Over the last several decades, there has been a significant conversation in the United States about tort reform. There has been a lot of talk in the media about the need to rein in frivolous lawsuits. Proponents of tort reform talk about large settlements or verdicts threatening the economy and the legal system as though they’re something that happens every day. This, along with media coverage of multi-million dollar settlements or verdicts, helps to create an inaccurate perception that anyone can reap millions of dollars from a lawsuit — even one without merit.

If you have been seriously injured due to someone else’s mistake or neglect, you should reach out to a Chicago personal injury lawyer for help. We can help assess your case and fight aggressively for the most favorable outcome. Call Staver Accident Injury Lawyers, P.C. today at (312) 236-2900 or contact us online to schedule a free initial consultation.

News Coverage vs. Reality

High settlements get the most media coverage due to their rarity. The news media doesn’t cover the kinds of settlements and verdicts happening in county courthouses and lawyers’ offices around the country every day — the ones that are for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. These settlements help make an injured person whole after someone else causes them harm, but they don’t make the injured person rich or put corporations into bankruptcy. News stories cover the outliers, the stories that make the average person gasp and shake their head at the “broken legal system.”

The reality is that if a personal injury claim is frivolous or doesn’t have any merit, the person likely won’t get anything. When you make a personal injury claim, you have to prove that you were injured and that another person caused your injuries. You have to have evidence: medical bills, photographs, witness statements, accident reports, or expert testimony, to name a few options. If you don’t have evidence to support your claim, an insurance company generally won’t settle with you, and a jury won’t find in your favor. On top of that, if your claim is frivolous or without merit, you’re unlikely to find a personal injury lawyer willing to take on your case. Attorneys have plenty of experience with personal injury settlements, and they can see through weak claims that are unlikely to stand up to insurance companies’ scrutiny and research. Since most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis, they only take on solid cases that involve demonstrable neglect and clear damages to their client.

The McDonald’s Coffee Case

Perhaps the first example that leaps to many people’s minds when they think about large payouts for personal injury claims is the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit from the early ’90s. The case started when an elderly woman suffered third-degree burns when she was scalded by a cup of McDonald’s coffee in a car. Her case ended with a jury verdict in the woman’s favor for nearly $3 million.

The case was widely reported as an example of personal injury lawsuits gone wrong, but many of the facts are not fully known or understood by much of the public.

For example, many people believe that Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old woman who suffered the burns, was driving when she spilled coffee on herself. However, Liebeck was a passenger in a stopped car when the coffee spilled.

She had put the cup between her knees because the car had no cup holders, and the coffee spilled and soaked into her sweatpants and caused the burns. The coffee was heated to 180 to 190 degrees, which could cause third-degree burns in anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds. For the sake of comparison, note that most home coffee makers hold coffee at a temperature of 150 to 153 degrees. As a result, Liebeck spent several days in the hospital and had to undergo a series of skin grafts.

Another fact about the case that many people don’t know is the Liebeck tried to settle with McDonald’s for significantly less money than the jury ultimately awarded. She initially requested $20,000 in damages to cover her medical costs and her loss of income. McDonald’s offered her a mere $800. Liebeck then hired a lawyer and the lawsuit was filed, and her lawyer made a couple of other attempts to settle the case once again for less money than what was awarded by the jury.

The jury that heard Liebeck’s case awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages but reduced that amount by 20 percent because Liebeck was thought to have contributed 20 percent of the fault for her injuries. They also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages due to evidence that McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of burn injuries due to coffee that was served too hot. The punitive damages amount reflected two days of McDonalds’ coffee revenues.

However, Liebeck never received the multi-million award. In fact, the judge in the case reduced the amount of punitive damages to $480,000, and as a result, the case was settled for less than $600,000. The case continues to be vigorously debated today, and moreover, the company remains to serve coffee at the same, high temperatures.

The Liebeck case is a strong example of how the public perception of personal injury lawsuits doesn’t typically match its reality. Media outlets widely reported the original $2.86 million verdict, but the rest of the personal injury lawsuit process and the much lower settlement never made it into the public consciousness. The victim in this case is still widely and unfairly lambasted whenever a conversation turns to the country’s legal system and personal injury cases.

Why Some Cases Get Large Payouts

Some cases do, in fact, end in very large settlements or verdicts, but multi-million dollar payouts aren’t generally the norm. This is simply due to the fact that not every case and not every injury holds that much value. The value of a personal injury claim depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The severity of the injuries
  • Whether a permanent impairment is suffered
  • Whether the injured person has lost income
  • How much insurance coverage is available to compensate the injured person for his or her losses

However, there are some things you hear about that may skew your perception of what lawsuits are worth or how settlements or verdicts work.

