In 2019 Pennsylvania saw 125,267 car accidents reported, accidents which resulted in the death of over 1,000 individuals and the injury of about 76,000 people. When a person, through no fault of their own, suffers these losses in a car accident in Philadelphia or throughout Pennsylvania, they are often left to fend for themselves in figuring out the legal process and what a fair settlement for their case looks like. For that reason, our team of car accident lawyers has come up with the following 10 secret factors that influence car accident settlement values in Pennsylvania. Understanding these factors can provide you great insight in determining what your car accident settlement should look like.
An efficient and successful settlement process can be helpful in alleviating financial stressors that face a person(s) who have been hurt in an automobile accident. Settlement negotiations are typically a long, complicated process (on average taking 18-24 months to resolve), so it is important to understand the process and the factors which can determine the value of a vehicle accident settlement. Below, these factors are described in depth to give you a better idea of what to expect in a car wreck settlement. However, keep in mind that no two car accident cases are the exact same, so certain factors may be more applicable than others, depending on the circumstances.
#1 Liability – Who’s at Fault?
The logical place to start when considering the factors that impact auto collision settlements is determining who is responsible for the accident in the first place. Generally, vehicle accident cases can play out in two ways, either through a settlement or taking the case to court. In instances where the case is settled upon, an attorney’s job is to successfully negotiate a settlement so that an individual incurs payment to pay for various expenses. If a settlement cannot be reached and a lawsuit is filed for the case, the attorney must litigate efficiently so that they win the case for their client. In both of these cases, proving that the other driver(s) were responsible, or liable, for the accident and damage is essential.
Determining liability is usually easy if you are rear-ended because in Pennsylvania every driver has a duty to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of them. Liability is trickier when the collision occurs when someone is changing lanes, making a turn, or at an intersection, or involves failures to yield or sideswipes. Drivers will often point fingers to avoid liability. The inability to prove someone else is the reason for the accident will kill your car accident case before it even starts.
This is one of the most important reasons to get a motor vehicle accident lawyer involved in your case early, when a thorough investigation can be done. This means looking at all of the factors involved in the accident, such as the location of the vehicle damage, video of the wreck, physical evidence at the scene, and witness testimony.
When discussing legal liability in car accidents, most cases are acts of negligence, which are acts that were not premeditated or performed willfully. In cases such as this, the other driver(s) have a duty to operate their vehicle safely and to abide by state laws when driving. If the opposing party violates this duty and these laws, and this action causes the accident in question, then negligence is present, and they are liable for the accident.
Even after investigating a car accident, liability is not always straightforward. For instance, there may not always be a singular person who is solely liable. If the opposing party is able to prove that you were responsible for some percentage of the car crash, then your settlement may be at risk of being reduced by that percentage. This is where the discussion of contributory negligence versus comparative negligence comes into play. Contributory negligence states that if you are responsible for your injury to any degree, even at a very miniscule degree, then you cannot hold any other party responsible for any part of your injury. With comparative negligence, percentages of fault that each party contributed are determined, and each party subsequently pays the other according to the percentage of fault that they contributed to the accident. In Pennsylvania, a modified comparative negligence system exists in which if the opposing liable party was responsible for less than 50 percent of the accident, then the injured party can collect compensation from them. Apportionment of fault is something an experienced car wreck attorney can help in determining which can have an enormous effect on the settlement value of your claim.
#2 Insurance Coverage – How much do they got?
The amount of insurance coverage the person that caused the car crash has will play a major role in how much a settlement can be valued at. In Pennsylvania, the minimum coverage for a liability auto insurance policy is $15,000/$30,000. What that means is that if the vehicle that caused your car accident only has $15,000/$30,000 in coverage, the most any one person can get for their damages such as pain and suffering, wage loss, medical bills, etc. is $15,000.00 and only $30,000.00 total for all persons hurt in that accident.
If that does not seem like a lot of money for someone who is seriously injured or even killed in a local car accident, you are right. Pennsylvania has had this minimum liability insurance coverage amount since the early 1980’s. There are even many insurance companies whose target market is drivers who want the minimum coverage – we have all seen the ads for Cure auto insurance, The General, but the bigger carriers such as Progressive, AllState Insurance, and State Farm sell these policies too. There are levels of liability coverage above these such as $25,000/$50,000, $50,000/$100,000, $100,000/$300,000, $250,000/$500,000 and up, but the most common auto insurance policies are generally the minimum coverages.
