Pro se (self-represented) plaintiffs face an uphill battle against defense attorneys. Though you can file a personal injury claim without a lawyer, winning a large settlement or verdict is unlikely unless you have representation. Obtaining the best result requires proficiency in legal skills that take years to hone.
Settlement amounts depend on how likely you are to prevail at trial and what damages you can prove. Defense attorneys employ arguments that pro se plaintiffs find difficult to overcome. As a result, they tend to believe your chances of winning without an attorney are low, so any forthcoming settlement offer is usually inadequate. To convince the defense to settle, you need to engage in the discovery process to find the evidence needed to sway a jury in your favor. This involves gathering witness testimony, analyzing reports, and consulting expert witnesses.
In addition, pro se plaintiffs face poor odds in defeating motions for summary judgment (dismissal), negotiating with insurance company attorneys, performing at settlement conferences, picking juries, winning trials, and arguing appeals. California circuit courts are unfriendly to pro se litigants. Judges adhere to strict schedules and have limited patience with participants who are slow to grasp the court’s rules, customs, and procedures.
Even with a relatively tolerant judge, pro se plaintiffs face difficulties presenting the proper evidence and the arguments that win according to precedent and prevailing legal opinions. Ultimately, preparing a case and presenting it to a jury becomes an all-consuming, Herculean task for uninitiated pro se litigants, who must face a team of lawyers who know personal injury law and the court system expertly. The result is usually a dismissed case or a settlement far below what a personal injury lawyer could obtain. Therefore, conducting a personal injury case pro se is never advisable outside of small claims court.
If you have a claim under $10,000, you can avoid the byzantine litigation process of the circuit court and file a personal injury claim in small claims court yourself. In small claims court, no attorneys are allowed, and you need not adhere to the strict rules of evidence and procedure demanded by the circuit courts. You may prevail in this venue with an organized, cogent, and factually correct case presentation.
How to Represent Yourself in a Personal Injury Lawsuit: What You Need to Know?
Small claims court eliminates the need to hire an attorney. When the amount of the claim is minimal, it makes no sense for law firms to take cases on a contingency because the work involved is too time-consuming for the amount the attorney earns.
Because contingency fees are not possible, litigants would be forced to pay an attorney hourly, but legal fees usually dwarf what a plaintiff can win for a small claim. The solution to this problem is the California small claims court. No attorneys are allowed in this venue, so you never have to worry about arguing your case against a seasoned shark.
Additionally, small claims court dispenses with legal steps like interrogatories and depositions. Judges understand pro se litigants are nonlawyers and are much more lenient. If you must try the case, you do so before a judge, so there is no need to worry about picking a jury and presenting your case to lay people. The judge understands the law, so you can focus on presenting the facts.
Often, presenting a succinct chronology of the facts is the quickest and most effective way to win a small claim. Despite its more casual process, you still need preparation to win in small claims court. Here are some tips for winning in small claims court:
Create a Chronology of Events to Help You Prepare
The order of events is critical in legal proceedings. Judges need to hear the facts in the sequence they occurred. To aid your memory, write down what happened in chronological order as soon as possible after an injury accident. You should do this regardless of whether it is a small claim or one where you will hire a lawyer.
Start with what led up to the incident, describe the incident itself, and detail the relevant aftermaths, such as a visit to a hospital or doctor.
Judges expect you to back up your claim with certain documents. In California, parties to the injury auto accident must notify the police, so that the judge may expect a police report. This report proves the accident occurred, identifies the other party (so he cannot deny being there), and may shed light on how it happened.
If anyone witnessed the accident, you should always get their contact information. You may need the witness to testify in court. Medical records are pivotal in personal injury claims. To prevail, you must prove that the injury resulted from the incident. Medical records provide evidence that it did.
You must document your damages. Damages can be economic and non-economic. Most economic damages are readily documentable, such as medical bills, lost wages, lost business income, and property damage.Non-economic damages may not correspond with a bill or pay stub, but you can still document them by keeping a journal of your experience. While composing such a journal, keep in mind the following non-economic damages you may seek:
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Loss of consortium
Find the Right Court
You must file your claim in the county where the incident occurred.
File the Complaint
You can obtain the paperwork on the county court’s website and contact the clerk’s office if you need assistance. Keep any written narrative concise and focused on how the other party’s negligence injured you. More details on: Filing a personal injury lawsuit.
Serve the Defendant
A third party must serve the defendant. You can find instructions for service on the county court website or through the clerk’s office.
