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Settling insurance claims without a lawyer: Is it a road to riches or ruin?

If you've ever been injured in a car accident, you might have contacted one of the countless personal injury lawyers who boast they are not afraid to take on the insurance industry. While you might have won a good settlement, you probably paid up to 40 percent of it to the crusading attorney.

Now imagine winning the same settlement without having to cough up a contingency fee to a lawyer. That's the promise offered by two new companies, MyClaim.com and SelfSettle.com, which both sell online and offline services and resources to help consumers get the most out of an insurance settlement. The companies target victims of automobile accidents.

Both companies help consumers conduct research and prepare documents related to their injuries. At the end of the process, they promise that customers will have a professional settlement-demand package to submit to the insurance company.

"It's similar to if your friend picked up a medical text book and tried to remove your gall bladder."

"We are empowering claimants," says Daniel Yelich, executive vice president of MyClaim.com, which is based in St. Louis, Mo.

But some lawyers contend a company like MyClaim.com does not "empower" claimants but rather endangers them. "A lot of these things require the application of legal experience," explains Chicago-based attorney Richard F. Mallen. In March, his personal injury law firm, Richard F. Mallen & Associates Ltd., filed a lawsuit against MyClaim.Com, alleging it engages in the unauthorized practice of law. "It's similar to if your friend picked up a medical text book and tried to remove your gall bladder. Yeah, he could do it, but it might not come out all right."

Officials at both companies deny they are dispensing legal advice or otherwise practicing law. "We only provide information on what the statutes are. We won't make any recommendations or give advice," says Roland Reinholz, CEO for MyClaim.com.

SelfSettle.com, based in Henderson, Nev., has not been accused of the unauthorized practice of law, but the company has raised some lawyers' eyebrows. "We don't give legal advice," says Chad Russell, president of Self Settle Inc., which operates the Web site. "We've had some attorneys contact us. Once we clarify what it is we do, everybody's comfortable with our situation."

How to become your own lawyer

Both MyClaim.com and SelfSettle.com allow customers to get their hands on past jury verdicts on similar cases. With access, customers can compare the facts of their case to those that have gone to trial or, in some cases, settled out of court. The services also gather police reports and medical reports. MyClaim.com, however, requires its customers to send the company their medical reports.

MyClaim.com sells customers links to several legal Web sites to conduct research, Yelich says. Customers also can retrieve information on jury awards for similar circumstances.

The service includes a "MyClaim injury interview." Customers answer questions about the impact of the accident. It includes questions about whether they missed work or needed hospital treatment. The answers will be used to create a package of information to be submitted to an insurer.

The final package includes the settlement-demand letter, accident and wage information, and expense details.

Although the site is operational, Yelich points out that changes still are being made. "This is a work in progress that we're constantly trying to make better and improve," he says.

Resourceful consumers might on their own be able to obtain information sold by MyClaim.com and Self Settle. For example, consumers might find insurance-related legal data at their local libraries or through the Internet. SelfSettle.com buys information from Jury Verdict Research of Horsham, Pa., which consumers can independently purchase. Jury Verdict Research sells a book for $39.95 that details trends in personal-injury jury awards.

"They certainly can do that," Yelich says. He points out his "self-help" Web site makes it more convenient for consumers to find the information.

MyClaim.com offers customers two ways to pay for the service. They can pay a flat fee of $250 upon signing up. If the case fails to settle, they will not get their money back. Alternately, customers can pay $25 upon signing up and $475 if the case settles. Yelich says users of the service sign an agreement to pay the company if the case settles.

MyClaim.com went online in October 1999, but Yelich says his company began signing up customers only in early May. He would not say how many people have signed up so far, but no cases have been settled yet. "I don't think I would impress you with the volume," he admits.

Self Settle will assemble all the paperwork related to an injury victim's claim — including police and medical reports, a map of the accident location, photographs of the crash scene, and a detailed listing of expenses such as lost wages. (Russell says customers sign a release giving the company access to various records.)

Piling up the paperwork

"We basically summarize their entire accident into a portfolio," Russell says. "Depending on how traumatic the accident is, it could be anywhere from an inch to eight inches worth of paperwork."

"Once we clarify what it is we do, everybody's comfortable with our situation."

To avoid the appearance of illegally practicing law, neither company will answer questions about the merits or value specific injury claims. They also will not evaluate claims or give the claims directly to the insurance companies.

Even if they've paid full price and the case fails to settle, all is not lost. Yelich says customers can take their research to lawyers, who might consider reducing their fees.

Self Settle, which started doing business in early January 2000, uses a similar flat fee structure. Customers can pay $999 up front, or $1,499 if the case settles.

Although information about Self Settle can be found at Selfsettle.com, it does not conduct business online — customers are told to call or e-mail the office.

Mallen, the lawyer who has sued MyClaim.com, says he is not familiar with Self Settle and would not comment about the business.

Both MyClaim.com and Self Settle acknowledge they are not equipped to handle every kind of insurance claim. They're seeking to drum up business from people with fairly straight-forward cases such as neck and back strain, whiplash, and bruises. Customers with complicated cases involving serious injury such as brain damage or paralysis should hire lawyers, say officials from MyClaim.com and Self Settle.
Continue to page 2: Objection, your honor

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