From vehicle damage and physical injuries to medical bills, missed work, and insurance settlements, navigating the legal landscape of an auto accident can be a confusing process. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. Benjamin Pepper (Ben Pepper), of the Law Office of Benjamin A. Pepper, PLLC, is a personal injury lawyer who helps clients receive fair compensation for medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering and other damages caused by serious accidents.
Pepper works on a contingency fee basis, meaning that clients pay him nothing out of pocket. When Pepper recovers compensation for a client in an injury claim, Pepper simply receives a percentage of that amount as attorneys’ fees. The majority of the money goes to the client. In a successful injury case, rather than the client paying an attorney money up front as in most other areas of law, the attorney—Pepper—will be the one writing a check to his client at the end of the case. And in the unlikely event that Pepper fails to recover anything for a client, the client owes him no attorneys’ fees at all. “Clients don’t pay a penny in attorneys’ fees unless we recover compensation for them,” Pepper says. And, he emphasizes, “the case belongs to the client, so what constitutes a fair settlement is ultimately the client’s decision. I will provide my professional opinion and advice, of course, but my clients ultimately determine what is best for them and their families.”
Pepper takes pride in being open and honest with prospective clients about whether they really need his help. If they may end up better off without a lawyer, Pepper will not hesitate to tell them. But whether or not his services are needed, Pepper has plenty of thoughts to share regarding pre-accident auto insurance and post-accident insurance claims. Here are a few important things to consider:
#1: Don’t Be Underinsured
If you’re driving around with the minimum amount of insurance our state requires, you’re putting yourself (and potentially your family) at the mercy of other drivers’ insurance choices. State minimums require $10,000 per incident in property damage liability coverage and $25,000 per person in bodily injury liability coverage. There are no requirements, however, that drivers have either personal injury protection (PIP) coverage or uninsured/under-insured motorist (UIM) coverage. In brief, PIP coverage pays for your medical bills up front, so that you can get the medical treatment you need immediately, when you need it. And UIM coverage ensures that money is available to fairly compensate you even if the driver who caused the accident had little or no liability insurance coverage. Pepper goes over the details and importance of PIP and UIM coverage in an article on his website. He provides further information on PIP and UIM coverage in another, related article.
Pepper has spoken with potential clients who have been seriously injured—or even lost loved ones—in accidents where the driver who caused the accident had little or no insurance, and the potential client lacked PIP or UIM coverage. In those cases, there is often little that any attorney can do to help the victim (or the victim’s family in the case of a fatal accident giving rise to a wrongful death claim) recover fair compensation.
That’s exactly why proper insurance is so important in the event of a serious accident. Pepper says that it’s most common to have $10,000 in PIP coverage and $100,000 in UIM coverage, although he recommends maintaining as much as you can afford—particularly when it comes to UIM.
“When you buy insurance, you are paying by far the most money for the first minimum amount required by state law,” he says. “That’s where around 90 or more percent of your premiums are going, because that’s what gets used the most. So as a general rule, the price difference between a policy that’s just the bare minimum and a policy that’s comprehensive and truly protects you and your family is not that much. For every increase in coverage, you should see an incrementally smaller increase in premiums.”
While many people simply decline PIP and UIM coverages to save money on premiums, Pepper says it will be worth every penny if they ever need it. As the saying goes, “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
#2: Need Medical Care? Get It
Pepper can also help clients access medical care after an accident, even if they have no PIP coverage or health insurance. Once again, having PIP insurance is handy, because it pays for immediate medical needs without worry about deductibles, co-pays, or other out-of-pocket expenses, he says. PIP can also help if your health insurance doesn’t cover something specific like physical therapy or other rehabilitative treatments.
Pepper recommends diligently seeking an accurate assessment of possible injuries following a crash and even getting a second opinion if needed. “If you are not at fault for the accident, and the other party had sufficient insurance or you had UIM coverage, go to the ER if it is recommended,” he says. “ER bills can be expensive and intimidating, but part of my job is to do everything possible to help you avoid paying out of your own pocket.”
Pepper has several ways to ensure that clients pay little to nothing up front for medical treatment. He can work with some medical providers to hold bills until a claim is settled, and similarly can often arrange a providers’ “lien” agreement or “letter of guarantee.” This contract with a medical provider allows bills to be sent to Pepper’s office (rather than to his client) with the promise of eventual payment once the claim is resolved.
Still, Pepper knows that no amount of money can make up for most injuries, some of which may permanently alter a person’s life. “Your health is priceless,” he says. “Every one of my clients would say that they would gladly go back in time to not experience what happened to them. Money is unfortunately all that the law can offer; the legal system cannot go back in time to prevent the injury. But at the very least, financial compensation can pay for past and future medical treatment. It can feed a client’s family and pay the rent and bills if the client can’t work because of the injury. It can compensate the client for pain and suffering and missed time with family and friends or other negative impacts on the client’s life. It can definitely make many things easier and much less stressful.”
