What to Expect During the Car Accident Lawsuit Process

If you or a loved one were involved in a car accident, you may be experiencing severe pain, facing high medical bills, and wondering what the car accident lawsuit process is like. To answer your questions, we will explain what to expect from the lawsuit, what the auto accident settlement timeline may be like, and what you should expect if your car accident lawsuit ends up going to trial.

Beginning the Car Accident Lawsuit Process

The most important step to take following a car accident is to receive appropriate medical attention. Your health always comes first. The next thing you should do is notify your insurance carrier of the accident, which most policies require following a crash. When reporting your accident, do not admit any fault and do not accept any settlement offers before contacting an experienced car accident lawyer.

A good lawyer will be critical to help you recover the compensation for your injuries that you deserve. Remember that an insurance company is looking to resolve your case for the lowest amount of money possible. An experienced attorney will provide the expertise you need to recover maximum compensation. Also note that there is a time period during which the lawsuit must be filed, known as the statute of limitations. Depending on the state your accident occurred in, this could be anywhere from 1-6 years.

Additionally, there is generally no up-front cost with personal injury attorneys, who operate on a 'contingency basis,' which means that they are not paid until your case is resolved. When it comes to something as critical as your health and mounting medical bills, give yourself the best chance and hire a professional.

When meeting with an attorney, be sure to bring all documentation you have relating to the accident, such as:

  • Copies of police reports
  • Pictures of the accident scene
  • Contact information of the other driver, their insurance company, and any witnesses
  • Medical reports or prescriptions you have received
  • Any notes about the accident or injury that you have kept
  • Any correspondence from insurance companies or the other driver

Getting this information to your attorney is critical for two reasons. For one, it will save your attorney time, which will help avoid unnecessary delays in your lawsuit. Secondly, your attorney will want to have a complete picture of how the accident occurred and the injuries it caused you before he speaks with the insurance company of the at-fault driver.

Your attorney will likely begin to exchange information with the insurance company, particularly regarding the injuries you suffered and how liability might be assessed. It's possible your attorney will decide the offer the insurance company is making is fair and advise you to accept it. This is a rare occurrence, however, because an insurance adjuster's job is to pay as little money as possible in the event of a car accident.

Particularly when the accident is severe or liability is contested, there is likely going to be a significant gap between the offer the insurance company makes and the amount of money you feel you need to treat your injuries. When your attorney and the insurance company disagree on the appropriate amount of compensation you are entitled to, your attorney may decide to formally begin the car accident lawsuit process by filing a legal complaint.

The Auto Accident Settlement Timeline

When some people envision what filing a lawsuit is like, they may picture dramatic courtroom scenes. But the reality is that the vast majority of car accident lawsuits settle out of court. There are many reasons for this, but the most basic one is that out-of-court settlement is usually cheaper, faster and less risky for both parties. Jury verdicts are unpredictable by nature.

Once your attorney has filed your complaint, it must be "served" to the Defendants. The complaint will lay out the legal theory under which you are filing a lawsuit. In the case of a car accident or other personal injury accident, a negligence claim will usually be included in this complaint.

The Defendant's attorney, sometimes a lawyer appointed by the insurance company for the Defendant, will then "answer" the complaint by either accepting or denying the allegations made in the complaint. In some instances, they may make a "counterclaim" and try to shift the blame to you for the injuries you suffered, or they may make a "cross-claim" and try to blame a third-party. In most car accident lawsuits, the Defendant will try and shift liability for the accident in some way.

This begins the "discovery" phase of the lawsuit, in which your attorney will begin exchanging documents while also requesting materials from your adversary in an effort to support your claim and the compensation you are seeking. The cost of your medical treatment, including medications, surgeries, follow-up appointments and diagnostic tests are a critical part of discovery. Medical professionals may be asked to give their opinion about physical limitations your injuries may have caused and if these limitations have affected your ability to work.

Another key feature of the discovery phase of a lawsuit is testimony from both drivers. This testimony is acquired in two ways: interrogatories and, more frequently, depositions.

