One of the reasons some people don't like lawyers is that lawyers are usually needed when something has gone afoul. Whether it is a traffic accident, a business partnership on the rocks or the death of a loved one who has a complicated estate, you often need a lawyer's advice when you are distraught, grief-stricken or in a state of shock.
Perhaps the most distressing time you need to consider using a lawyer is when a family member has been killed or injured in an accident. It is difficult enough dealing with the personal tragedy, but other decisions, such as having to negotiate with insurance companies, choosing a lawyer to file a lawsuit or figuring out who's going to pay the medical bills, can be overwhelming.
That is especially true for the families of victims of airline disasters. Now, a national legal reform group has prepared an "Air Crash Kit" to help these families respond to what it calls the multimillion dollar "tug of war" between "ambulance-chasing" lawyers and airlines' insurance companies.
The group--known as HALT, an Organization of Americans for Legal Reform--is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, with more than 100,000 members. The kit includes a victim's family bill of rights and a well-written handbook that explains how to deal with lawyers and insurance companies and how to negotiate on your own for a good settlement.
Although the kit is directed at families of airline-disaster victims, much of the advice would serve as prudent counsel for the families of victims of other accidents as well.
The group warns about the dangers of contingency fees, the normal compensation package lawyers use in accident cases. The lawyer is paid a percentage, typically about one-third, of the money you recover. The group concedes that lawyers usually can get you more money than you would be able to get yourself if you negotiated directly with the airline-insurance company, but cautions that the increase may not be enough to cover the lawyer's percentage.
The group advises that you should negotiate for a lower contingency fee, especially because the theory behind such fees is not as valid in airline-disaster cases as in other accident cases.
The theory is that because you only pay your lawyer if you win, the lawyer is sharing in the risk that you will lose. But in air-crash cases, the group says, some recovery is virtually certain, so the lawyer does not risk losing.
If you can't get a reduced percentage, try for a sliding scale, so that the percentage decreases as the amount of the award increases. Or hire a lawyer on an hourly basis to review documents, file a suit or advise you about a proposed settlement offered by the airline.
HALT does not limit its criticism to lawyers. "Our research also shows that, when it comes to ethics, insurers and airlines are no better," HALT executive director Glenn Nishimura explained in a prepared statement.
"For example, they try to make friends with victims, lavishing them with caring, in order to disarm them into revealing information that is later used against them. Victims need to be warned about this too and advised how to handle it."
Right to Be Let Alone
HALT reminds victims that they have a right to be let alone and don't have to talk to disaster lawyers or airline representatives until they are good and ready. "Deal with your pain and loss first," the booklet advises; there is no need to rush.
Other pieces of advice:
--Don't worry about contacting the airlines; they'll shower you with attention.
--If you're offered an "emergency allowance" from the airline, you can accept it, but don't sign anything except a receipt for the money.
--Don't accept the first settlement offer you receive.
--Keep records of all your contacts with the insurance companies.
--Bring a trusted friend along and interview several lawyers, but don't sign a retainer agreement during your first interview.
The kit is available free of charge to commercial-airline disaster victims and their families. Others can purchase it for $10. Send your request to HALT Inc., 1319 F St. N.W., Suite 300, Washington D.C. 20004. The telephone number is (202) 347-9600.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.