Identifying a major case when the client walks through your door can be difficult, particularly for new lawyers. But if the victim of a catastrophic accident approaches your law firm for help, it’s important to hit the ground running and avoid common mistakes that could seriously undervalue your client’s case.
Attorneys commonly make the most avoidable mistakes during the first 100 days of a lawsuit. If you are approached by the victim of a catastrophic accident, investigate the details early, choose your jurisdiction carefully, and resist lowball settlement offers during the first 100 days.
Plaintiffs attorneys have a clear advantage during the investigation stage of a catastrophic injury lawsuit. The best witnesses sometimes become wary of speaking about an accident after repeated questioning, so it is very important to interview key witnesses before the other side gets a chance. Speaking to these witnesses early carries an added benefit if they put you in touch with other potential plaintiffs or defendants.
It’s tempting for plaintiffs attorneys to rush into joint representation commitments for multiple accident victims. Beginning the investigation early should allow time to carefully consider each of the injured parties and whether it is in their best interest to be represented together or separately. Think ahead and analyze all potential conflicts between the plaintiffs before deciding whether they would be better served by separate attorneys.
Jurisdiction and Venue Choice
Selecting all possible defendants is a clear benefit of launching an early investigation because it lets the plaintiff be more selective while reviewing venues for their lawsuit. Some states, like California, empower the plaintiff to choose between filing their lawsuit where the accident occurred or in the location where the defendant lives and does business. A selection of potential defendants is beneficial because it opens up the opportunity to select a venue with fewer biases against or other inconveniences for your client.
Of course, obtaining your ideal jurisdiction isn’t always simple. Before you finalize your list of defendants, consider how each potential defendant would influence the venue of your lawsuit. Keep an eye on low-liability defendants if their presence could defeat diversity jurisdiction and keep the case in state court. It would be a mistake to commit to early settlements with these defendants, since their jurisdictional benefit could far outweigh the value of an early settlement.
Avoid Early Settlements
This is probably the most difficult error to avoid for new lawyers. You have a major catastrophic injury client, the defendant knows it, and is eager to agree to a large settlement. Even the most experienced lawyers would be tempted by this scenario. But this early in the case, it is best to avoid easy money. At this point, you likely don’t have depositions or interrogatories under oath, and you likely haven’t yet shown the defendants an incentive to hand over information about other potential defendants. Don’t give up the chance for a multimillion dollar case to make a few thousand early in the process.
That said, once you have collected most of the relevant information, say 80 percent, file your case quickly. Victims of catastrophic accidents are left with exorbitant medical debt and need ongoing care, and the final 20 percent of information could take years to collect. Pulling together simple police reports can even take months, so it’s best to get the process moving so that your client is not left without the funds they deserve for too long. While you’re investigating, keep in mind that the defense attorneys are also examining their case, so it’s best to file the lawsuit quickly, somewhere between 60 and 100 days after you are hired by the client. Filing your case swiftly puts your client on offence and sends the message that you mean business.
Many defendants will attempt to settle the case before the discovery process begins in order to limit their liability. This may be a tempting offer, but catastrophic injury victims rarely benefit from settling before you have all the facts. Once you have access to information via discovery, send an early request for interrogatories to all potential defendants in order to force them to share relevant information as early in the process as possible.
Plan for Success
If you’ve never handled a catastrophic injury lawsuit before, it’s best to tread carefully and seek advice to avoid common mistakes early in the process. Depending on the type of clients you regularly represent, the verdict or settlement of a catastrophic injury case could be exponentially larger than a typical day at the office. In order to provide the best representation to your client, be sure that you plan the route forward carefully in the first 100 days by investigating early, choosing defendants and jurisdictions carefully, and resisting early settlement offers. Explain to your client that by waiting to receive a badly needed $100,000 now, they greatly enhance their chances of receiving millions of dollars as part of their ultimate verdict.
Andy Gillin is Managing Partner for GJEL Accident Attorneys, a California personal injury and car accident law firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.