Cedric Stephens | Consult the experts before settling personal injury claims
QUESTION: I suffered a work-related injury in 2015. Two discs slipped, and one was torn. The specialist told me that the injuries were quite serious. That fact, however, was not highlighted in the written report. I was laid off in November 2016 after returning to work. I have been unable to find a job that will not aggravate my injuries. Last year, I turned down an overseas farm-work job opportunity. The insurance company offered to pay me $900,000-plus. Should I accept it?
K.M., Kingston 5
INSURANCE HELPLINE: My short answer is no. Not without the advice of an attorney. Your injuries can have long-lasting medical, economic, and other effects. It would be unwise to accept the insurer's offer without the approval of a lawyer and input from a doctor who specialises in the treatment of spinal injuries.
Lay persons like you and me do not have the know-how, training, or experience to properly handle this kind of claim. The insurer's offer was not pulled out of a hat. It was calculated using rules that are known only to members of the legal fraternity. To accept compensation for your injuries under the present conditions would probably be of more benefit to the insurer and your former employer than you.
Most persons who pose questions like yours tell me they do not know any lawyers, or don't trust them, or cannot afford them, or might ask me to suggest one. My response is always the same. I do not recommend attorneys. This is not the purpose of this column. I will instead offer you and other persons who have similar problems some general guidelines on how to choose an attorney. About ten years ago, I provided the similar advice to another reader whose relative was killed in a car crash. Today's article is an update of the one I wrote on September 20, 2009.
The General Legal Council (GLC) supervises the conduct of lawyers in Jamaica under powers granted by law. Persons who retain the services of attorneys should be aware of this.
The GLC's disciplinary committee handles client complaints. The council also has the authority to impose penalties and take away attorneys' privilege to practise. Its website contains a list of the names of the attorneys that are licensed to practice as at March 14, 2018.
One can also find out from the list when each practitioner was first approved to practise. First-time users of lawyers who do their homework do not have to operate in the dark or rely solely on the advice of family members or friends.
The website of the Jamaican Bar Association (JBA) should also have been another source of information for non-lawyers. It is not. The JBA is a voluntary organisation for lawyers. Even though some persons have negative things to say about the profession much in the same way consumers criticise professionals in the banking and insurance industries - one of JBA's functions is to "promote the integrity and good name of the legal profession". its website does not contain anything of interest to laypersons, unlike its US counterpart, the American Bar Association.
The JBA site offers absolutely no guidance on how to choose an attorney. This is most surprising given the emphasis that is now being placed on small and medium-sized enterprises.
WHAT TO KNOW
Here are some things that you should do before deciding to retain the services of an attorney:
1. The lawyer's job is to help you solve your problem. You should feel comfortable with him or her. Decide based on your interactions with them, the expertise, and experience they bring to the problem and not just on the say-so of a trusted relative or friend or the fact that you know them socially.
2. Shortlist three to five lawyers and meet with them individually.
3. A lawyer will meet with you briefly or talk with you by phone so that you can get to know each other. The meeting offers you a chance to get more information before deciding. In most cases, no fee is charged for the initial consultation. However, it is wise to find this out before the meeting.
4. Some persons may feel intimidated or become nervous during the meeting. Do not allow this to happen. Prepare for the meeting and remember the old saying: 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. Pay very close attention to how carefully the lawyer listens. Some lawyers are highly skilled talkers but are very poor listeners and doers.
5. Ask questions about the lawyer's experience and areas of practice. What are the most common types of problems they handle? Are most of their clients businesses or individuals? How are fees charged by the hour, by the type of case, or a percentage of the amount won? if the latter, what percentage? Can the fees be financed? What is the possible outcome of the case? What is the estimated time for completion based on an out-of-court settlement or if the matter goes to trial? How will you be kept abreast of the matter and by what means?
6. Look around the office to get a sense of how well it is organised and how technology is used or not used to manage operations. Big stacks of files lying on desks, filing cabinets, or on the floors should tell you about the type of service you can expect, especially if you are dealing with a one-man show.
After you have gone through this exercise a few times, you should be in a much better position to turn over the handling of your claim to a lawyer of your own choosing.
- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: email@example.com