#3: Don’t Sign Anything Right Away
Pepper recently had a potential client who wanted to re-open a claim following a car accident. She initially seemed unhurt except for minor whiplash, and quickly settled with her insurance company. After settling for a very small amount, she found out that her injuries were more extensive than she had thought: She now needed surgery. Unfortunately, Pepper had to tell her there was nothing that could be done. She had already settled her claim for pennies on the dollar by accepting the quick money and signing a settlement and release agreement.
Insurance companies will commonly offer quick cash, presumably in the hope that an injury victim will take it before finding out the true extent and financial and physical impact of their injuries, especially if the extent of those injuries isn’t readily apparent, Pepper says. This is where patience comes in, as waiting longer to settle can mean more money and, most importantly, a fair outcome. In short, be quick to seek medical diagnosis and treatment, but be patient in settling your claim. “In most circumstances, if the accident happened in Washington State, you have three years to pursue a claim,” he says. “Always consult with a licensed personal injury attorney before settling an injury claim; if you accept the quick money and sign a release, you may very well be settling your claim for a tiny fraction of what it is really worth.”
#4: Don’t Hesitate to Seek Help
Pepper frequently meets with people who express hesitation or even feelings of guilt about getting help from an attorney and seeking compensation for their injuries. He re-assures them, however, that they are simply seeking to be treated fairly—just like everyone else. The stereotype of personal injury lawyers being “ambulance chasers,” or their clients wanting to “milk the system,” isn’t accurate at all, he says.
The infamous “McDonald’s hot coffee” lawsuit—in which a woman spilled hot coffee in her lap and then sued McDonalds—is often brought up as an example of litigious greed. But the truth, Pepper says, is often obscured in the telling.
The woman in question didn’t just burn herself; she suffered severe third-degree burns on her legs and genitals from the near-boiling liquid, and required surgeries and skin grafts. The woman simply wanted McDonalds to cover her medical bills and lost wages, which totaled more than $20,000. McDonalds offered her only $800. So the case went to trial.
At the jury trial, the evidence showed—in addition to the woman’s severe injuries and surgeries/skin grafts—that hundreds of other people had been burned by McDonalds coffee that was kept too hot to be safe, but McDonalds did nothing in response. The jury heard that a McDonalds operations manual required that the coffee be kept at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to cause third-degree burns in seconds. (Coffee is normally served between 135 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.) The woman was awarded nearly $3 million by the jury, but the verdict was eventually reduced by 80 percent (to around $600,000). Many people would likely agree that $600,000 is hardly excessive compensation for third-degree burns to the genitals, surgeries and skin grafts, and permanent pain, scarring, and disfigurement—all of which could have been prevented by McDonalds. As one article detailing the case concludes, if we look at the real story and all of the facts, the McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit “was not so ‘frivolous’ after all.”
The point is that personal injury law is simply about ordinary, good people fighting for what is fair.
Moreover, for Pepper, that doesn’t just mean obtaining money for his clients, but also helping them obtain the medical treatment they need and alleviating the stress of complicated logistics such as mounting medical bills, health insurance issues, missed work, and phone calls and pressure from insurance adjusters. “Don’t feel bad about hiring an attorney and asserting your rights,” he says. “You’re not gaming the system, and you’re not taking advantage of anyone. I won’t represent someone who is lying and just out for money, and I almost never see anything like that. But accidents do happen, and they can devastate lives and families. In those circumstances, what’s fair is fair. That’s why we pay for insurance in the first place.”
Ultimately, Pepper says: “I am here to help people going through one of the most difficult times in their lives navigate a complicated and often frustrating system to reach a fair outcome. Yes, one of my jobs is to recover money for my clients. But again, health is priceless. I consider it equally important to take as much stress off of my clients’ shoulders as possible. I often tell new clients that, after hiring me, they don’t ever need to take another call from an insurance adjuster or bill collector or anyone else pressing them for money or information. They can simply say, ‘talk to my attorney,’ and focus on their health and their families. My office will take care of the rest.”
PLEASE NOTE: This article is not intended to provide legal advice, and is no substitute for speaking with a licensed attorney. If you have been injured in a car accident or other motor vehicle accident and have questions, please contact a licensed personal injury attorney. You can reach Ben Pepper at his office, the Law Office of Benjamin A. Pepper, PLLC, by phone at 360-733-3966 or online at https://bpepperlaw.com.