Prepare Your Case
You will need time to organize your thoughts and documents and prepare your presentation. It’s a good idea to outline your case on paper and practice presenting it. Remember that you must prove four elements to win a personal injury case:
- The defendant Had a Duty of Care
All motorists are assumed to have a duty of care toward other drivers and pedestrians.
- The Defendant Breached the Duty of Care
This is the negligent act that caused the accident. For example, failing to see you in a crosswalk, hitting you when you had the right of way, speeding, disobeying a stop sign, or whatever else caused the collision.
- You Suffered Damages Because of the Negligence
No damages means no case. You must have suffered harm as a result of the defendant’s negligence.
- The Claimed Damages Are Linked to the Incident
This is where medical records come in handy. You must demonstrate that whatever damages you claim, such as for medical treatment, lost working hours, or pain and suffering, are due to the incident.
Beware of Comparative Negligence
California is a pure comparative negligence state. Under this procedure, the court can find the defendant 100% responsible, in which case you receive all of your proven damages (up to $10,000 in small claims court). However, the judge could find that you contributed to the accident and reduce your award. For example, if she finds you 25% responsible, you receive 75% of the damages.
Because of this, be careful not to volunteer anything that the defense could use to raise the issue of comparative negligence. Also, do not let the defendant make deceptive claims about how you contributed to the accident without a strong rebuttal. For example, the defendant could claim you were speeding without evidence.
Injuries That Qualify for a Personal Injury Claim
Any type of auto accident injury qualifies for compensation under California law. Injuries range from superficial to catastrophic to fatal. Some of the most common auto accident injuries include the following:
- Broken bones
- Neck injuries
- Head injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Eye injuries
- Smoke inhalation
- Spinal cord injuries
Determining If You Have a Case & Filing the Complaint
Personal injury cases must be based on negligence, recklessness, or intentional actions that caused your injury. If any of these apply, you have a case. Under California law, even if you are partially responsible for the incident, you have a valid claim. For example, if another driver hits you, you have a case even if you were speeding. However, a court may reduce your award if your speeding contributed to the accident, a court may reduce your award.
The best way to assess whether you have a case is to consult a personal injury attorney. The attorney can advise you on the law, the probable outcome, and the process ahead. Even if you file in small claims court, a consultation with an attorney provides helpful insight.
If the injury is serious, a personal injury attorney will want to take the case on a contingency basis. Medical bills, lost wages, and other damages add up quickly. At the consultation, your attorney can generate an estimate of what your claim may be worth. Often, clients are surprised to learn their claims have more value than they thought.
Many people are surprised to learn that their non-economic damages can be far greater than their economic ones. For example, an accident victim may believe he has sustained $25,000 in damages for medical bills and lost income. However, upon hearing his account, the attorney may conclude that the substantial pain and disability caused by the injury are worth several times more than the monetary losses, bringing the estimate for damages to $100,000.
Pros & Cons of Filing a Personal Injury Claim Without a Lawyer
Pursuing a personal injury claim without a lawyer is never advisable outside small claims court. The contingency fee attorneys charge always pays for itself. Attorneys generally uncover additional damages, overcome comparative negligence claims, and can win at a jury trial. Because of this, they compel the defense to raise settlement offers to attractive levels. They are experts in gaining the leverage needed to demand and receive justice. However, for claims of less than $10,000, pro se plaintiffs can achieve a good result in small claims court.
Pros of Filing a Personal Injury Claim Without a Lawyer
- Small claims court bars attorneys, creating a level playing field
- The small claims process is veritably shorter, shaving months or years off of the process
- No attorneys fees
Cons of Filing a Personal Injury Claim Without a Lawyer
- Must compose a complaint on your own
- Must seek evidence on own through the discovery process
- Must compose interrogatories
- Must conduct depositions
- Strong likelihood of losing a motion for summary judgment (dismissal)
- Low chance of prevailing against an experienced legal team
- Going to trial presents a monumental task with a low chance of success
- Low leverage in settlement negotiations
- The prospect of an appeals process is even more daunting than a trial
Contact Top-Rated Law Firm in California
You need legal advice if you suffered injury in an auto accident. Any case outside of small claims court requires the expertise of a personal injury attorney. Your claim may have more value than you imagine. Consult a personal injury attorney for a qualified opinion.
The personal injury litigation process outside small claims court is lengthy, detail-oriented, complex, and full of bear traps. Insurance companies hire defense lawyers whose entire job revolves around defeating plaintiffs’ claims entirely or severely diminishing their compensation.
Personal injury lawyers win big settlements and verdicts because they have the expertise and resources to build powerful cases. Because of this, insurers are willing to offer large settlements to avoid the prospect of a trial and appeal.
Contact Nordean Law for a car accident personal injury consultation.