What is a personal injury attorney?

Tamara E. Holmes

If you're ever injured as a result of another person's wrongdoing or negligence, you could end up with financial losses because of medical bills or even lost income because you're unable to work. A personal injury attorney can help you recoup those costs.

Personal injury attorneys specialize in tort law, which focuses on civil wrongs rather than criminal offenses. The goal of tort law is to provide relief to the injured person, while also discouraging others from committing the same type of act.

Many personal injury attorneys handle legal cases involving car accidents.

When seeking a settlement for a client in court, a personal injury attorney considers pain and suffering, says William Seegmiller, a personal injury attorney and owner of The Seegmiller Law Firm in Newport Beach, Calif. That could include physical injuries as well as psychological pain. Other factors that could go into the type of settlement a personal injury attorney tries to get include economic losses such as lost wages and rental car expenses.

Sometimes punitive damages - money awarded to punish the defendant and deter others from committing the same action - are a part of a settlement.

When to hire a personal injury attorney

Even if you don't intend to sue someone for damages, a personal injury attorney can help you negotiate the best settlement from a car insurance company, says Lynette Simmons Hoag, a personal injury attorney in Chicago. An insurance company may volunteer to pay your medical bills, "but they may not say, ‘You're entitled to lost wages and pain and suffering,'" Hoag says.

If you're seriously injured because of a motorist's extreme carelessness and intend to sue the other driver for an amount exceeding what his or her insurance company is obligated to pay, a personal injury attorney can guide you through the process.

A personal injury attorney should be contacted as soon after an accident as possible because he or she can anticipate problems. For example, someone who doesn't seek medical treatment immediately after an accident may have trouble getting reimbursed later for the medical bills because it will be more difficult to prove that the injury was related to the accident, Hoag says.

The involvement of a personal injury attorney also may give an insurer an incentive to settle a case faster to avoid the hassle and expense of a lawsuit. Most cases are settled before they reach the lawsuit stage, Hoag says. And once they get to that stage, most cases are settled before going to trial.