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LIFE ON WHEELS

After Accident, Biggest Pain in Neck May Be Winning a Settlement

February 02, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"Hit me--I need the money."

If you're one of the people who drive around with those words affixed to your bumper, we have to talk.

In 1986-87, the most recent period for which numbers are available, 90,839 people in California filed suit after automobile accidents.

According to Patty Lombard, a spokeswoman for the Western Insurance Information Service in Tustin, the figure includes injury, death and property damage claims.

That works out to an average of 16.4 bodily injury claims per 1,000 vehicles, Lombard says, citing another study. The study, published last year, looked at 10 California cities from 1984 to 1987.

But the two Orange County cities surveyed, Anaheim and Santa Ana, had about 20 claims per 1,000 vehicles, about 26% higher than the state average.

According to the Judicial Council of California, the number of auto accident-related lawsuits increased 81% between 1982 and 1986, and, according to the RAND Corp., they account for 43% of all civil cases.

On Jan. 28, 1986, I was swept up in this trend when another driver plowed her car into mine. And last week--that's right, 3 years later--I cashed my settlement check. It's not a whopping sum, but then I'm not in a wheelchair either. My settlement was higher than the average bodily injury claim payment, which was $6,505 in 1987, according to Lombard. Because the case went to arbitration, my attorney took 40% off the top. If it had been settled sooner, he would have only gotten a third.

I got hit; I got some money. But I would much rather have sat the whole thing out.

I was on my way home from work, stuck in a 6 p.m. traffic jam, dead still, foot on the brake, when suddenly I heard, and felt, the ominous crunch of metal upon metal. This was followed immediately by another crunch as my car was shoved into the car in front of me. The seat belt held everything but my head in place. I saw stars and blacked out.

Besides some nerve damage in my left wrist and a concussion, I suffered a severe flexion-extension injury to the cervical spine, more popularly known as whiplash. I don't know who started the myth that whiplash is a joke, but I would love to take him out in the alley. I used to think it was a joke too, despite my training as an emergency medical technician and the time I spent on an ambulance crew, hauling accident victims to the hospital. But I don't find whiplash laughable anymore.

The pain in my neck has diminished, but I have come to accept that it will never go away.

I was lucky; my injuries weren't devastating and my case was clear-cut. I even spared myself a lot of trouble by agreeing to settle when I did, without waiting the estimated 2 more years (that would have been 5 in all) for a trial. In so doing, I also saved you some money; the average cost to taxpayers for a jury trial in an injury case is $8,300, according to the RAND Corp.

Four of us were taken to the hospital from the scene: me, the woman who hit me and the two women in the car she pushed me into. After X-rays confirmed that I had no broken bones, the emergency room staff wrapped a foam collar around my neck and sent me home.

A couple of days later, this nice lady from the other driver's insurance company paid me a visit. She smiled and handed me a bunch of papers to sign, assuring me that because her company's client was clearly at fault, there would be no quibbling and they would take care of everything.

She also told me that I had 1 year from the date of the accident to file suit.

"I certainly don't want to do that, " I said, scribbling my name next to every X.

My injuries turned out to be more extensive than the doctors first thought. I spent a week in the hospital and lost 3 1/2 months of work. I almost lost my job as well. I went through months of physical therapy. They stuck my head in a sling and attached me to a machine that yanked on it. They attached electrodes to my skin and ran a current through me to try to block the pain. I tried chiropractic treatments, acupuncture and self-hypnosis. I went through tests so painful that I screamed. There's more, but you get the idea.

The nice insurance lady stopped being so nice after a few months, so I consulted an attorney. He put together a thick letter detailing my suffering, along with a demand based on a lot of factors, including the fact that I was an upstanding citizen with a good driving record and no history of neck problems.

By mid-December of that year, the other insurance company came back with an offer that did not even cover my medical expenses. A month later we filed suit.

I got long lists of questions in the mail that I had to answer under oath, everything from my marital history to my high school achievements. The insurance company subpoenaed everything it could think of, even my gynecologist's records. I felt like I was on trial.

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