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COWBOYS ADDING INSULT TO INJURY

Many people assume these companies are legal experts, but they're not. Many simply trawl for people who have  suffered personal injuries and then sell on their cases to a solicitor for a hefty referral fee. They offer you nothing that you can't get for free elsewhere.

These "ambulance-chasing" companies often take a chunk of any damages pay an up front charge or fee out of your compensation, you should run a mile.

You shouldn't have to pay anything to pursue a valid personal injury claim."

So ignore the claims-management companies and go straight to a solicitor for advice. You can find a personal injury
   
specialist by contacting the Law Society or the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.

"Don't be sucked in by claims- management firms' TV marketing  campaigns, they are only trying to profit from other people's misfortune," adds Wingate. "Cut out the middle man, and go straight to a solicitor. Many will offer a free initial consultation and if you decide to  pursue your claim, they may offer a  no-win, no-fee agreement."

The Law Society says you should be wary of anybody who knocks on your door uninvited, cold calls your home phone or visits you in hospital to talk about making a claim, practices now banned under Government regulations.

If you have already signed up to a claims-management service it may not be too late as you get a 14-day cooling-off period in which you can cancel.

Claims-management companies have been blamed for a surge in personal injury claims inrecent years, says head of communications at insurer esure Adrian Webb. "Cars are safer and injuries are less severe but the number of
personal injury claims is steadily growing.

"We have seen a massive surge in low-value claims against insurers and this is pushing up the cost of motor  premiums for everybody."

Webb also says the rising number of daytime TV adverts is partly to blame.

"Some claims companies encourage people to chase borderline claims or even exaggerate their injuries," he says.

"Don't even consider  it or you could open yourself up to criminal action for fraud."

Before pursuing any personal injury claim, first check whether you have a type of insurance called legal expenses cover, says Roy Hebburn, divisional claims manager at insurer Allianz.

"This is often available as an add-on to motor and household insurance policies, so it is always worth checking," he explains.

"Many more people have this cover than realise it."

If you've got this cover you can either contact your insurer who will direct you to a lawyer without charge or mention it to your own solicitor who can charge their costs to the insurer.

The vast majority of motor-related personal injury claims are settled without litigation.

If the injury was caused by an uninsured driver you can also claim compensation from a State scheme called the Motor Insurers' Bureau.

"All passengers in a car accident are virtually 100 per cent certain of success,"  says Hebburn.

"You should be able to make a successful claim for compensation, without having to cede any of your damages to a lawyer. There is no need to put your hand in your pocket."

Alternatively, you could seek compensation direct from the negligent party's insurer rather than appointing a solicitor to handle your case.

Insurers actively encourage people to do this because they won't have to pay your solicitor's costs and claim they will settle such cases quickly and fairly. How- ever, only do this if you are confident of arguing your case, says Wingate.

"One danger is that you often don't know the  long-term consequences of your injury. Whiplash, for example, may not appear for weeks, while injuries that initially seemed minor may become more serious.

"Insurance companies are keen to settle claims quickly but you might not get the compensation you deserve."

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