If you are injured by another person’s negligence in the state of California – in a traffic accident, a slip-and-fall on private property, or in an instance of medical malpractice, for example – you are entitled to full compensation for all of your medical expenses, lost wages, and other injury-related damages. When the injury is temporarily or permanently disabling, you are additionally entitled to all future medical expenses arising from the injury and future “lost working capacity.”

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Don’t let the word “entitled” fool you. Yes, if you are injured by someone else’s negligence, you’re “entitled” to compensation – it’s your legal right – but a reimbursement amount doesn’t just appear in your bank account or in your mailbox. You’ll have to prove that you’re injured and that the other person’s negligence is the reason why you’re injured. You’ll need a lawyer’s help – someone like an Oakland or San Francisco personal injury attorney.

If money is flowing out for to pay for medical expenses and nothing is coming in because you can’t work, you could quickly face the kinds of financial hardship that confront so many injury victims and their families. The last thing you can afford at that point is additional spending. If you need to retain a personal injury attorney to fight for compensation on your behalf, what can you do?

HOW CAN YOU HIRE A LAWYER IF YOU HAVE NO MONEY FOR A LAWYER?

Personal injury lawyers long ago understood that many injuries victims cannot afford to pay “up front” for legal representation. Personal injury lawyers are also committed to the idea that every one of us deserves justice – without regard to our financial standing. Thus, personal injury attorneys are paid on a “contingency fee” basis. In other words, the fee is paid at the end of the process rather than at the start, and the payment is “contingent” upon whether or not the attorney actually obtains a settlement or a verdict on the injury victim’s behalf.

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A contingency fee arrangement provides access to the courts for those who cannot afford to pay attorneys’ fees. Contingency fees are also a compelling motivation for the attorney to work diligently on the client’s behalf. Finally, because lawyers assume the financial risk of legal action, contingency fees work to keep speculative and frivolous claims from clogging the personal injury courts.

Contingency fees, however, do not guarantee that injury victims will obtain justice or even gain access to the courts. No matter how seriously injured you are, if you have no proof that another person’s negligence caused your injury, you can’t win, so probably no attorney will take the case. Other personal injury claims may require comprehensive investigation before the chances of success can even be guessed at. These cases might be turned away because the investigation alone is expensive and the odds of prevailing are low.

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF FILING A PERONAL INJURY CLAIM?

When you have a personal injury claim and you also have sufficient evidence to prove it, you’ll still have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of legal action. Personal injury cases can take months to play out and sometimes several years. If a jury awards you a large amount, that’s probably not the end of the story – defendants in personal injury cases usually appeal large awards or negotiate for a lower award amount in return for not filing an appeal. A personal injury lawyer will be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of legal action in your own case.

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In southern California, a personal injury attorney may charge about one-third of the total injury recovery. This includes the amount obtained for medical expenses, lost earnings, and damages such as pain, suffering, and the “loss of the enjoyment of life.” While every attorney and every case is different, most lawyers charge approximately one-third if a settlement can be obtained before filing a lawsuit or going to trial. The precise percentage is negotiable, and the amount can go up to forty or forty-five percent depending on the legal services required and on the attorney’s track record and experience.

Personal injury attorneys typically settle personal injury claims through out-of-court negotiations. Very few California personal injury cases require a trial. If the lawyer settles the case out of court, less legal work is required. You can probably negotiate an agreement in which the lawyer accepts a lower percentage if he or she settles the case quickly and easily without having to go to court.

Since the average person cannot and probably will not pay an hourly rate of $400 to $500 or a $2,500-to-$5,000 up-front retainer, the contingency fee arrangement is really the only viable option for most personal injury victims. As the lawyer’s share is based on the total amount of the recovery, the higher the fee, the more motivated the attorney is, at least theoretically, to fight diligently on a client’s behalf.

IS A CONTINGENCY FEE A “GOOD DEAL” FOR INJURY VICTIMS?

One key element of the contingency fee arrangement is that personal injury attorneys themselves usually advance all of the costs for investigation and discovery, as most clients are simply unable to advance these costs. The attorney is basically making an investment in order to increase the value of the case. Personal injury attorneys may be the only people in the United States who will advance you that kind of loan at no cost and zero percent interest.

A contingency fee contract lets an accident victim – an average person – stand on a level playing field with a well-funded insurance company. It’s important for accident victims to read and closely scrutinize a contingency fee contract before signing it, and it’s also important to ask as many questions about the contract as you need to ask. Also be sure that you’re comfortable and at ease with the attorney you’ve chosen – you’ll probably be working together for months and in some cases longer.

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Some injuries just happen – they’re not really anyone’s fault. The law used to call them “acts of God” – injuries that can’t be avoided in circumstances like bad weather. If you’ve been injured and you don’t know if someone else can be held legally accountable, seek legal advice at once. And in California, before you accept any insurance company’s offer to settle, arrange a consultation with an experienced Oakland or San Francisco personal injury attorney.

Without an experienced personal injury attorney’s insights and seasoned legal advice, you may not know whether or not you even have a legitimate personal injury claim, and you won’t know what that claim might actually be worth. When you’ve been injured by someone else’s negligence in the state of California, there is absolutely no reason to settle for one cent less than you deserve.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.