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Last updated Dec. 8, 2010

car insurance lawyerInsurance companies prefer to settle injury claims as quickly and economically as possible -- settling a claim fast to avoid a lengthy litigation process. But this may not necessarily be in your best interest. It depends on the type of injury you sustained and the treatment needed to bring you back to health.

If you're involved in an accident that wasn't your fault and you suffer serious injuries, it's possible that the at-fault person's car insurance company may immediately contact you to settle the claim. Be careful dealing with that company, and if you feel it’s needed, consider hiring a personal injury lawyer.

The complex language of insurance policies and the hardball tactics used by some claims adjusters can leave you feeling frustrated -- and you may not receive all to which you’re entitled.

Be careful what you say to a car insurance company

It's always a good idea to handle negotiations for a claim in writing -- especially a complex or large claim. Oral statements, if they are not recorded, are subject to the memory of both parties, and it’s all too easy for either party to "change" its version of events in statements. In addition, car insurance companies hire claims adjusters to work over the telephone and handle claims -- usually to the advantage of the insurance company. Be sure that any agreements you make will restore you to your full health or cover any long-term costs for your health care and loss of income.

Every state has statutes of limitations and procedural requirements that place deadlines on how a claim must be handled by an insurance company and when a claimant can file a lawsuit. Statutes of limitations vary by state and depend on the nature of the claim. In some states, you may only have one year to file a personal injury lawsuit after a car accident, according to the American Bar Association (ABA). Therefore, if you’re not satisfied with the way your claim is being handled or the offered settlement, you may need to hire an attorney before your time limit runs out.

When not to hire a lawyer

Hiring an attorney isn't necessary to receive a fair claim settlement. You probably don't need to retain counsel if the accident was a minor fender bender and you weren’t injured. Injuries resulting from accidents are often not severe enough to warrant the outright rejection of a car insurance company's first offer.

When to seek counsel

There are cases in which hiring an attorney may be the next logical step. If there's a dispute about who's at fault in the accident, consulting with an attorney may be prudent. Also, if someone is seriously injured in an accident, seeking legal counsel is a good idea, according to the ABA.

If you're involved in an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist, you should always retain counsel, the ABA suggests. Again, each state has set a limited time to file suit against an uninsured or underinsured motorist.

A lawyer can help you navigate this process without losing money to which you may be entitled. The two main questions to ask yourself before retaining counsel are: "What settlement will I be happy with?" and "Am I going to do better or worse with an attorney?" The first question is easy to answer. The second is unforeseeable. The case's jurisdiction (where your case is based and the laws that apply to it), your individual circumstances and your willingness to settle are all factors that make the outcome of any case impossible to predict.

The lawyer's cut

money stackingMost personal injury lawyers work on a contingency basis and don't charge a fee for an initial consultation. However, expect to give up a portion of your settlement to your attorney. If your case is complex, plan on paying a lot more to your lawyer. According to the ABA, a typical contingency fee charged by a lawyer could be 25 to 33 percent if the case is settled without a trial or 33 to 40 percent if it goes to court. Some lawyers may charge a certain percentage fee regardless of whether a court trial is necessary. Also, in some states, contingency fees for certain types of cases are limited by law. Check with your state consumer affairs office for more information.

How long till I get my money?

If you don't hire an attorney and instead accept what the car insurance company offers, you can expect to receive the money rather quickly.

"It totally depends on the claim," says Dick Luedke, spokesperson for State Farm. "If it's a fender bender, it may take a day or two, but if it's a liability claim and winds up in court, it can take years."

If you decide to hire an attorney and fight a case in court, it will take much longer. In highly populated areas where the courts are packed, a verdict issued three or four years from the date of the accident is not uncommon.