There is one way to protect yourself from the other driver having a minimum policy, that is to buy your own uninsured and underinsured coverages, which is of utmost importance, because that protects you and your family. The amount of auto insurance coverage purchased can certainly be higher, such as $25,000/$50,000, $50,000/$100,000, and more – the choice of coverage is made when purchasing your PA auto insurance policy.
There are various ways that insurance can affect a car accident settlement, both negatively and positively. Having your own coverage could help if the liable party is uninsured or underinsured, meaning they do not have a large enough insurance policy to cover all of your expenses for injury. You could look to your own policy if you have uninsured motorist (UM) coverage or if you have underinsured (UIM) coverage, this can cover the portion of the insurance that the liable party’s insurance is lacking.
On the other side of things, if the liable party has the sufficient amount of coverage to pay for your injury, and your policy also includes uninsured/underinsured benefits, then your settlement could reap the benefits of this. The takeaway here is that the amount of insurance coverage available after a car accident plays an enormous role in determining your overall settlement – more is certainly better here.
#3 How Bad is Your Injury- Pay for What is Broken
The severity of a car crash injury or injuries will have major implications on how much a settlement is valued at. If an injury is more serious, it will generally require more treatment and you can generally expect more money in a settlement for it. “Hard” injuries such as broken bones, head and joint injury, nerve damage, etc., permanent scarring, weakness and loss of mobility, loss of body parts, and major emotional distress inflicted by injuries can all contribute to a higher compensation. Injuries that are not as severe, such as connective tissue injuries like whiplash, neck pain, back pain, cuts and bruises that you suffer will be considered, but then it depends on severity, treatment, and permanency of said injuries in determining a settlement.
Injuries can take time to make themselves known after a car accident. When someone is unexpectedly hit, the adrenaline will often kick in, and they may not feel the harm they suffered. Just because you cannot see the injury on the person’s body, does not mean that they are not hurt. There can be underlying injuries that can only be detected through x-ray, MRI, or EMG/NCV testing that can have a negative impact on a person’s life as a direct result of the auto wreck. We tell people involved in car crashes to take their time and detail your complaints, no one knows your pain more than yourself.
#4 Medical Treatment- Better Safe than Sorry
Going hand-in-hand with the severity of injuries incurred by an individual due to an accident is the related medical treatments. When injured in an automobile accident, it is essential to seek medical care as soon as possible and to obtain records of these visits, diagnoses, and treatments. This is because insurance companies need to see that your injury was suffered due to the car accident itself – this is called causation. Additionally, receiving medical treatment is important because insurance companies will want to see medical documentation of the injuries suffered and the treatment sought on paper, making coverage and related settlement payments more understandable and accessible.
It is also important to not accept an immediate, small settlement from the opposing party right away. Many times injuries will not show up or manifest into more serious symptoms until sometime after a car accident. The discretion of medical professionals and experts is of extreme value in a situation such as this because they will be able to give guidance on the estimated cost of immediate treatments and potential treatments down the line which will help you and your attorney to gauge an accurate amount of money to ask for in a settlement.
The types of medical professional’s you see, such as primary care physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, orthopedists, neurologists, pain management doctors, surgeons, etc. can give weight to the injuries suffered. Just saying you are hurt is subjective, objective finding on testing such as X-Rays, MRI’s, EMG/NCV, neurologic testing, etc. will help provide value for your case. The length of medical treatment from injuries sustained in the car crash will also play a role in valuing a car accident case. An experienced auto accident law firm can help connect you with some of the best doctors in your area, take advantage of that expertise, and get the care you need for your injuries.
Do not be a tough guy/gal and refuse medical treatment thinking you are fine after an accident only to find out later that you actually were injured. It is better to be safe than sorry and to accept emergency medical treatment at the scene and/or to seek a medical care following the accident.
#5 Full Tort & Limited Tort – Huh?
In Pennsylvania, when you purchase auto insurance you are given a choice to buy full tort or limited tort auto insurance policy. In a general sense, full tort (FT) ensures that you can still recover money for damages and injury no matter the severity of said harm. In contrast, limited tort (LT) requires that your injury be deemed to be serious impairment to bodily function, dismemberment, or death in order to recover money for pain and suffering. Many people wrongly state that if you have limited tort you cannot recover for pain and suffering in an auto accident – simply untrue. While limited tort coverage provides a barrier to recovery for auto accident cases, this can be overcome either via one of the exceptions to limited tort and/or by a skilled limited tort car accident lawyer. This is the overall distinction between the two, but many caveats do exist and can vary case by case.
Having full tort is not the same as having full coverage. Many people buy an auto insurance policy and believe they have full tort, but they do not. However, FT will certainly make it much easier to recover for your pain and suffering related to a car accident. If you have limited tort it is even more important to have an injury lawyer on your side because it can be the difference in getting fair value for your auto accident case or getting nothing.
