Lawyer's Sloppiness May Have Screwed Up My Case...Recourse?
February 6, 2013 12:04 PM   Subscribe

The lawyer I hired to negotiate a settlement for injuries suffered in an auto accident sent a letter to the other driver's insurance company that contained the name of another client copied and pasted into my letter, plus an incorrect and inflated amount of damages (possibly from the other client's case). Has this sloppiness jeopardized my case? What can I do about it? Bonus question: After pointing out these errors, the lawyer will not return my calls.

In case that's not enough detail, the injuries I suffered in the accident are fairly minor but permanent. The other driver was at fault and her insurance company accepted liability and offered a settlement of $22,000. I didn't think that was enough but couldn't get them to budge so I hired this attorney for a fixed fee ($1,000) to negotiate a better settlement. Unfortunately I did not make the attorney write down all the details of my arrangement with him, though I do have some e-mails from him discussing the case and a copy of the sloppy letter he sent to the insurance company.

I'd really like to be done with this, so hiring another lawyer to sue this one does not appeal to me even though he may have messed up my chances (which he previously said were pretty good) for a better settlement. Is there a way I could motivate him to refund what I paid for him so I can just move on? I am thinking about filing a complaint with the local or state Bar association, but don't know if that's effective or if mentioning it will sound like an extortion threat.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You have a lot of questions here. The sloppy letter has probably tipped the other side off to the fact that your attorney doesn't know your case terribly well and/or doesn't proof things very well, but if he's churning out a ton of letters like this, it's probably not a surprise to the other side. So this isn't a fatal blow or anything. Beyond that, it's tough to say what you should do about it or what actions may get you the result you want unless or until you hear back from him.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:15 PM on February 6, 2013

What is your rating of disability? I was 5% disabled after my accident (it went up after the fact, but no one has a crystal ball) and we settled on $35,000 in 1993.

Typically these things are determined by your medical bills and cost for missed work times 5.

So if you sum up those charges, what's the total?

It it's in the neighborhood of $22,000, take the money from the insurance company and move on. If it's more, YOU might be able to negotiate that yourself. If it's a LOT more, you need another lawyer, a personal injury lawyer. This person will deal with the insurance company. Usually they take 1/3rd of the settlement, so there's an incentive to really get a good amount of money.

Never do business with a lawyer who won't give you EVERYTHING in writing, appropriately. That includes a retainer agreement.

Try contacting him one more time to get a status on your case. If he won't call back, sue him for a refund in Small Claims court.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:18 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Depending on what State you're in, you may be able to initate a formal fee dispute through the local bar association. Fee dispute proceedings are a low cost and easy way to resolve fee disputes between attorneys and clients. Most will involve an arbitrator. They'll look at what you paid for legal services and the value provided and a decision will be made as to whether you're entitled to a full or partial refund.

If you want a refund, the attorney is not returning your calls, and you don't want to initiate a full-throttle malpractice case, a fee dispute is a great alternative provided that your State offers such a program.

Fee disputes only involve the fees you paid to the attorney. They generally cannot compensate you for harm caused by your attorneys actions.

For a general overview, check out how the CA Bar fee dispute program works

I don't practice in personal injury, so I have no comment on the specifics of your issues.
posted by Arbac at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's unlikely that the sloppy letter screwed up your case. It was just a demand letter; your lawyer can re-send an edited version with the appropriate amounts. The insurance company is more concerned about the merits of your case and the fact that you are actually negotiating via a lawyer (suggesting they may face the expensive prospect of litigation) than they are with trying to assess how much of a clown the opposing counsel is. Believe me, having a terrible lawyer on the other side often makes litigation more expensive, not less.

The more serious problem is that your attorney is not returning your calls. Attorneys have an obligation to keep in touch with their clients. If your attorney persists in not contacting you, your resource is through the state bar association (ie, the organization that licenses and regulates attorneys) not the local bar association which is more of an industry trade group. I would give this lawyer more time to make this right before I started to sink more money and effort into this case. Is there any kind of immediate deadline you're facing (ie, statute of limitations)?

It's sort of unfortunate that it's unclear what your agreement with him was. I mean, does he get the $1000 even if he doesn't negotiate a settlement? Once you reach the point where you're fed up with him, yes, go through the bar association. They are very likely to have a process to make complaints that might even include a dispute resolution process that you can participate in.
posted by MoonOrb at 12:31 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it is sloppy but otherwise not a big deal to your case.

"Unfortunately I did not make the attorney write down all the details of my arrangement with him" is utterly bizarre to me. I will not start the first second of work on a case without an engagement letter; no ethical lawyer would do otherwise.

The bigger problem is that the lawyer is blowing you off. The most common grievance that clients report to the bar is "my lawyer won't communicate with me". Send your letter a letter or email saying that you will be grieving him for failure to communicate if he does not communicate with you by X date.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:34 PM on February 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

IANAL, although one of my closest friends is. From her description, any personal injury attorney who accepts payment up front is a crappy lawyer, to the point of being a con artist. A decent personal injury lawyer operates on a contingency fee and thus won't accept your case unless she thinks there is a good chance of winning.

Therefore, I don't think this lawyer will be too concerned about his reputation, since he sounds like a Saul Goodman type. Your best bet is probably a state-mandated dispute program (as in Arbac's excellent suggestion).
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:24 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not a lawyer, but I know this: if you live in Oregon, you should visit and look at the information available regarding the Client Assistance Office. They handle issues where a lawyer is not communicating with the client.
posted by tacodave at 3:17 PM on February 6, 2013

Yeah, you need to go to the state bar association in your state to see what your recourse is. The $1,000 flat fee is really weird for personal injury. The PI firm I clerked out charged between 1/4 and 1/3 in contingency fees. Are you sure the $1,000 fee wasn't just an initial retainer?

By the way, it does seem strange that the lawyer doesn't have a written fee agreement, but in my state at least, lawyers get slammed by the bar all the time for it on the discipline write-ups in my bar directory. Probably one of the top 3 bar discipline issues (the other two issues are co-mingling client trust money with earned money, and not communicating with the client.)

Obviously, this is not legal advice, which is why you need to determine on your own whether you're going to hire a different attorney. But whatever you do, do it quickly, as there may be statutes of limitations that are negatively impacted by any delay.
posted by Happydaz at 3:33 PM on February 6, 2013

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