Many people involved in auto accidents often ask themselves (or their friends or relatives), do I need a lawyer? The answer to that question is not always yes, but it is far more often yes than it is no. A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals opinion illustrates some of the dangers of proceeding without a lawyer (known as proceeding pro se).
In Newman v. Allstate Insurance Company, filed on December 27, 2012, the plaintiff had filed suit after she was involved in a rear end accident, struck by another driver who then fled the scene. In such circumstances, a plaintiff will bring claims against their own insurance company, seeking to recover uninsured motorist benefits (UM). In this case, Ms. Newman sought to recover for the damage to her car and for personal injuries and lost wages. She hired an attorney and filed her case in court.
At some point in the case, Ms. Newman’s attorney sought to withdraw from representing her. While the Court of Appeals’ opinion does not specify the reason, latter events indicate that Ms. Newman was likely not willing to accept her attorney’s advice and/or had unreasonable expectations about the case. After the attorney withdrew (and perhaps before), the insurance company (Allstate) offered her the total available amount of coverage, or $30,000. Ms. Newman did not accept the offer.
In most auto accident cases, the limits of insurance coverage represent the maximum amount a plaintiff can recover. In some case, for instance, when the defendant is a large corporation or the individual has substantial assets (millions of dollars, usually, and not less), it can be possible to reject an offer of policy limits and seek to recover more by obtaining a judgment. In such a case, a plaintiff would be able to recover against the policy and the assets of the defendant. But this is extremely rare, and collecting against an individual’s assets is difficult. In a case proceeding only against UM coverage (such as Ms. Newman’s), there is absolutely no reason to reject a policy limits offer as there are no other assets to go after. In other words, what Ms. Newman apparently did lacked any rational basis. Most likely her former attorney had explained that to her.
In any event, after rejecting the offer, Ms. Newman took the case to trial and recovered only $5,000, far less than Allstate had offered. The Court of Appeals upheld that verdict, finding that her medical proof was lacking, as it appeared that her doctors could not connect her general complaints of pain to the accident. There was also evidence that she was malingering and that she did not need to miss work when she claimed. The Court of Appeals taxed the costs of the appeal to Ms. Newman.
The end result of this case is that Ms. Newman most likely will end up with little if any recovery. That is not how it should have been, had she hired an attorney and listened rationally to his advice. Having lost her attorney through withdrawal, she then proceeded to attempt to prove a difficult damages case on her own and was roundly and clearly beaten by the experienced lawyers for the insurance company. Experienced trial attorneys can assist injured clients in Tennessee in negotiating with the insurance company, and in properly preparing, filing, and litigating cases in court. Of course, as the Newman example makes clear, any assistance they provide will do no good if the client is not willing to listen to advice.
This is not to say that a client must do what an attorney tells them. In fact, quite the opposite. An attorney in an auto accident case, just like in any other case, serves the client, and seeks to provide his best judgment based on his experience. In some situations, there are several possible “right” courses of action, and the client can choose how to proceed based on their own, individual concerns. For instance, how soon might they need money? What is their tolerance for risk? Do they really want to go through the delay and stress involved in taking a case to trial? The attorney provides advice but does not dictate what the client must do. But, I suspect in Ms. Newman’s case there were not several rational alternatives, only one. She apparently did not listen to her attorney’s advice, and the poor outcome of her case is not surprising.