FAQs Answered by a Car Accident Lawyer in Georgia
How much does it cost to hire a car accident lawyer?
Lots of people wonder how much a car accident attorney costs, but are too polite to ask when they call us on the phone. So we decided to answer that one right at the top.
Upfront, it doesn’t cost anything. Talking with us is free. We don’t charge a retainer and we don’t bill by the hour. Ever. Our legal fee is a percentage of the money that we collect for you at the end of your case. If we don’t win the case and recover money for you, then you don’t pay us anything. Even if we do win the case, you don’t pay us anything until the case is over and we’ve collected money from the insurance company or defendant. In other words, our law firm gets paid if and when you do – not before.
The percentage of the recovery that we charge as a legal fee – what the law calls a “contingency fee” – varies from case to case, but not much. For car accidents, we typically charge a contingency fee of one-third if the settlement occurs before the case is filed with the court or within 90 days thereafter. If the case settles more than 90 days after we file it with the Court or if we take the case through trial, verdict, and judgment, then our fee is usually 40%. For a complex or unusually expensive case, like a product liability or premises liability case, we might charge more because the case involves more risk since those cases can get thrown out of court before trial. For most car accident cases, however, that isn’t necessary, and we charge between one-third and 40%.
We also pay for all of the case expenses. In a car accident case, typical case expenses would include gathering medical records, court fees, meeting with expert witnesses, taking depositions, ordering transcripts, etc. If we don’t recover money for you through a settlement or judgment, then our firm ‘eats’ those expenses – in other words, we lose that money. If we do win your case and recover money for you, then you pay us back for the case expenses at the end of the case, when you receive your share of the money.
One thing we like about car accident cases is that our firm’s interests are aligned with yours. We don’t get paid unless and until you do. Because of the contingency fee, we both do better if we recover more money. It beats charging by the hour in a case that we might win or might lose.
One unusual aspect of the car accident litigation world is that all personal injury lawyers charge about the same thing. What our firm charges (between one-third and 40%) is standard across the industry. You’ll pay that rate if you hire a detail-oriented, service-based firm like ours, and you’ll pay about the same rate if you hire a billboard or TV advertiser who has thousands of cases and has non-attorney “case managers” who do all the work. In other words, you’re paying about the same thing whether you hire a good motor vehicle collision lawyer who works on your case and personally takes your phone calls, or if you hire a volume-based firm that has “case managers” doing the work and where you can never reach a lawyer on the phone.
It really is striking: in one situation, you’re getting what you pay for. On the other, you’re getting a lot less.
What kind of injuries are most common in car accidents?
Car accidents can happen in so many different ways – head-on collisions, T-bone collisions, rear-end collisions, and sideswipes are all common. Rollovers or pole impacts can also occur. Each type of car accident puts different forces on the human body. For that reason, the types of injuries that we see vary quite a bit. However, there are some types of injuries that are most common.
Neck, Back, or Spine Injuries in Car Accidents
The single most common injury from a car accident involves injury to the neck, back, or spine. The forces from the collision cause the spine to bend rapidly in one direction, and then often just as rapidly in the exact opposite direction. This back-and-forth can damage the spine in a couple of different ways.
To understand spinal injuries, we have to first understand the basic structure of the spine. Our necks, backs, and spines consist of bony blocks called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other, all the way from our tailbones to the bottom of our skulls. Those bony blocks are separated by softer discs, sometimes called “intervertebral discs,” that keep one bony vertebra from scraping against the vertebrae above and below it. These discs allow our necks, backs, and spines to bend or flex without pain.
In a severe car accident, one vertebra can break or fracture. Sometimes the fracture is small, and doctors may call it a “stress fracture.” Other times, a piece of a vertebra can chip away or break off. Fractures like that are painful, and the damage is usually permanent. In some severe car accidents like rollovers, a vertebra may be subjected to a such force that it shatters. Doctors call that a “burst fracture.” Neck or back injuries like this are very dangerous because if the bone cuts the nerves that run up and down the spine (often called the “spinal cord”), then the victim of the car accident can be permanently paralyzed.
