In personal injury cases, a demand letter is a request to the insurance company or to the wrongdoer whereby the victim seeks compensation for the injuries sustained. The demand letter is an attempt to settle the matter informally, before a lawsuit is initiated.
It may be written and submitted directly by the injured party, or by the injured party’s attorney. A well-written demand letter can mean the difference between settling a case quickly or getting ignored for months on end.
To help you understand how to write a great demand letter, our California personal injury lawyers answer these faqs:
- 1. What is the purpose of a demand letter in a California injury case?
- 2. Why a well-written demand letter is important?
- 3. What information should the letter contain?
- 4. Should a specific dollar amount be requested?
- 5. Can a person submit a demand letter without the aid of an attorney?
It is similar to an opening argument in a court case. It explains to the insurance adjuster:
- When and how the accident or incident happened,
- Why the defendant is responsible,
- The extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, and
- The damages the plaintiff has incurred and will likely incur in the future.1
A well-written letter sets the tone for the settlement negotiations. It lets the insurance claims adjuster know the injured party is serious about pursuing his or her right to compensation, whether as
- a lump sum or
- through payment plans.
It presents enough facts to improve the odds of settling a case before filing a small claims or superior court legal action, while saying nothing that might come back to hurt the plaintiff’s case should a trial prove necessary.2
Note that it is very important that the demand letter be professional and not threatening. Plaintiffs could be prosecuted for extortion if they claim in their letter that they will report the other party to the police or damage their reputation if they do not comply.
A personal injury demand letter does not need to be lengthy, especially in small claims cases. However, it should present enough information to give the adjuster a clear sense of what happened. It should also set forth a strong case for why the defendant is liable and how the plaintiff has been injured.
Information that should be provided in a formal demand letter usually includes:
- The time, date and location of the accident or incident,
- The names and contact info of the parties involved,
- The specific relief being sought,
- A clear account of what happened and the reason the plaintiff is seeking relief (such as breach of contract, or failing to comply with a cease and desist letter),
- A reasonable deadline for the party to comply with the demands,
- That being sued is the consequences for not complying,
- What injuries the plaintiff sustained, and
- Any supporting documents in the plaintiff’s possession, such as:
- X-rays, MRIs or other objective test results;
- Photos and/or videos of the accident scene;
- Photos and/or videos showing the plaintiff’s property damage and/or physical injuries; and
- A summary of damages the plaintiff has incurred and is expected to incur in the future – including:
- Medical bills,
- Car repair bills,
- Lost wages,
- Future lost earning capacity (with an opinion letter from an economic expert, if appropriate),
- (In non-injury cases, other expenses such as security deposits being held by landlords, or overdue bills to business owners),
- An explanation of any non-economic damages — such as scars, loss of physical function, and pain and suffering — with supporting photos, documents and doctor’s reports, if available.
The demand letter should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested so the plaintiff can show proof of delivery. If the plaintiff cannot obtain the address, the plaintiff can use email and request a “read receipt”. The plaintiff may also want to consider sending the demand letter by both email and mail to cover all bases.
Make sure to know the correct name of the party being sent the demand letter to. Businesses may be licensed under a different name than its advertised name. And it is usually better to address the letter to a registered agent rather than the business in general. (Registered agents can be found on the California Secretary of State website.)
Also be sure to send the demand letter well in advance of any applicable statute of limitations to file legal claims. If the other party fails to comply with the demand letter, the plaintiff wants enough time before the deadline to be able to bring a winning lawsuit.3
Plaintiffs should generally not ask for a specific dollar amount. For one thing, the full extent of damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs is not always known at the time the letter is written.
More importantly, asking for a total amount of money sets an upper limit for the negotiation that can be hard to increase. Therefore it is usually to the plaintiff’s advantage to have the adjuster make the first offer.
The exception is when the plaintiff is seeking the maximum amount payable under an insurance policy and that amount is both known for certain and supported by the evidence.
Example: Janice suffers a brain injury after hitting her head on the concrete as the result of a slip-and-fall accident during a neighbor’s pool party. Janice’s lawyer confirms that the neighbor has a homeowner’s policy and umbrella policy with combined limits of $2,000,000.
Janice’s medical bills are projected to top out at several million dollars and Janice will likely require lifelong care. Therefore her lawyer is comfortable proposing the case be settled for the policies’ limits.
Ideally, a demand letter will trigger a good faith negotiation process and counter-offers resulting in a favorable settlement offer without having to resort to trial. In some cases, the parties may choose to use mediation or arbitration.4
The demand letter is one of the most important documents an insurance adjuster will receive. Its importance cannot be overstated.
As a result, most people prefer to have a lawyer write one on their behalf, even in small claims court cases. Lawyers write these communications on a regular basis and know what details to include. Just as importantly, they know what not to say.
Additionally, it is sad but true that adjusters pay more attention when there is an attorney experienced in California law involved. We do not take a dime from our clients unless and until their case settles or we win at trial. Adjusters know this.
The mere fact that we have reviewed the facts and accepted a case sends the message that the claim has substance and warrants legal remedies. Adjusters are familiar with all the sample demand letters on the internet and simply do not take them as seriously.5
Need help in California? Call us…
If you or someone you care about has been injured in California because of a car accident, dog bite, dangerous product, slip and fall accident or another wrongful act, we invite you to contact us for a consultation and legal advice.
We want to hear your side of the story and fight for the largest settlement possible under state law. So call us today to speak to an experienced California injury attorney about your case.
We can also help you write an effective demand letter after a Nevada accident or injury.
See also the California Courts official Small Claims website, for disputes involving $10,000 or less.