Understanding The Personal Injury Lawsuit Process:
From Hiring an Attorney to Having Your Case Tried Before a Jury
Most people have never been involved in a lawsuit. As such, many accident victims and their families are anxious about pursuing a personal injury claim. It is true that a lawsuit could result in a trial before a jury, but most don’t, and the process should not be a stressful one. The steps below will help you understand the various stages of a personal injury lawsuit, from the initial consultation with an attorney through the resolution of your case.
1. Meeting with a Personal Injury Attorney
If you’ve been injured because of someone else’s carelessness, the first step, after getting medical treatment, is to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to get a professional opinion as to whether you have a valid claim. Bring any supporting documentation, medical records, and notes you’ve taken about your situation. Most personal injury lawyers provide free consultations, so steer clear of lawyers who charge fees just to meet with you.
2. Evaluating the Attorney
Having the right personal injury attorney on your side can mean the difference between winning and losing your case, so choose yours carefully. Ask the attorney about his or her level of expertise and track record handling your type of case, their policy regarding communicating with clients, and any other questions you might have. At the initial meeting, the attorney will ask you many questions in order to get a full understanding of your case. Be wary of any attorney who, during the initial meeting, makes promises about how much money you can expect to receive. Good lawyers need more time to truly evaluate the value of your case, and they sometimes need to get experts involved too. Click here for the Four Essential Characteristics to look for in a personal injury attorney.
3. Hiring a Personal Injury Attorney and Understanding How They Get Paid
Most personal injury attorneys are paid on a “contingency” basis, which means there is no fee unless your case is successful (i.e., they don’t get paid unless you get paid). If you are awarded monetary compensation, the lawyer’s fee is based on a percentage of the total recovery, usually 25% to 40%, and is paid at the very end of the case. Once you agree to hire an attorney, you will be asked to sign a client contract that specifies the exact attorney fee. Make sure to ask any questions you have about the fee before you sign the contract.
4. Investigating Your Case
Your attorney will research your case at this stage to fully understand how you were injured and the extent of your injuries, damages, and costs. He or she will then contact and deal with the insurance company directly and possibly with the attorney representing the party who injured you. Your attorney will keep you aware of any negotiations and significant developments throughout the lawsuit process. Your focus should be on getting the medical attention you need and returning to your normal routine.
5. Settling Your Case Prior to Filing a Lawsuit
Many personal injury claims, especially ones involving car accidents, are resolved before a lawsuit is filed. As your attorney negotiates with the insurance company representing the party who injured you, a monetary offer may be presented to your attorney to settle the case. If a settlement offer is made, your attorney will inform you about the offer and give his or her opinion on whether you should accept it. You ultimately decide if the settlement is acceptable. Click here to learn about how much your personal injury case is worth.
6. Filing Suit In Court – Pretrial Phases
If an adequate settlement cannot be reached, your attorney will file a lawsuit in court. A judge will then set a deadline for each phase of the lawsuit process. The process can take several months to several years depending on the complexity of your case.
- Complaint and Answer Phase. The Complaint is the document detailing your allegations regarding how you were injured and the extent of your damages. It is usually filed in the county where your injury occurred or where the party who injured you (defendant) resides. After filing, the Complaint is personally served on (delivered to) the defendant(s). The defendant must “answer” the Complaint in a set period of time, usually 30 days. The Answer is the document in which the defendant admits to or denies the allegations of the Complaint.
- Discovery Phase. During this phase, each party gathers testimony, evidence, documents and information from each other and from third parties regarding the case. Written discovery includes questions, also known as interrogatories, and requests for documents. Oral discovery, known as depositions, also takes place. During a deposition, witnesses, experts, and each party are questioned by a lawyer. Your involvement is crucial, so be sure that your attorney has your latest contact information.
- Motions Phase. The defendant can file a motion before or after discovery is complete to get the Court to take action on their behalf. The motion can ask the Court to dismiss one or more of your claims or even the entire case. Your attorney typically has 28 days to file a written response in opposition to the motion. Sometimes a hearing is held so that the Court can consider both sides of the arguments.
7. Going To Mediation
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that can be requested at any time during the court case. It involves both parties, their attorneys, and a neutral mediator who acts like a referee between the parties. During mediation, both sides present their case and engage in settlement negotiations as facilitated by the mediator. Mediations are non-binding, meaning that the parties can accept or reject the offer.
8. Going to Trial
When a case goes to trial, your attorney presents his or her side to the judge or jury, then the party who injured you (defendant) puts on their defense. After each side presents their arguments, the judge or jury determines: (1) if the defendant is liable (legally responsible) for your injuries and harm, and (2) if so, the amount of damages the defendant must pay you.
A personal injury trial usually consists of six phases:
- Jury selection
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony and cross-examination
- Closing arguments
- Jury instruction
- Jury deliberation and verdict
9. Post Trial
Sometimes your case is not over even if a jury gave a verdict in your favor. The defense could appeal the case and ask a higher (appellate) court to reconsider the verdict. If an appeal is not brought, it can still take some time to distribute the monetary award. Before you get paid, your lawyer is required to first pay any companies that have a legal claim to some of the money, known as a lien, out of a special escrow account. After that, your attorney simply writes you a check and the money is yours to keep. Your personal injury lawsuit is now over.
The lawsuit process is complex, with many twists and turns, each requiring expert decision-making skills on the part of an attorney. Be sure your personal injury attorney has expertise in cases like yours and a proven track record of success. And since your lawsuit may last for months to years, make sure you have a good rapport with your attorney. Remember, you have only one opportunity to get the compensation you deserve for your injuries or loss, and having the right attorney on your side can mean the difference between winning and losing your lawsuit. Choose yours wisely.