Punitive Damages

Generally, when the public hears about very large jury verdicts, only a small portion of the amount represents compensatory damages or damages that allow the injured person to recover their actual losses. As in the McDonald’s award, a significant portion of a large verdict may be in the form of punitive damages. However, punitive damages are relatively rare and typically are only awarded when the person or company being sued behaved in a way deplorable enough that a jury thinks they deserve to be penalized. For example, recklessly ignoring reports that a product causes harm to consumers may be grounds for a jury to award punitive damages.

Most personal injury cases are based on a theory of negligence, which means that a person acted unreasonably or failed to act in a way that was reasonable, and caused someone else harm. Negligence lacks the kind of blatant disregard for others that is characteristic of recklessness and the maliciousness of an intentional action. Punitive damages typically are awarded only when there is recklessness or intent present, not for simple negligence.

Class Action Lawsuits

When the public hears about settlements or verdicts for tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, those cases often are class action lawsuits. Class action suits bring together large groups of plaintiffs who all have similar claims and allow those claims to be tried and settled as one case to avoid the disarray of thousands of similar lawsuits in the court system.

An example of a class action lawsuit is a recent case filed against General Motors Co. over recalled vehicles. The lawyers who filed the case are asking for $10 billion in damages, but there could be as many as 27 million vehicles involved. Even if the suit is settled or a jury returns a verdict for the full $10 billion, if that money is divided up among 27 million car owners, that works out to an average of about $370 per driver — and that’s before the lawyers collect their fees in the case, which usually comes out of the settlement money or jury award before the rest is divvied up among the millions of people who have a claim. To someone hearing about the case in the news, $10 billion might seem like an obscenely high amount that clearly takes advantage of the corporation being sued. These beliefs fall apart when you do the math and figure out how little each plaintiff stands to gain from the case.

Limits to Large Payouts

In most personal injury cases, there are limits to what the injured person can receive. The field of tort law, which encompasses personal injury cases, is designed to compensate you for your losses when you get injured through someone else’s negligence, recklessness, or intentional action. That’s what the vast majority of personal injury claims do. They reimburse you for the medical costs you’ve incurred because of the injury and any income you lost because you couldn’t work. These claims also cover non-economic losses, such as the effects of disfigurement or emotional trauma. Personal injury claims are intended to come as close as is possible to restoring you to your pre-accident state physically and financially, but that’s all. They’re not intended for an injured person to profit, and it’s a misconception that anyone can file a lawsuit and make money to which they’re not entitled. The law generally limits the kind of damages you can receive to your actual losses.

In addition to the limits of the law regarding the types of damages you can receive in a personal injury lawsuit, other limits also are likely to be in play in any settlement negotiations or jury awards.

Insurance Limits

Generally speaking, when someone is injured in a car accident or by slipping and falling in a grocery store, the settlement will be limited by the amount of insurance coverage available. Individuals or small businesses such as a corner market aren’t going to carry policies with millions of dollars in coverage. In the case of a car accident, most drivers carry coverage that maxes out at tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, the accident victim will only be able to collect the limit, even if the amount doesn’t fully compensate them for their injuries. That’s the reality for most people who pursue personal injury claims.

Personal Injury Damages Caps

Many states have statutes that put a ceiling or cap on the amount you can recover for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering or disfigurement and disability. Regardless of whether you can prove you deserve more, if a damages cap is in place in your state, the amount you can recover in a personal injury claim will be limited.

How Long Personal Injury Cases Take

There are misconceptions on both sides of the spectrum here. Some people believe that personal injury cases always move swiftly, and as a result, they expect to have a check in their hands within days. On the flip side, others believe that they’re in for a long and grueling court battle when they commit to a personal injury case.

The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. There are cases that settle very quickly, and there are those that drag on for months or even years. Generally, though, it’s in everyone’s best interest to settle a case promptly. Once you’ve retained an attorney for your personal injury case, they begin researching your case and preparing for negotiations.

The length and nature of negotiations vary quite a bit, depending on the details of your case, the insurance company’s willingness to compromise, and your attorney’s negotiating skills. A settlement could be negotiated within weeks. The process could take months if there’s a large amount of money at stake or liability is unclear.

It is rare for personal injury cases to drag out for years. These cases makes the news because they’re unusual and make for interesting reading. However, cases that take years are a drain on a company’s time and money. Most insurance companies settle long before a case gets to this point.

