Timeline of a Personal Injury Accident Case

A chronological overview of the accident claim and personal injury case process: From accident, through settlement and lawsuit.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

From a car accident to a slip and fall, no matter what kind of incident gives rise to a personal injury claim, here's what to know about the potential timeline of the case:

  • The vast majority of personal injury claims will be settled out of court, before any civil trial takes place.
  • Especially when there's plenty of insurance coverage, many claims will reach a personal injury settlement before a lawsuit is even filed.
  • If a lawsuit is filed, the timeline of your personal injury case will depend in part on the court's calendar, but settlement could still occur at any point.

Personal Injury Case Timeline

Let's look at the timeline in a typical personal injury case (using a back injury caused by a car accident as the hypothetical scenario).

The Accident

  • Patty Plaintiff gets into a car accident with Dan Defendant.
  • Patty and a number of witnesses state that Dan ran a red light.
  • 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 Attorney

  • 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 is entitled 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) Filed

  • 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).

Settlement Negotiations

  • 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 policy.

If Settlement Negotiations are Successful

  • 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 Unsuccessful

  • 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 Civil Court

  • 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, depositions, document requests).
  • 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 amount 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 nothing.

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.

Getting Help With a Personal Injury Claim

The timeline we've presented here (and its various offshoots) is one for a personal injury claim that proceeds relatively smoothly. We couldn't cover all the potential speedbumps your claim might hit. Key issues like fault might be in serious dispute, or the other side (the person who caused your accident or their insurance company) might be questioning the legitimacy of your injuries. In situations like these, having an experienced legal professional on your side can be the key to getting the best result.

Learn more about how a personal injury lawyer can help you, and get tips on finding the right injury lawyer for you and your case. You can also use the features right on this page to connect with an injury lawyer near you.

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