As a practicing personal injury lawyer for over 35 years, I often get asked the question, “Can I reopen my case?” Unfortunately the answer is always “no.” Once a settlement offer has been accepted, a release has been signed and sent to the insurance carrier, the claim has forever come to an end.
A big misconception some accident victims have is that the lawyer settles the case. The only person who can settle a case is the accident victim himself. A lawyer can communicate the offer made by the insurance company; he can recommend the offer be accepted; but until the client signs a general release that is tendered to the insurance carrier, there is no settlement.
I once had a car accident victim, a young male pedestrian, call me about reopening his case. Apparently he was stuck by a vehicle and sustained a knee injury. He called a lawyer he found in the Yellow Pages. The lawyer sent a representative to the victim’s home and a retainer was signed. The lawyer arranged for the accident victim to see a physical therapist. After about three months of treatment, the accident victim received a letter from the lawyer stating the insurance company had offered $5000 to settle the case. Included with the letter was a general release for the client’s signature, along with a return envelope.
This accident victim never met his lawyer nor ever spoke with him by phone. The lawyer was a well-known “high volume” lawyer who basically ran a settlement mill. The accident victim signed the release and returned it to the lawyer. Within a few weeks, the victim received a check by mail representing his share of the settlement proceeds.
To make a long story short, the pedestrian continued to have knee pain to the point where he needed knee surgery. As this accident happened in New York, even though the case was settled, the car insurance company still was liable for the medical bills. But the client thought he should have gotten more than $5000 to settle his case. And he was right, his case was worth much more than he settled for!
I asked why he had signed the release and he replied because that’s what the lawyer settled the case for. I explained to him that the lawyer was simply relaying to him a settlement offer. I could see his confusion, though, because of the accompanying general release. I also asked why he hadn’t spoken with his lawyer about the continuing knee pain and he told me because the physical therapist discharged him.
There are two morals to this story. One, never hire a “high volume” accident lawyer from the Yellow Pages who runs a settlement mill. And, two, you the client, always decides when your case is settled. Do not be in a rush to settle. Before agreeing to any settlement offer, your medical treatment should be at an end and the full extent of your injury should be known.
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