An interrogatory is a question posed to a party that they must answer by a certain date. Just because an interrogatory is posed, however, does not necessarily mean it needs to be answered. The Defendant's attorney may argue that the interrogatory posed is not relevant to the case in an attempt to relieve their client of having to provide sensitive or damning information. Answers given to an interrogatory are considered to be given under oath.

A deposition is similar to an interrogatory in that it is also an opportunity to present questions which the other party must answer under oath. The difference between an interrogatory and a deposition, however, is that a deposition happens in-person, in the presence of both attorneys and a court reporter who records what is said. In a deposition, an attorney is looking to secure testimony which can be presented at trial. But a deposition is also an opportunity for an attorney to scrutinize somebody's character and background, to better understand how that person may present themselves to a jury at trial.

By the time the initial discovery phase is completed, both sides will have given their version of the car accident. They may also have sought out expert opinions which enforce their position. These expert opinions are also exchanged during the discovery phase of the case. This is the stage of the car accident lawsuit process where many cases settle - but not always.

The Car Accident Injury Settlement Process

Once information has been exchanged in the initial discovery phase, your attorney may draft a letter which will restate the Defendant's liability in the accident, the injuries you suffered and the other damages which must be compensated in order to 'make you whole again.' This is a negotiation strategy many attorneys employ.

Typically, formal negotiations will not begin until you have reached "maximum medical improvement," or the point at which you will no longer benefit from medical treatment. This is strategically done to capture the full scope of the injuries you suffered, and the time and money required to recover from them.

When appropriate, both lawyers will begin to discuss a possible settlement. If an agreement is not reached but the two sides are close, a mediation may be requested. A mediation involves both attorneys and a neutral mediator who facilitates negotiations usually without interjecting his or her own opinion. Mediation is a valuable tool because it allows both attorneys to speak freely in an informal setting without fear of something they say being held against them in court.

In mediation, both parties will speak with each other in front of the mediator, and then have the opportunity to speak to the mediator privately. All parties will then reconvene so that the mediator can use the information they have learned to help the parties reach an agreement.

If both parties are too far apart to reach a satisfactory settlement, however, the mediation may end without a resolution. This does not mean settlement negotiations have ended, however. In some cases, information learned at a mediation can lay the ground for another mediation attempt or further negotiations which may prove more fruitful.

What to Expect if Your Car Accident Lawsuit is Going to Trial

If mediation fails and a settlement has still not been reached, a trial will be scheduled. The trial date could be set six months or even a year in advance, which may surprise and frustrate Plaintiffs who are eager to be compensated for medical treatment they badly needed.

A trial can be done in front of a jury (as most are familiar with), or it can be done in front of a judge without a jury present in what is known as a "bench trial." In the event of a jury trial, jurors are carefully screened for biases, prejudices or hostility and chosen in a process known as jury selection.

When the trial begins, both sides will give their opening statements to summarize their position on the accident. Both sides will then produce witnesses and sometimes experts who will give testimony and be cross-examined. When this is done and each side has had an opportunity to present and support their version of events, as well as raise questions about the story laid out by the opposition, both attorneys will give their closing arguments.

Once closing arguments have been given, the judge will instruct the jury on how they should approach the case. In a car accident lawsuit, this will typically involve explaining what the standard for negligence is and how that standard applies to the crash in question. The jury will then meet, deliberate and eventually render a verdict. Although it is hard to predict how long a jury will deliberate for, the majority of car accident jury deliberations are over in a day or two. Still, some trials have resulted in long and heated deliberations.

Keep in mind that at any point in the trial, even while the jury is deliberating, a settlement may still be reached. By this point, both sides will have invested significant time and money into the car accident lawsuit process and will be highly motivated to reach an agreement that they can both be happy with.

Consulting an Experienced Motor Vehicle Accident Lawyer

The car accident lawsuit process can be time-intensive, which is why you need an experienced attorney at your side who can navigate legal hurdles while you focus on recovering from the injuries you've suffered. The lawyers of Block O'Toole & Murphy have a proven track record litigating motor vehicle accidents and have won more results exceeding $1 million than any other law firm in New York every year since 2012. To receive a free, no-obligation legal consultation from one of our experienced attorneys, call 212-736-5300 or fill out our contact form. We are proud to serve all of New York and New Jersey.