Anatomy of a Personal Injury Case: Motor Vehicle Collision

Firefighters At A Car Accident Scene

The Initial Stage: A Collision Occurs

When you are injured in a motor vehicle collision the very first thing you should do is to seek treatment immediately! If you are hurt, go to the emergency room or see a doctor so that they can determine the extent of your injury and recommend a treatment program. Delaying treatment can delay your physical recovery, signal to the insurance companies that the injury “wasn’t that bad,” and can also impact the believability of the claim, and in turn, affect the amount of the settlement or verdict. Additionally, delaying treatment can also call into question whether the injury was sustained during the incident or at another time.

The Claims Stage

In order to open a case, the injured person meets with an attorney todiscuss the case and share information regarding the collision and subsequent injury. During the initial consultation, the attorney gathers pertinent information to your case, including medical treatment, insurance coverage, names and information of the at-fault party, potential witnesses and photographs of the vehicles involved in the collision and evidence of your physical injuries. Once the initial meeting concludes and the attorney is retained, the attorney then delivers letters of representation to the appropriate parties, which typically include the at-fault driver’s insurance company and your insurance company. While the investigation is taking place, you should continue treating for your injuries and share all case-related information with your attorney or his assistant.

The Investigation Stage

After meeting with your attorney and providing all pertinent information, your attorney will take over. During this period, all the important parts of the claim are investigated, which may include speaking with your doctors, expert witnesses, fact witnesses, defense attorneys, and insurance adjustors. Your attorney’s primary responsibility is building a case on your behalf, utilizing the attorney’s specialized knowledge and experience. The role of the attorney at this stage is to do whatever needs done to maximize the client’s monetary recovery.

The Effort to Settle

Once the investigation is completed and you have been released from further medical care, the attorney will then compile a settlement package for the at-fault party’s insurance company. The settlement package is an orderly presentation of documents that demonstrate the loss you experienced as a result of the at-fault party’s negligence. These documents may include witness statements, medical bills, medical records, wage loss documentation, photographs, expert reports, and any other document that the attorney believes will fully demonstrate your loss (including inability to perform your usual activities, pain, loss of enjoyment of life, etc.). Once the package is submitted, the negotiation process begins. If the adjuster ultimately offers an acceptable amount of compensation, the case will be settled, but only with your consent. A Settlement typically requires the execution of a release of liability. However, if no agreement is reached, which is often the case at this stage, the attorney will likely recommend filing a lawsuit against the at-fault party.

Settlement during The Litigation Stage

The litigation stage begins when the attorney files a lawsuit on your behalf. Once the lawsuit has been properly served, the insurance company will hire an attorney to represent the at-fault party, who will file an “answer” on behalf of his/her client. The defense attorney will also submit written: “discovery requests” to your attorney, which are essential questions that you will need to answer and requests for copies of documents. Your attorney will also likely submit “discovery requests” to the at-fault party as well. Once discovery is complete, but some time before it is complete, depositions of the parties are typically scheduled. A deposition is a legal device utilized by attorneys to obtain testimony under oath from the other party or a witness prior to trial. The testimony is recorded by a stenographer that can later be transcribed for use at trial or in support of a motion. Depending on the complexity of the case, the litigation process can take anywhere from six months to two years to be completed.

Resolution Before or After Trial

Once a lawsuit has been filed, there are 4 primary ways that your case will be resolved: 1) an out-of-court settlement through informal discussions with the defense attorney or insurance adjuster or 2) a formal settlement conference with a trained mediator (referred to as a mediation), 3) the issuance of a “summary judgment” (granting judgment in favor of one party on a legal issue), and, finally 4) by a jury verdict. Many times, before a jury trial, the at-fault insurance company will make a final effort to resolve the case. If both parties accept the settlement, then the case is resolved, and the lawsuit will be dismissed. If the parties are unable to reach a settlement, either informally or at mediation, and summary judgment has not been granted to one of the parties, the case will proceed to a jury trial. Jury trials can take as little as two days to complete, or in a complex case, multiple weeks to complete.