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Ask Our Lawyer - December 1999

Q: I just had a traffic accident ? do I need a lawyer right now?

A: Well, that depends. First, it never hurts to call and talk to someone at your ABATE Legal Services. You can get some valuable starting points that way. Most traffic accidents fall into four categories: property damage only, minor injury, moderate injury and major injury. These classifications aren_t exact, but can be useful guidelines. (Of course, this discussion presumes that you weren_t at fault and there is some insurance coverage available.)
1. Property damage only: Almost always, no lawyer needed, except when a special edition or customized bike is involved. The damage to the car or bike is readily evaluated, and the insurance company will make a settlement based on the value of the property and the policy provisions. There may be a little room for negotiations, but generally, the estimates will dictate the settlement. If you have trouble call us.
2. Minor injury: Generally, no lawyer needed. But, if the insurance company is not responsive, call us. We can help. In these types of accidents, the injured person has bumps and bruises, and may be a bit sore, but has no symptoms that last more than a week, and will have lost no more than a couple of days off work. Oftentimes, the medical claims will be only for a brief visit to the hospital to be checked out after the accident, a follow?up visit to the family doctor, and some pain medication or muscle relaxants. In these cases, the insurance company will make a settlement offer after you have been released from treatment by the doctor. The settlement will generally include the medical bills, lost wages, and an amount to compensate you for your pain and inconvenience. The amount of the settlement will be negotiable, and the insurance company may not make an offer unless you have made a demand first. Make sure that your communications with the claims adjuster are in writing, and keep your demands reasonable. We can assist you with a proper evaluation.
3. Moderate injury: A lawyer is needed. These injuries are ones that may debilitate for a period of time, or may lead to life?long impairments of a part of the body, but are not life?threatening. The lost wages may be significant, or the calculation of the pain and suffering damages may be complex. Our office will be able to negotiate with the insurance company and secure the best compensation for you. If a suit is necessary, we can represent your interests most effectively in the litigation process.
4. Serious injury: You should always contact a lawyer. These cases involve life? changing or fatal accidents. There are many complex issues that will have to be evaluated and considered. Without an attorney, you could be at a serious disadvantage.

Q: How do I start a business?

A: Generally, that's the wrong question. Anyone can start a business, and the manners in which that can be done are as varied as the people employing them. However, some general principles can help us understand the process. The first question to answer is whether you want to incorporate. We will address the many issues for this question in further detail in our next column. Some people may shy away from incorporation because they think the process is too complex or time consuming. Actually, the incorporation process is straightforward. Forms are available at the Secretary of State_s office and can be completed by almost anyone. Once you complete and file the form and select a name for the corporation (one not in use in the state already) and pay the filing fee, the business incorporated. There are additional issues regarding the conduct of the business that you should ask your attorney about, but the actual process is simple.

Q: I have a problem with the car I bought ? what do I do?

A: Many times, a buyer will have a problem with a item purchased, be it a car, an appliance, or a vacation. Generally, these cases involve amounts that make hiring an attorney impractical. Fortunately, there is an alternative. The Indiana Attorney General_s Office maintains a Consumer Protection Division [800?382?5516] (other states have similar offices, as well). The staff will investigate your complaint and attempt to mediate a resolution. If there has been a violation of law, the complaint will be referred to the litigation section for further investigation. If you don_t get results, call us.

Q: I just got fired. Can they do that?

A: That will depend on the jurisdiction. Without a contract between the employee and the employer, some states, including Indiana, maintain the _employment?at?will_ doctrine. The short definition of that doctrine is that an employer may terminate an employee_s employment for any legal reason at any time, without cause. Of course, those reasons cannot include age, race or sex discrimination, or retaliatory firings for some whistle? blowers. In those cases, there may be remedies through the EEOC or other government agencies. If you need help getting to the proper agency, call us.

Q: I want to sue someone in small claims court. Do I need a lawyer?

A: Generally, no. The small claims court procedure is simplified so that individuals may represent themselves. In addition, the judges in small claims courts are understanding and work to make the process understandable to the unrepresented party. The forms needed for the case are available through the court clerk_s office, and court staff may be available to explain the forms to you. If you have questions, call us.

Q: I need a lawyer that specializes in child custody cases. How can I find someone?
A: Most county bar associations maintain a referral service. When you call the referral number, tell them what kind of lawyer you need. The referral staff will provide you with a list of lawyers with experience in the particular field you have requested. We maintain a list of those numbers, call us.

Q: I_ve been stopped by a cop. Do I need to let him look at the serial numbers on the frame of my bike?

A: Probably. If the numbers are visible on the frame, the officer is within his authority to examine them. If, however, those numbers are covered, the officer may be required to obtain a search warrant before examining those numbers. Be warned, however, that the law on this issue is unsettled. For example, Indiana makes it a violation to alter the number, but the law is silent on whether you can cover the number with tape or a sticker of some sort. However, Missouri had made it illegal to cover the number, although the constitutionality of that statute is questionable.

If you are an ABATE member and have legal questions, email us at michaelab@iquest.net.