#6 Lost Wages at Work
A car accident can plague many areas of your life, but especially your work life. Involvement in an accident limits the time you spend at work due to medical appointments, consultations with your attorney, and even court appearances if the case progresses in that way. Also, if the injury you suffer during an accident leaves you disabled and/or unable to perform your work as you did it before, or even stops you from working at all, then your work life and personal finances could be critically impacted as well. Personal injury attorneys will strongly consider the way these factors pose a detriment on your employment and ability to earn an income when estimating a settlement value. You could be compensated for these lost wages, especially if you have a clear written record of the hours of work that you are missing due to extra responsibilities and injury regarding the car accident.
An individual’s specific line of work can also make an impact on the settlement amount for a car crash case. If your job involves heavy physical labor or requires you to be very mobile, and you were substantially injured in the accident, this would factor into the value of your settlement because you are not able to perform as you normally would in your job.
Future lost wages, or loss of earning capacity is a factor as well. Oftentimes, we will have an expert economist write a report on these specific factors to provide a value over a person’s lifetime ability to earn a living which are compensable if the reason you cannot work is due to the car accident.
#8 Economic Damages- Medical Bills, Liens & More
The first medical treatment, as well as the expenses for the fire department, emergency personnel, and emergency medical services is paid by a component of your own car insurance called personal injury protection (PIP). In Pennsylvania PIP is the choice of coverage that you make on your own auto insurance policy, with the minimum being $5,000. Once PIP is exhausted for these expenses, then the expenses roll over to a person’s health insurance. Some medical providers are non-participating with health insurance plans and the patient will have outstanding medical bills once treatment is complete. If a person does not possess health insurance and a medical provider is not willing to give them treatment because of this, the individual’s attorney can issue a doctor letter of protection (LOP) asking the physician to treat the patient for the time being and promising to try to take care of the outstanding medical bills at the time of the settlement. Another issue that comes about when a health insurer pays medical bills related to a car accident is they sometimes can place a lien on the file, meaning they are to be paid back from settlement of the case.
The outstanding medical bills and health insurance liens are recoverable in a car accident case and provide a valuable number which serves as a jump off point in some cases for negotiation of the claim. Regardless of whether you are full tort or limited tort, outstanding medical bills and liens are recoverable no matter the type of injuries suffered.
Another factor is future medical care costs. Just because your car accident case may be settled does not always mean that you no longer need medical care. A life care planner or other medical expert can write a report to give us an educated opinion on how much your medical care will cost over your life going forward, which will be factored into the overall value of your case.
Other economic injuries people suffer in car accidents include the costs of travelling to a doctor/specialist, car rentals, home modifications to make the home more accessible due to an individual being injured, supplementary medical items such as prosthetics, and hired help to do tasks that are not able to be done by the injured person. In accident settlements, miscellaneous expenses can be included when negotiating settlements with the opposing party. In order to justify a claim for settlement for these things, you must be able to demonstrate why these expenses were needed as well as provide records of purchase and receipts for the services.
#9 Non-Economic Damages- The Intangible Harm
Your everyday life will likely be affected after a car accident, even your mental and emotional state. Intangible damages such as pain and suffering, scarring, and a loss of or lessened ability to be able to enjoy one’s life are used to determine non-economic harm. How an accident has a negative impact on your ability to enjoy life, like the inability to engage in hobbies such as going to the gym and/or interests like skiing will factor into any settlement negotiation, even though they are intangible and therefore difficult to place a true value on. These damages can be a huge asset to a settlement negotiation and can help gain appeal with the court if a car accident case goes to trial. Damages such as these are weighed on the degree of distress, the severity of the injuries and damage to property, and the extent of the impact that the accident has on one’s life and psychological health.
#10 Settle or File a Lawsuit
Understanding the factors that go into valuing a car accident case is beneficial in determining why the insurance company may be offering you this amount of money. At the end of the day, you only get one chance for your particular case, which is why it is always best to at least consult with a car accident lawyer who can determine if they are offering anywhere near fair value for your case. Hiring the right car collision attorney can be your best option for obtaining a full value settlement or verdict for your damages.
When an insurance company fails to make a reasonable settlement offer, a personal injury lawyer has the ability to take them to task and file a lawsuit on your behalf. Regardless of if you take your car accident case to court or settle, it is important to weigh all the factors that affect your recoverable damages. Making an informed decision will allow you to choose the route that will provide the best possible outcome for your case.