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. Indeed, a lawsuit could result in a trial before a jury, but most do not, and the process should not be a stressful one. The steps below outline 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 have 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 on whether you have a valid claim. Bring any supporting documentation, medical records, and notes you have taken about your situation. Most personal injury lawyers provide free consultations, so there is no need to pay a lawyer 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. Ask the attorney about their level of experience and track record of success when handling your specific 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 to fully understand 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 evaluate the value of your case.
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 do not 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 percent to 40 percent, and is paid at the end of the case after you have recovered compensation. 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. They will then contact 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 life routine as much as possible.
5. Settling Your Case Before Filing a Lawsuit
Many personal injury claims are resolved before a lawsuit is filed. Your attorney will negotiate with the at-fault party’s insurance company. In most cases, the insurance company will make a settlement offer, and your attorney will give you their professional opinion of the insurance company’s offer. While an attorney’s advice is important, 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. The defendant must “answer” the Complaint within 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.
During this phase, each party gathers testimony, evidence, documents and information regarding the case from the other and third parties. Written discovery includes questions, also known as interrogatories, and requests for documents. Depositions are oral questions that a witness answers “on the record.” 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.
The defendant can file a motion before or after discovery is complete to get the court to take action on their behalf. In a motion, the other party may 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 argument.
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that can be requested at any time during a 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 their 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 ruling. 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 writes you a check, and the money is yours to keep. Your personal injury lawsuit is now over.
The personal injury recovery process is complex. Be sure your personal injury attorney has hands-on experience handling 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 losses and having the right attorney on your side can mean the difference between winning and losing your lawsuit. Choose yours wisely.