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Impact of COVID-19 on Personal Injury Cases in Washington State

While the novel coronavirus surges through the U.S., many people will continue to suffer injuries in car accidents, slip and falls, workplace injuries and other ordinary events. An accident victim still can bring a personal injury claim to pursue compensation for their injuries during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, they may want to be aware of certain issues that may affect their claim.

One of these issues involves the court system, which has been largely shut down until the emergency ends. Trial dates are being continued months into the future. In King County, judges are doing an excellent job in managing their caseloads in this new environment. Many hearings are handled by phone or by video conferencing. However, delays are inevitable, and litigants should approach their case with patience.

In King County and some, but not all counties around the state, many filings can be accomplished via efiling. A case can be initiated, and future deadlines and trial dates can be scheduled, however most nonemergency hearings will not normally be scheduled. Court rules allow certain motions to be heard without oral argument, which alleviates trips to the courthouse.

A personal injury case thus may not be resolved as efficiently as it would be under normal conditions. A large percentage of personal injury cases settle before going to trial, but many cases proceed through at least one hearing in a court before the parties reach a settlement. Therefore, some accident victims may face delays in getting their case resolved.

Settling a Personal Injury Case
The financial stress caused by the COVID-19 outbreak may motivate many accident victims to settle a case as soon as possible. A victim may urgently need the money from their settlement, especially if they have been furloughed or lost their job. Some insurers may try to exploit this situation by offering an unfairly low settlement. A victim who has suffered serious injuries should think twice before accepting the first offer from the insurer. It likely will not cover the full scope of their losses.

If litigation ensues, a victim also may expect greater resistance than usual from an insurer. Since the insurance industry expects profits to decline as the economy struggles, an insurer will be motivated to minimize the value of a claim and protect their bottom line more aggressively than ever. This could mean that more personal injury cases go to trial or proceed further through litigation. In my experience to date, it has been ”business as usual” with the insurance industry, albeit at a slower pace. Insurance adjusters are working from home and it is not uncommon for insurance adjusters to ask for more time to respond to settlement demands.

In some cases, collecting a compensation award from a defendant may be more challenging than usual. Many businesses are suffering from economic pressure during the outbreak, and a business that is not insured may not be able to pay. If the defendant files for bankruptcy, an accident victim will need to wait a long time to collect their settlement or judgment award, and they may never receive the full amount.

Access to Medical Treatment
To maximize a compensation award in a personal injury case, a victim should receive all necessary medical treatment as recommended by their health care providers. This is because medical documentation is critical to proving the nature and extent of a victim’s injuries.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, many people will feel reluctant to visit a hospital or a doctor’s office for treatment, due to concerns about contracting the virus. These concerns are reasonable, but it is still true that getting treatment is important to the value of a personal injury claim. A victim should try to keep their medical appointments to the extent possible, while maintaining social distancing practices and following CDC recommendations.

Many health care providers are closed or only taking patients with medical emergencies. This can lead to gaps in treatment that, generally speaking, are looked upon disfavorably by insurance adjusters, arbitrators, mediators, judges, or juries.

Since many health care facilities are currently attending to a great number of patients with COVID-19, an accident victim may need to wait longer than usual to receive treatment. This may mean that they should wait to file or settle their case. They will not know the full scope of their damages until they complete their treatment and reach maximum medical improvement. Under these circumstances, it is especially important to review the applicable statute of limitations for personal injury claims. For a detailed discussion, please see this previous post.

Lapses in Insurance Coverage
Due to the deepening COVID-19 related recession, some drivers may not keep up with paying their vehicle insurance premiums. This could result in the loss of coverage, which could complicate the situation of a victim after a car accident. A victim who is struck by an uninsured or underinsured driver may not be able to recover compensation from the driver’s personal assets.

Their only option may involve pursuing benefits through their own uninsured and underinsured motorist policy with their insurer. In these cases, a victim should remember that their insurer is an adverse party and likely will not pay a claim without some resistance. These “first-party” claims may be just as contested as “third-party” claims, and the assistance of an attorney may be just as critical.

In Washington, first party insurers have a number of legal duties they must meet in managing their claims. A duty of “good faith and fairness” is mandated by statute and many insurance companies take this duty seriously and seek fair resolutions for their insureds. Others not so much. It is truly a “case by case basis” and depends on the insurance company, the claimant, the injuries, the claimant’s history of filing claims, the claimant’s prior and subsequent medical history as well as other factors.

An experienced personal injury attorney can assist a claimant in navigating these claims to a successful conclusion.

If you have a question regarding a serious accident, please feel free to contact us to help you determine the best way to proceed.

Burien attorney W. Tracy Codd has been representing persons involved in serious auto accidents since 1987. Call for a free consultation.


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