More commonly, car accidents cause injuries to the discs between the vertebrae in the neck, back, or spine. To put it in common terms, the discs get squished. Sometimes they don’t handle that well. The discs contain fluid inside them, and sometimes the fluid has no place to go when the disc gets squished, so it presses against the disc’s outer wall. If the outer wall partially gives way, then the disc may begin to press against the nerves that run up and down the spine. That hurts. Doctors call that a bulging disc, disc herniation, or herniated disc. The rest of us may call it a “slipped disc.” A car accident can also cause a disc to become flattened or narrowed, or the car accident may make pre-existing damage to the disc worse.
Car crashes can also cause the discs to rupture. Doctors may call this injury an “annular tear,” and it is very painful. If a car accident causes an annular tear, that means that the disc has essentially ripped open and is leaking fluid into the spinal canal or elsewhere. That’s difficult for doctors to repair. It hurts for two reasons. First, the disc is no longer able to keep the vertebrae above and below it separate, and the pressure between those vertebrae causes pain. Second, the leaking fluid can intrude into the canal that contains the nerves that run up and down the spine. When the fluid starts to fill up the spinal canal, it puts pressure on those nerves. That hurts too.
Because the nerves that run up and down the spine go to every part of the body, it is sometimes not clear where the pain from a car accident is coming from. For example, if a herniated disc is putting pressure on a nerve that runs down a person’s leg, the car accident victim may feel the pain that shoots down that leg, even though the injury is really to the disc in the spine. Neck, back, or spinal injuries can therefore cause pain that feels like it comes from a foot, leg, hand, or arm. When pain from a car accident moves around like that, doctors say the pain “radiates,” and they may diagnose radiculopathy.
Treatment for Neck, Back, or Spinal Injuries
Car accidents so often cause injuries to the discs in our necks, backs, and spines that the medical treatment for them is somewhat predictable. At the emergency room or the first doctor that a client sees after a car accident, they are often given naproxen, ibuprofen, or another mild pain reducer in connection with a muscle relaxer. If the pain continues, the next step is usually physical therapy or a chiropractor. Doctors refer to this phase of treatment for car accident injuries as “conservative treatment.”
If the pain continues further, there is a wider range of options for doctors and victims of car accidents to explore. They may try epidural steroidal injections or ESIs. Injections like this usually help the pain from the car accident for a few days or weeks, but whether the relief lasts longer than that varies from patient to patient. Most doctors won’t perform injections in a given place more than three times because continued injections can be harmful to the body in other ways. Doctors may also suggest radiofrequency ablations, or burning the nerves, to relieve pain from a car accident.
If none of that works, doctors often suggest surgery to treat car accident injuries. The type of surgeries available varies widely, but one of the more common is spinal fusion. A spinal fusion involves placing a metal plate or other device between or on top of two vertebrae and inserting bone screws to keep the plate or device in place. The fusion essentially immobilizes the vertebrae so that they cannot move anymore. The goal is to relieve pressure on the disc that was damaged in the road accident. Spinal fusions often work well to lessen persistent pain, but they are not perfect. In the long term, arthritis around the surgical site is common, and the discs above and below the fusion tend to wear out faster. When they do, additional medical intervention may be necessary.
Another common type of surgery after a car accident is a laminotomy, which removes part of the lamina in an attempt to make more room for the nerves in the spinal cord. A foraminotomy has a similar goal and involves cutting away a different part of the spine called a foramen. Discectomy surgeries involve cutting away the part of a disc that is intruding into the spinal canal. Laminotomies, foraminotomies, and discectomies are all common following car accidents.
Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries from Car Accidents
Car accidents can cause concussions and other traumatic brain injuries in a couple of different ways. Most obviously, a person’s head can get slammed into something, often the steering wheel or B-post (the part of the car that supports the roof between the driver’s and left-rear passenger’s windows). If a person’s head strikes a hard surface like that, then the concussion or traumatic brain injury is easy to diagnose.
Most concussions or traumatic brain injuries in car accidents don’t leave such obvious external signs, however. When a person’s head is moved rapidly back and forth in a car accident or bangs against the soft headrest, the brain can suffer injuries that are harder to see. This happens because our brains are suspended inside our skulls in “cerebral fluid,” and can therefore move inside our skulls. In a car accident when someone’s head moves rapidly back and forth, the brain often gets compressed against one side of the interior of the skull. Then when the head rebounds or bounces back, the brain can get pressed against the opposite side of the skull. Doctors call this a “coup-contrecoup” injury. This compression of the brain can cause injuries like bleeding, lesions, hemorrhaging, or swelling. In severe cases, the swelling following a car accident may be severe that surgery is required. Doctors may actually open the skull to relieve pressure on a swelling brain.
