I often hear some version of the following question from CADIs shortly after their accident: “I don’t need a lawyer, do I?” I am not a legal expert, and the circumstances of the accident matter tremendously, but I generally advise consulting a lawyer sooner rather than later.
This advice often leads to disagreement. “If I get a lawyer, it’s like an admission of guilt,” or “My insurance company said their lawyer will represent me,” or, “If the victim’s family finds out I have a lawyer, they’ll be even angrier and that will make everything worse,” or, “I’d rather wait and see what happens. I’ll get a lawyer if I get arrested (or sued).” And, consulting a lawyer means you’ll have to tell the whole horrible story to a near-stranger, and that can feel overwhelming. And, of course, lawyers cost money.
I still recommend consulting a attorney. Doing so does not mean you’re guilty, it means you recognize that you have landed in a very complicated situation, that the consequences for you and your family can be serious, and that you may not be thinking very clearly in the midst of this trauma. A lawyer can help you in a variety of ways — by providing information, for example, about the accident investigation and possible consequences, by advising you on how to respond, and, if necessary, by representing you if you are charged with a crime or sued. A lawyer assigned by your insurance company can do some of this — but at the end of the day, that lawyer is working for the insurance company, not for you, and there may be times when your interests will diverge.
It’s important to find a lawyer that will listen to you and consult you at critical junctures. For example, you should talk with your lawyer about whether or how to negotiate a financial settlement. Some lawyers will advise you not to express any words of apology, since that could be interpreted as an admission of responsibility. On the other hand, some lawyers will help convey such messages if the victim or his/her family are open to receiving them. Some lawyers are knowledgeable about “restorative justice,” in which alternatives to financial settlements and/or jail time are considered, such as public service. If finding the right lawyer feels overwhelming, you can ask a friend or family member for help — they want to support you and might welcome an opportunity to hear from an attorney.
Keep in mind that the victim’s family is also traumatized and their thinking will evolve. I know of situations in which, months later (but before the statute of limitations expired), lawsuits were filed, even though this seemed very unlikely in the weeks immediately following the accident.
In short, my attitude is that it is better to consult an attorney and find out later you didn’t need the help than to not have an attorney and find out later you did need the help.
Have you had good or bad experiences with lawyers? Write and tell me about it. Thank you, and take care.