No matter how an injury claim arises
-- many stem from car crashes and slip and fall accidents -- the vast majority
of these claims will be settled out of court, before any civil trial takes
place. And in many personal injury cases, the parties will reach a settlement before
a lawsuit is even filed.
Of course, every case is unique, but
below is an example of a timeline in a typical personal injury case (using a
back injury caused by a car accident as the hypothetical scenario).
- Patty Plaintiff gets into a car accident with
- Patty and a number of witnesses state that Dan ran a
- Patty experiences some pretty serious back pain in the
wake of the accident.
Initial Medical Treatment
- Patty seeks medical attention and is diagnosed with
trauma-induced spondylolisthesis, where a vertebra slips out of its
position in the spine.
- Patty's doctor prescribes a back brace and
recommends that she undergo physical therapy for six months, after
which Patty will be re-evaluated, including assessment of the need for
corrective back surgery.
Consultation with Personal Injury
- Patty, believing the accident to be Dan's fault,
consults with a personal injury attorney to discuss the case.
- The attorney believes that Patty has a case and that she
to compensation for damages -- including medical bills, lost
wages, costs of future medical care, loss of future earning capacity, and
the pain associated with her injuries.
- Patty negotiates
the lawyers fee, based on a contingency
fee arrangement, and signs an agreement for legal services.
Personal Injury Lawsuit (Not Always)
- Patty's attorney files a personal injury lawsuit on
Patty's behalf, alleging that Dan was negligent in causing
the accident that led to Patty's injuries.
- Note: this step can happen before or after the next step
(Settlement Negotiations; see below), or the filing of a lawsuit may not
happen at all if a satisfactory
settlement can be reached relatively quickly.
- To strengthen Patty's case, her attorney secures
the expert opinion of medical professionals, occupational therapists, and
others who can testify to the extent
of her injuries and the impact they may have on her earning capacity
(and on her everyday life).
- Patty's attorney contacts Dan's insurance carrier and
begins to present Patty's arguments as to Dan's fault for the accident and
his liability for damages associated with Patty's injuries.
- These negotiations can include everything from informal
discussions over the phone, to the presentation of a formal
demand letter asking for a set amount of compensation for Patty's
damages. The insurance company will likely push back with
a lower offer of its own, one that is well below the limits of the
If Settlement Negotiations are
- If a settlement is reached, a formal settlement
agreement will be drafted, detailing the terms of the compensation that
Patty is to receive, and declaring that Dan is released from all future
liability in connection with the accident and Patty's injuries.
- Both parties will sign the settlement agreement (as
will their insurance carriers and attorneys), and if a personal injury
lawsuit is ongoing, the agreement may need to be filed with the court and
approved by the judge overseeing the case.
If Settlement Negotiations are
- If settlement talks break down without an agreement,
and no personal injury lawsuit has been filed yet, Patty's attorney will
almost certainly recommend that the lawsuit be filed
at this point.
- The case will then proceed through the standard
court process for a civil case.
Personal Injury Lawsuit Proceeds in
- Each side will file papers (Patty's complaint,
Dan's answer, and perhaps a counterclaim or a motion to dismiss the case)
and go through the discovery process (interrogatories,
- Settlement negotiations will likely continue (usually
including mandatory settlement conferences ordered by the court).
- An alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process such as
mediation may also be a possibility (again, possibly court-ordered).
- It's likely that any personal injury lawsuit will be
resolved via settlement before a full-blown civil trial. But if the case
does go to trial, a jury will hear all the evidence -- including expert
testimony on the seriousness of Patty's injuries, and their financial
impact -- and make a determination as to Dan's liability for the car
accident and Patty's resulting injuries.
- If the jury finds Dan liable, they will decide on the proper
of damages to award, and the court will enter a final judgment and
award. Dan can appeal the decision to a higher court (usually an appellate
court in the state's judicial system).
- If the jury finds that Dan is not liable for the
accident and is not to blame for causing her injuries, Patty will receive
The potential for this kind of
all-or-nothing result, and the inherent difficulty of predicting how a jury
will decide any given personal injury case (not to mention the financial costs
of going to trial), are the main reasons why the vast majority of
injury lawsuits are resolved via a negotiated
settlement at some point along this timeline.