Going to Trial

Clients are often surprised to find out that personal injury cases don’t often go to trial. Some people immediately decide against a personal injury case because they are afraid of the time, stress, and expenses associated with a courtroom trial. Statistics indicate that most personal injury cases never go to court. A courtroom battle can be extremely expensive for both sides, whittling away at a victim’s potential compensation and racking up legal fees for both sides.

Going to trial is risky for both the defendant and the plaintiff. The company or individual being sued could be ordered to pay everything the plaintiff is asking for if they go to court. This may be far more than what the plaintiff is asking for during negotiations. Trial is risky for plaintiffs, as well. The court could decide against the plaintiff and award them nothing.

To mitigate this risk and ensure a timely end to the situation, attorneys on both sides typically strive for a settlement. If you decide to pursue a personal injury case, know that your chances of going to trial are extremely low.

Determining What a Personal Injury Case is Worth

Every personal injury case is unique, and the value of your claim is going to depend on factors that are highly individualized. Some of the monetary damages will be based on costs that are concrete, such as medical bills and calculations of lost wages. Others prove more difficult to calculate, such as pain and suffering.

When you hire a personal injury lawyer to pursue your claim, your lawyer will go over every detail of your case to create an estimate of how much compensation you should receive for your injuries. Factors that go into determining the amount of a settlement demand include:

  • The nature of your injuries
  • The extent of your injuries
  • What medical treatment you’ve gotten and will need in the future
  • How much time you lost from work or will lose in the future
  • Whether you’ve suffered emotional distress because of your injuries
  • Whether your familial relationships are affected by your injuries
  • Whether you’ve suffered any disability because of your injuries
  • Whether you’ve been disfigured by your injuries
  • How much evidence there is to support your claim
  • How much insurance is available to compensate you for your injuries
  • Whether you played any role in causing your injuries

Once your lawyer has estimated the value of your claim, they will start the process of trying to get a settlement. Settlement negotiations start with your lawyer making a demand for compensation, usually to the insurance company for the person who caused your injuries. If the evidence in your favor is strong enough, the insurance company may pay the claim. However, it is more likely that the insurance company will give you a lowball offer. In this case, your lawyer will negotiate with the insurance company until a fair agreement is reached. In the event that no agreement can be reached, your attorney may proceed with a personal injury lawsuit.

Some people believe that their case is worth more than it truly is. While consulting with personal injury attorneys in Chicago, be wary of those who agree with everything you say and are willing to pursue however much you think you deserve. Your odds of success are significantly higher with an attorney who understands the system and can accurately predict how much your case is worth, even if that amount isn’t what you want to hear.

Figuring Out If You Really Need a Personal Injury Attorney

We know that hiring a personal injury lawyer can be overwhelming. There are lots of options to consider and you may have people telling you that you don’t really need a personal injury attorney. While exploring your options, look into personal injury settlements each attorney has secured for their clients, what each attorney’s approach is, and how much of their practice is dedicated to personal injury cases.

One of the biggest myths clients hear is that they don’t really need a personal injury lawyer. If you have been injured by someone else’s actions or negligence, it’s likely that you’ve already heard from an insurance company representative. Why would you need an attorney if the company is already offering you money? Aren’t you in the driver’s seat?

Unfortunately, you have minimal leverage unless you have an attorney. Insurance adjusters are in the business of downplaying their injuries, minimizing their client’s liability, and getting victims to sign away their rights for as little money as possible. No matter how strong of a negotiator you are, you run the risk of being steamrolled by the insurance company. If you push back too hard, they may lower your settlement offer or revoke it entirely. If you accept what’s offered, it’s likely that you’ll get much less than what you deserve.

A personal injury attorney is always a valuable asset to have on your side, even if you’ve suffered minor injuries. They have experience working with insurance adjusters, researching personal injury claims, and playing hardball with insurance companies that don’t want to pay up. Chances are, you have plenty on your plate after an injury. Your personal injury attorney can handle the legal and financial matters while you figure out what it will take to get back to normal.

Contact Us Today to Discuss Your Personal Injury Case

At Staver Accident Injury Lawyers, P.C., we understand that no two personal injury cases are the same. We have years of experience negotiating with insurance companies and helping our clients receive their best outcome. We can help you manage the paperwork, insurance adjusters, and defense attorneys so you can focus on your health and getting the appropriate treatment.

To learn more for learn about the reality of personal injury settlements, contact a Chicago personal injury lawyer for a free case evaluation today at (312) 236-2900.

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(312) 236-2900
(312) 236-2900