability or disfigurement. These are factors that should be considered when pursuing a personal injury claim settlement. Consider what would happen if you suffered a spinal cord injury that left you paralyzed from the waist down. Your life would be changed drastically forever. You may be unable to work at your former job if you are able to work at all. You may require a wheelchair for mobility, and you may need additional medical care at home. Did you know? If an insurance policy or outside assistance program of any kind pays for your medical treatment you may be required to reimburse them later after winning a settlement for your personal injury claim? An attorney can help you understand these requirements if they arise after settlement. Long-term expenses are typically not factored in when an insurance company offers you an initial settlement. They rarely look beyond what your current medical bills amount to meaning you could pay out of pocket for any future treatment. Paying for Your Medical Treatment A serious or fatal car accident will bring several parties into play when it comes to dealing with medical treatment. Obviously you ll be seeing medical professionals, but you may also deal with billing departments, collection agencies and most important, insurance companies. There are two types of insurance that may factor in to the payment of your medical expenses. You should review your car insurance policy first to determine if you have medical payments coverage. This should cover your immediate treatment expenses up to the limits of your policy. If you have health insurance, your policy may cover expenses incurred due to an accident. Not all health plans cover accidental injuries, and the amount they pay will vary from person to person, so this is not always a reliable source to handle your medical expenses. If your health insurance does pay for any accident-related medical expenses, you will have to reimburse the insurance company if you are awarded a personal injury claim settlement. Car accident victims who are eligible may have government-run health programs such as Medicare or Medicaid pay for initial medical expenses. It is important to remember that if these programs pay your medical Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 19

20 bills, you will need to reimburse the costs out of any settlement you obtain from a personal injury claim. There are many factors that need to be handled properly during a personal injury claim if you are to obtain a fair settlement. While medical expenses are a large part of determining your final compensation, there are many other considerations to be made when seeking damages after a serious or fatal car accident. Wolf & Pravato, P.A. :: :: Page 20

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