Modern medicine is just beginning to understand the human brain. The symptoms of concussions or traumatic brain injuries following car accidents can vary widely. Common symptoms include persistent headaches, disorientation, vertigo, amnesia or difficulty remembering anger, or even personality changes. In severe cases, some of these symptoms may be permanent. Even in less severe cases, the symptoms of a brain injury may not finish improving – in other words, the car accident victim may not reach what doctors call “maximum medical improvement” – for up to two years.
Broken Bones and Orthopedic Injuries in Car Accidents
With airbags and other modern safety measures, broken bones, and orthopedic injuries are less common in car accidents than they used to be. Still, they happen.
Broken bones are normally caused by intrusion into the passenger compartment of the car. In severe cases, a car accident can crush a vehicle entirely. Those car accidents cause fatalities and become wrongful death cases. Where the car accident isn’t quite that severe, arms, legs, or ribs may be broken. Hand and wrist injuries are common because if a person is holding the steering wheel when the accident occurs (as most of us are) and if the forces of the car accident force the person’s body forward, the pressure on the person’s hands and wrists can cause fractures. In one car accident case, we handled, our client’s thumb was forced backward so hard that doctors had to perform surgery on his forearm to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerve – a type of surgery normally reserved for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Some orthopedic surgeries following Georgia automotive accidents have to be performed on an emergency basis, meaning that doctors have to act fast to save the car accident victim from something worse. Emergency orthopedic surgeries often involve plates, screws, and other hardware. Emergency surgery after a car accident usually seeks to stabilize the broken bone or injured area – in other words, the goal is to make sure things don’t get worse. Usually, an emergency surgery like that isn’t the final step. Physical therapy usually follows. Months or years later, the car accident victim often needs a second surgery, either to remove the hardware from the first surgery (if the bone has healed and the hardware is causing pain) or to reconstruct the affected area in a way that will give the car accident victim more long-term mobility and comfort.
Who is at fault for a car accident under Georgia law?
This is usually the first question in peoples’ minds—and for good reason. It’s important.
The overwhelming majority of the time, the police officer who arrives at the scene of the accident will decide who he or she believes to be at fault. Usually, the officer will issue a citation, commonly called a “ticket,” to the person at fault. In an urban or metropolitan area, an officer normally arrives at the scene of the accident fairly quickly. If you were struck in the rear by another driver, that other driver will almost always be cited with “following too closely” in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-49. Other common citations in Georgia include failure to maintain lane under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48, failure to yield under O.C.G.A § 40-6-71, and failure to obey a traffic light under O.C.G.A § 40-6-20.
Not everyone realizes it, but Georgia law allows for percentages of fault under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. That can make sense if both parties did something wrong—if, for instance, the first driver pulled out from a stop sign without looking, and a second driver who was speeding hit him or her, then both parties are at fault. If you were in a Georgia car accident and the other driver was 80% at fault, then you could recover 80% of the total damages (in other words, 80% of your medical bills, pain, suffering, etc.). As long you were 49% at fault or less—in other words, as long as the other person(s) are mostly at fault—you can recover at least some damages under Georgia law. Of course in many cases, only one party is at fault. If you were lawfully sitting at a red light when another driver struck your car in the rear, the other driver should bear 100% of the fault.
Under Georgia law, percentages of fault can also be applied to people not involved in the lawsuit, also known as “nonparties.” For example, imagine that Driver A was rear-ended by Driver B and sues Driver B. In court, however, Driver B testifies that the reason for the collision wasn’t that Driver B was texting and driving, but instead that Mr. Mechanic did a bad job repairing Driver B’s brakes the previous week. In that scenario, if the jury believes that Driver B is telling the truth, the jury might assign some percentage of fault to Mr. Mechanic. And if the jury assigned 60% of fault to Driver B and 40% to Mr. Mechanic, then Driver B’s insurance company would only have to pay 60% of the verdict.
This idea of percentage-based fault is called “apportionment,” and is set up by Georgia law. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. Watch the video below to learn more about it.
Whose insurance pays for a car accident in Georgia?
This is another common question and another good one. Usually, the at-fault driver’s insurance will pay first. But it can depend on a few factors.
