If you are making a claim for personal injuries, you are likely wondering, “how much is my case worth?” The answer is, “it depends.” Unlike people, all personal injury cases are not created equal.
The Settlement Value of Your Case Is a Function of Multiple Factors:
- How clear is the evidence of carelessness?
- How badly were you injured?
- Were you left with scarring on your body?
- How high are your medical bills, and were they covered by insurance or not?
- What is your prognosis for recovery?
- Are your injuries permanent or short-term only?
- Are there activities you used to enjoy, but can no longer participate in?
- How much time have you lost from work, and what is your yearly salary?
- In which state and county will your case be tried?
- Who is the lawyer who will be trying your case?
Remember, at the end of the day, the value of your case will be decided by 12 jurors, not 12 lawyers. The people who will decide your case are people just like you, who have no special training in the law. In some ways, you are just as able as your lawyer to make a prediction about how much money a jury might award in a case like yours.
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At trial, the Judge will instruct your jury with respect to the recoverable elements of damages. Pain and suffering, lost wages, medical expenses, and the cost of future care are all elements that a jury can consider. Some elements of damage have hard numbers attached to them: the amount of past medical expenses and the amount of past lost earnings are often indisputable numbers. Future wage loss and future medical expenses may be the subject of testimony at trial by experts and are often matters that are vigorously contested. Your lawyer may retain a vocational expert to opine with respect to the vocational implications of your injury or hire a medical expert to plot out the cost of future medical care. Similarly, your lawyer may retain an economist to project the amount of future medical expenses and lost earnings. The value of your case may be a function of the types of numbers your lawyer’s experts can project.
Other aspects of damages, such as “pain and suffering,” disfigurement, and “loss of life’s pleasures” are more elusive and can vary depending upon the jury. In Pennsylvania, your lawyer cannot suggest to the jury an amount that should be awarded for such damages. That award is entirely up to the jury’s discretion. And like snowflakes, no two juries are the same. Different juries may value intangible items of damage very differently.
Jurys and Pennsylvania Counties
No two courthouses are the same, either. The same case presented to a Philadelphia County jury and a Chester County jury may yield entirely different results. Chester County juries have a reputation for being more defense-oriented and conservative; Philadelphia juries have a reputation of being more sympathetic to the plight of an injured claimant. Those reputations may or may not be well deserved, but they have the attention of insurance companies. Not surprisingly, when the Pennsylvania legislature passed medical malpractice reform nearly 20 years ago, it established a rule that medical negligence cases can be heard only by a jury seated in the county in which the malpractice occurred.
Settlement Values and Jury Trial Awards
While the “settlement value” of your case is not necessarily the same amount that a jury might award to you if you were to win your trial, the “settlement value” is impacted by what the insurance company thinks you might be awarded if your case were to go to trial. If an insurance company thinks you have a realistic chance of being awarded a million dollars, it may make an offer to you of something close to a million dollars. If the insurance company thinks that the most a jury might award to you is $50,000, it may make an offer to you of something close to $50,000. The verdict potential drives the settlement value.
The insurance company will likely also consider the reputation and competence of your attorney in assessing a value for your case. Does your attorney regularly take cases to trial or is s/he a “settler”? Insurance companies know those attorneys who have no fear of the courtroom and those who cower at the thought of having to prove themselves at trial. Has your attorney tried a case like yours previously? Has your lawyer shown the ability to convince a jury to award a large amount of damages a contested case? The insurance company may also consider whether the claimant presents as “sympathetic” or “deserving,” qualities that cannot be predicted reliably .
Settlement Values and Insurance Considerations
Another consideration is the amount of available insurance. If the person you are suing has a $100,000 (one-hundred-thousand-dollar) insurance policy, the insurance company will not, and, in fact, cannot, offer you more than $100,000. In Pennsylvania, physicians are required to carry a minimum of one million dollars of liability insurance coverage. Often, the amount of insurance can be the proverbial tail that wags the settlement dog. If there is only one million dollars of available insurance, the settlement value of your case effectively might be capped at one million dollars.
Can’t you be awarded more than the available coverage? Of course, you can. But collecting any amount over the available insurance limits always poses challenges. The person who injured you might have assets above and beyond the available insurance coverage, but those assets may be held jointly by the Defendant and the Defendant’s spouse, often making them inaccessible to creditors. If you try to collect a judgment that is in excess of the available coverage, the Defendant may declare bankruptcy, and you might spend years navigating through Bankruptcy Court. However, the available coverage can often provide the Defendant with an incentive to settle. If the Defendant has a $1million liability policy and is concerned about the possibility of a jury verdict in excess of those policy limits, the Defendant may pressure the insurance company to settle the case precisely to avoid spending years in Bankruptcy Court.
Settlement Value and Verdict Value
Ultimately, the jury decides what the case is worth. But the verdict value and the settlement value are usually two distinctly different numbers. If the insurance company offers a settlement, you will decide whether the case is settled or not. In this respect, the “settlement” value of your case is a function of your tolerance for risk. Are you prepared to gamble what has been offered in the hope of being awarded more at trial? How badly do you need the money? You are the only one who can make this decision. Your lawyer should guide you, and even make recommendations, but ultimately you, not your lawyer, will decide whether or not your case settles.