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Published: Saturday, 12/18/2010

Injured driver duped into signing away compensation

Dear Dale: I was injured recently in a car accident in Toledo. I gave a recorded statement to the insurance adjuster for the driver who caused the accident, and she ended up sending me a check for $700 and told me she would set aside money for my medical treatment. I cashed the check, but I want to know if I can get more money if I'm still in pain after my treatment.

It sounds to me like any personal injury case you may have had is over before it really started. I'd have to see the check and the paperwork that came with it, but I suspect that by cashing the check you released all claims you may have had. In other words, your case is probably cooked.

When I first speak with a potential personal injury client, I ask whether they've spoken to the at-fault party's insurance company and, if so, whether they signed any documents from that company. I can't stress this enough -- if you've been injured in an accident as the result of another driver's negligence, don't speak to that driver's insurance company and don't sign any documents.

I focus my practice on car-accident cases, so this may sound self-serving, but taking a few minutes to speak with an attorney can help you avoid making a mistake that could have a major impact on your financial stability if your injuries are serious.

If you take a few bucks and sign a document that releases all claims against the other driver and his insurance company, you likely won't be saved later on by claiming you didn't know what you were doing. We're all responsible for the documents we sign, and the courts have to presume that we read and understood the document before we signed it. If the law was different, contracts wouldn't be worth the piece of paper they're written on.

Insurance adjusters for the at-fault driver often will contact the injured party. The adjuster certainly wants to speak with the injured party to evaluate the case -- that just makes sense. But they're also hoping that they can resolve the case before that person seeks guidance from an attorney. From a business perspective, I understand that. Adjusters represent the insurance company and that's where their loyalties lie.

I've spoken with a number of clients who tell me that an adjuster has told them there's no sense in hiring a lawyer because part of the settlement will be gobbled up in legal fees. In some cases, they're absolutely right because there's no need to contact a lawyer if your injuries were minor and you're not seeking treatment. But, if you're in pain and you're going to see doctors, physical therapists, or chiropractors, you really should contact a lawyer to protect your rights. Insurance adjusters are smart people who know how to evaluate cases, but doesn't it make sense to consult an attorney whose loyalty is to you and your family?

In your situation, I suspect there's nothing more you can do. If the adjuster has agreed to pay for your medical treatment, that's a plus, and I hope that happens. But if you have a lot of pain down the road or you're going to miss a significant amount of work, I'm guessing you're not going to see any additional compensation other than the $700 you received. If your injuries were very minor, maybe that's a fair number, and you shouldn't beat yourself up. We all learn through experience. If nothing else, you provide a cautionary tale for other accident victims.

Dale Emch practices law at the Dale Emch Law Office, LLC, in Toledo. In his column, he will discuss general legal principles and answer readers' questions. Neither Mr. Emch nor The Blade present or intend his column to be taken as legal advice. Readers seeking legal advice should consult with an attorney. Readers may send their questions to 615 Adams St. Toledo, OH 43604 or dale@daleemch.com. His Web site is www.daleemch.com.



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