Generally, the auto insurer of the at-fault driver must pay for the injuries of the person who was not at fault, as well as for the damage to that person’s car. But the at-fault driver’s insurance company will only pay up to the limits of that policy, which could be as low as $25,000 in Georgia. If your injuries or damages are severe enough to go over those insurance policy limits, then another insurance policy may kick in. If the at-fault driver has any additional liability insurance—like an umbrella insurance policy—then that additional “layer” of insurance should pay next. But umbrella policies are rare.
Sometimes, there may be additional insurance coverage for the vehicle that caused the accident. If the accident was caused by an Uber or Lyft driver, for instance, additional coverage usually applies. If the accident was caused by a tractor trailer or other commercial vehicle, the trucking company generally has insurance policies with higher limits, which will be a good thing if you or a loved one was seriously injured.
More often, underinsured motorist or uninsured motorist insurance (commonly called “UM”) pays next. This can be your insurance company or the insurance company of a person who lives with you and is related to you (the law uses the term “resident relative”). Many people have UM insurance and don’t even realize it. Your UM insurance limits could be as high as your liability insurance limits. Determining how much UM insurance you have usually requires looking at a piece of paperwork called a “declarations page.” Even if you were told that you have “full coverage,” that doesn’t actually tell you what dollar amount of insurance is available—you need to see the declarations page.
Finding out how much insurance is out there isn’t always easy. Often, discovering the available insurance requires sending what motor vehicle crash lawyers call a “letter of representation” coupled with an official request for insurance information under Georgia law O.C.G.A. § 33-3-28. Other times, it may be necessary to file a case with a court before you can discover all the available insurance. For instance, it is often necessary to file a case with a court in order to find out if the at-fault driver had any resident relatives whose auto insurance policies may provide coverage. Whether the insurers of the at-fault driver’s resident relatives provide coverage for the car accident usually depends on the fine print in their insurance policies.
Will the other driver have to pay for my medical bills under Georgia law?
If you’re hurt and the other driver is at fault, the answer is generally yes.
Anyone who has been in a Georgia car accident and has been hurt should seek medical attention, either at the emergency room, at an urgent care facility, or from a primary care doctor. Since you’ve been charged with those bills but didn’t do anything wrong, the general rule is that you have a right to be paid back for what you were charged, even if you were wise enough to have health insurance.
What if I need medical attention after car accident but I don’t have health insurance?
This is a tough problem, but fortunately, there is usually a solution.
If you need immediate medical attention, go to an emergency room. The emergency room cannot legally refuse treatment if you are in immediate need. If you suffered a serious injury and have not been treated for it, go to the emergency room now. You can sort out the details later.
If you need to see a doctor, orthopedist, neurologist, therapist, or other medical professionals after a Georgia car wreck on a non-urgent basis but you don’t have any way to pay for it, there are a couple of options. First, some doctors and medical practices are willing to provide treatment and let you pay them later out of your car accident settlement. These doctors can provide the medical treatment you need, and then get compensated for their work at the conclusion of your case out of the car accident settlement or verdict. Car accident lawyers and doctors often call this “treating on a lien” because the doctor, medical practice, chiropractor, or therapist normally takes a “lien” (i.e., the legal right to collect money) from the patient’s “cause of action” (i.e., the car accident case). A reputable car accident lawyer can suggest a few doctors who are willing to work in this way.
The second option involves “medical funding” companies. Medical funding companies pay for the medical treatment that car accident victims need by paying the doctors or other medical treatment providers on behalf of the patient, much like a health insurance company would. The medical funding company then gets paid back when the case is over out of the car accident settlement or verdict. Typically, medical funding companies will not provide funding without a signed agreement with the patient and the car accident lawyer.
To use either of these options – treating on a lien, or medical funding – you typically must have a good car accident lawyer. That’s because the doctor or funding company insists on it. The doctor, medical treatment provider, or medical funding company may not get compensated for the medical treatment or funding that they provide if there isn’t a sizable settlement or verdict at the end of the car accident case. If the patient hasn’t hired a good car accident lawyer, the doctor or medical funding company may be worried that there will be no settlement or verdict, or that the settlement will be too small to cover the medical costs. If that happened, they wouldn’t be paid for the medical treatment or medical funding that they provided. If that happened too often, they could go out of business.
There are lots of reasons to hire a good, reputable Georgia car accident lawyer, and this is another one. If you don’t have health insurance, doctors and medical funding companies will want to see that you have a lawyer they can trust.