Disaster Victims Legal Guide
1. PURPOSE OF GUIDE
When a major disaster occurs, legal rights and responsibilities become important. At this same time, those most involved are often preoccupied with the difficult task of dealing with the aftereffects of the disaster. If you are reading this guide as a result of a tragic accident or disaster that has just occurred, please accept our sincerest condolences for the grief and emotional distress you are experiencing. This guide has been prepared to help you avoid unnecessary additional distress in dealing with legal issues which are invariably part of such an event.
2. MAJOR DISASTER
A "major disaster" is an event which causes injury and/or death to many people and may include major property damage as well. Examples would be: 1) chain reaction car accidents; 2) commercial airline crashes; 3) train derailments; 4) bus wrecks; 5) fires and explosions; 6) toxic spills; or other events
similar is scope.
3. AFTER THE DISASTER: WHAT TO DO
If you have homeowners or tenants insurance, you should promptly file a claim with your company. Many companies establish special claims offices following a disaster.
If you or a family member is involved in a major disaster, it is very important that you take your time in choosing a legal representative for services beyond filing your insurance claim. In addition, you should keep in mind that your early statements regarding the disaster may be issues in later legal proceedings. Speak carefully and avoid unnecessary speculation regarding what occurred and who was at fault.
It is important that you determine who, with a financial interest, may contact you about the disaster. A good rule of thumb is to proceed with caution regarding propositions provided by anyone who stands to gain financially from your misfortune. For example, policemen and official disaster relief individuals are charged by law to gather information about the event. On the other hand, lawyers may attempt to solicit you as a client. Lawyers or others may be representing an insurance company with potential liability. Be careful in what you say and proceed with caution in responding to questions and, especially, in signing any documents. Be sure you know to whom you are speaking and just why they are asking you questions. Be cautious and take your time.
4. WHAT TO BE AWARE OF
During this difficult time, you should be alert to potential activities which may be to your long term detriment. Such activities include:
a. Insistence that you sign claim releases right away.
b. Offers from attorneys to make payments to you or otherwise entice you to immediately become their client.
c. Signing any documents presented by someone who might have a financial interest in your situation. Such agreements might include contracts of employment with attorneys or settlement documents from insurance companies.
d. Dealing with attorneys who send you contracts in the mail.
e. Dealing with attorneys who show up at the disaster site and attempt to have you become their immediate client.
f. Contracts which call for what you consider an unexplained, excessive fee for legal services.
g. Attorneys who represent others involved in the disaster.
Keep in mind that although caution
in action and speech is important during this difficult time, you should not wait too long before choosing a legal representative. This is because your lawyer will need to begin gathering information as soon as possible. He or she will need to get the names of the witnesses and perhaps, depending on the type of disaster, gather evidence from the site or photograph it before it is repaired or cleaned up.
The State Bar has coordinated a volunteer lawyer network to provide legal assistance to victims of the May 2000 fires in New Mexico. Call 797-6050 to request an attorney, or if you have a family lawyer, contact that person. If you cannot afford an attorney, the State Bar may be able to provide a referral to an agency which does not charge for legal services.
5. ATTORNEY MISCONDUCT: WHAT TO REPORT
All attorneys are bound by certain rules of professional conduct and canons of ethics. These rules make certain actions illegal. If you have questions about misconduct or wish to report such action, contact the New Mexico Disciplinary Board (842-5781), or the Consumer/Attorney Assistance Program of the State Bar (797-6068).
6. FINAL THOUGHTS
We would like to leave you with the thought that even though you may be going through a very difficult time, it is important for you to remain aware of your need to protect your own interests. This means being cautious in action and speech, and also acting in a timely manner to find legal representation. You may not be aware of your legal rights or the extent of injury. Documents signed in haste may bind you in unfortunate ways. On the other hand, early offers may be your best solution. You should, however, make that decision with the attorney of your choice.
The State Bar of New Mexico is available to answer your questions. We want you to consider us a resource at a time when deciding what to do next may not be an easy decision. The State Bar
of New Mexico may be reached at the following numbers:
State Bar 797-6000
(general information, 800-876-6227
referral or resources) FAX 828-3765
Web site: www.nmbar.org
Referral Program 797-6066
and Fire Volunteer 800-876-6227
Board FAX 766-6833
This pamphlet has been reprinted in response to the current New Mexico fires. Please contact the State Bar if you need a referral to an attorney. The State Bar volunteer network is prepared to provide free