Personal Injury Claims in California:

Do You Need a Lawyer? How Much Does It Cost?


When you’ve been injured in an accident or any other incident where someone else was to blame, you might be considering filing a personal injury claim for your medical bills and other losses. And you probably want to know whether you need a lawyer’s help and how much it would cost. We surveyed our readers in California to ask them about their experiences with the process—especially with finding and paying for lawyers.

What Do Personal Injury Lawyers Typically Charge in California?

Almost every personal injury lawyer works under a contingency fee agreement. This means that the attorney receives a percentage of what the client gets in the form of a settlement or a court award. If the client doesn’t get any money, neither does the lawyer. Our California readers told us they paid an average contingency fee of 32%. That was the same as other readers across the country, and it’s in line with the industry standard for personal injury lawyers (33.3%).

Of course, actual contingency fees can vary from 25% (or even less) to as much as 40%. Lawyers might agree to fees on the lower end of the spectrum in relatively straightforward cases where it’s likely that the client will receive a settlement. In contrast, a lawyer might insist on a higher percentage for a case that will require more work and resources, or where it’s more of a gamble as to whether the client will wind up receiving compensation.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a PI Claim in California?

As our national survey showed, injured people who hired an attorney were much more likely to receive a personal injury settlement or award—and to walk away with significantly more money—than those who didn't. Yet only about a third of California readers had a lawyer to help them through the process. We can’t know exactly why the other two-thirds of readers didn’t hire attorneys, but many of them (37%) told us that they couldn’t find a lawyer who would take their case. In fact, the time it took to find a lawyer was the most common reason that Californians cited for delays in resolving their personal injury claims.

Why Won’t a PI Lawyer Take my Case?

What might explain so many readers’ difficulties obtaining a lawyer? Attorneys turn down cases for a number of reasons. They simply may not have the time, or they believe a claim wouldn’t be worth the effort—for instance, because the injuries were minor, the other party doesn’t have insurance coverage, or it would be too hard to prove the other side was to blame for the injury.

Our survey results also show that people injured in certain types of incidents have a better chance of finding a lawyer willing to take their case. More than half (56%) of California readers involved in vehicle accidents had legal representation. Lawyers are more likely to accept cases involving car accidents than other types of incidents, in part because drivers are usually insured, so there’s no concern over collecting from an insolvent defendant. Unfortunately, this type of accident is all too common in California. In fact, the California Highway Patrol reports that about 225,000 people are injured each year on the state’s roads and highways.

Readers injured in “slip-and-fall” accidents (which also usually involve insured defendants) were just behind the car accident victims in their odds of gaining legal representation: Just under half of them (45%) had lawyers. In contrast, only about one in ten of readers injured in other kinds of incidents (including fights, defective products, and exposure to mold or other toxins) were represented by lawyers. These cases can be much more complicated and difficult to prove liability, so it’s not very surprising that claimants had a harder time finding an attorney.

What can you do if you’re having trouble getting a lawyer to take your case? If you speak to one attorney who turns you down, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Then you can decide if it’s worth trying again with someone else. (To learn more, see our article on what to do if a personal injury lawyer won't take my case.)

What About Using Small Claims Court in California?

What can you do if you’re handling your personal injury claim on your own—either by choice or because you couldn’t find a lawyer to take your case—and the insurance company keeps denying your claim or refuses to offer you a fair settlement? You might consider filing in small claims court. This option only makes sense if your losses aren’t very high, because state law limits how much you can recover in small claims court, and you won’t be able to appeal if you think the award you received is too low. (The small claims limits change periodically, but you can find the current limit for claims filed by individuals on Nolo’s small claims page or in the California Code of Civil Procedure, section 116.221.)

Despite the dollar limits, small claims court offers several advantages: The forms and procedures are simple, and the process is both quick and inexpensive. In addition, California requires all counties to provide free legal information and assistance with the small claims process. (Find your local assistance center by searching online or in the phone directory for the small claims court within your county’s superior court.) If you decide to go this route, you need to file your small claims action within California’s deadline (or “statute of limitations”) for personal injury lawsuits: two years after the injury.

Filing an action in small claims court might be a good negotiating strategy if the insurance company’s settlement offer is much lower than the limit for small claims. Faced with the possibility of losing in small claims court and having to pay the maximum, the insurer may be more likely to offer you a higher settlement. Also, even though lawyers are generally not allowed in small claims court, you can consult ahead of time with an attorney (who may not want to represent you but might be willing to advise you for an hourly fee). Even a brief consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer might help you strengthen your case.

About This Report

The data referenced above is from Martindale-Nolo Research's 2017 personal injury study, which analyzed survey responses from readers who had personal injury claims and had researched hiring a lawyer. The names of any quoted readers have been changed to protect their privacy.

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