Should you become injured or harmed in some way due to the negligence or actions of another, you may be legally entitled to compensation from the responsible party. Unfortunately, this often requires the filing of a personal injury lawsuit. These lawsuits take time and typically go through a number of stages before winding up in court.
Here’s what typically happens at each stage of a personal injury case before it finally lands in civil court:
Seek Medical Care
After being hurt in an accident, you need to immediately seek medical treatment. This comes first before anything else. Go right to the hospital or make sure you’re seen by a doctor. You need to do this for your health and wellbeing. If you wait to see a doctor long after the accident, the insurance company and the jury might simply assume that your injuries weren’t that serious.
Find a Good Attorney
Unless your injuries are fairly minor, you will need to find yourself a lawyer. You should do this as soon as you can after being injured. Settling a small personal injury claim by yourself may not be a problem, although legal representation can be helpful even for small claims. However, if you suffered substantial injuries and/or other losses you will definitely need a good lawyer by your side to handle your personal injury claim.
How do you know if your claim is big enough to warrant an attorney? Generally speaking, you really should hire an attorney if the accident caused a broken bone, forced you to miss work for longer than a couple of days, and/or your medical bills are over $2,000.
Before hiring an attorney, you should speak to several over the phone before meeting with them in person. Once you’ve chosen the lawyer you have the most confidence in, you will be asked to sign the fee agreement before he/she can begin handling your case.
Claim is Investigated by Your Attorney
Your lawyer will first want to thoroughly investigate your claim, which will start with them asking you all sorts of questions. You will be asked about your background, to explain what happened in the accident, the extent of your injuries and the medical treatment you received. Your attorney will make sure he/she finds out everything you know so there are no surprises down the road. It’s important that you provide every last detail when answering all questions.
Next, your lawyer will seek to obtain all your medical records, including bills that relate to the injuries suffered in the accident. He/she will likely request all medical records involving any treatments you’ve ever received related to the medical condition in question. This could take several months.
Once your lawyer obtains all your medical records, he/she will review them all to determine whether you have a case. If your lawyer believes that you don’t have a case, you’ll probably be notified as soon as this determination is made.
Your Attorney Weighs the Options
If your personal injury claim is smaller than most, it could be settled before you even have to file a lawsuit. If your attorney believes that they can get your case settled, they will go ahead and make a demand on the opposing side’s lawyer or on their insurance company.
If not, your lawyer will have no choice but to file a lawsuit. If you’ve been permanently injured or impaired, it is very unlikely that your attorney would settle the case before filing a lawsuit.
Also, a good attorney would never make a demand until the victim has recovered to the point of maximum medical improvement (MMI). This is when the victim has completed their treatment and recovered to the point that no further improvement is possible. Until the victim reaches MMI, his/her attorney has no idea what they are entitled to in terms of compensation.
Any good attorney would also wait until MMI before filing a lawsuit because if the victim has not yet reached MMI when the case goes to court, the jury award may not be sufficient.
Even though it could take months or even years before the victim reaches MMI, a good attorney will wait as long as the victim can afford to financially. However, if the victim needs the money, their lawyer would file the lawsuit as soon as possible.
Filing the Lawsuit
Once the lawsuit is filed, the clock starts ticking down on when the case would be set for trial. Each state has its own pretrial procedures, but it typically takes one or two years before the trial would start in a personal injury case. There are legal time limits in each state for filing a lawsuit, which are determined by the statute of limitations.
Discovery is the process whereby each side investigates the other side’s legal claims and how they plan on defending their case. Each side requests documents from the opposing side as well as answers to their questions. They also take depositions of important witnesses, usually starting with the plaintiff (victim) and the defendant in the case. Discovery can take up to a year since it depends on how complex the case is and the deadlines set by the court.
When the discovery process comes to an end, lawyers on both sides typically start discussing a settlement. Often times, they can reach a settlement through these discussions, but sometimes they agree to mediation. This is a process whereby both parties and their attorneys go before a mediator to present their case in an attempt to reach a settlement
Mediation is often effective in reaching a settlement. But if not, a trial date is set for hearing arguments before a judge and jury. Personal injury trials can be over in just one day, or last up to a week or longer. However, in states where they only hold trials in half-day morning sessions, the trial can last much longer. While this doubles how long trials last, it gives lawyers and judges time to get other work done during afternoon hours.
Regarding this timeline, although a lawsuit may be set for trial on a specific date, that does not necessarily mean that the case will actually go to trial on the scheduled date. Judges have very busy schedules, so it’s not unusual for trials to be delayed due to rescheduling. If this happens in your case, do not jump to the conclusion that the lawyers are deliberately dragging things out or that your case is in jeopardy. Trial dates are cancelled all the time, and often for reasons that seem to make no sense.
O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley LLP is a personal injury law firm serving the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Our attorneys represent clients in a wide array of serious personal injury claims.
The partners at O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley have more than 50 years of experience protecting the rights of victims. We have successfully negotiated thousands of cases and have tried and presided over more than 250 jury trials. Our experience and courtroom skills are unparalleled. Let us put this experience, knowledge and expertise to work for you.
Published on behalf of O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley LLP. The information presented in this article is not legal advice, is not to be acted on as such, may not be current and is subject to change without notice.
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