If you have suffered injuries in a traffic accident, you might have a claim against the other driver. If you are at fault, you have a claim for your damages against your own insurance. However, if fault is unclear, or the other driver is clearly at fault, you’ll probably be pursuing a claim against the other driver seeking compensation for your damages. If you’re like most people, you don’t have a lot of experience with injury claims arising from an automobile accident. When a motor vehicle accident causes damage, you have a right to seek financial compensation from responsible parties. Contact an experienced Georgia auto accident attorney immediately to learn about your legal options.
With little to no experience dealing with auto accident injury claims, there is little doubt that the process is too complicated to successfully undertake on your own. Most people hire an attorney to guide them through the process. Trying to negotiate on your own with an experienced insurance adjuster who is highly familiar with accident claims and, furthermore, is not on your side is a losing proposition. Even if the claim is against your own insurance company, the adjuster is on the side of the insurance company, not yours.
Once you have an attorney, one of your questions is likely to be, “How long will it take for me to get a settlement?” The good news is the odds are very high of you getting a settlement as opposing to going to trial to recover damages.
Unfortunately, there is no truly reliable way of determining how long that process might take. Historically, the vast majority of personal injury cases, including auto accident injuries, settle out of court, with a study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics finding that only 3 percent of personal injury cases go to trial. The study also found that cases involving injuries in car accidents tend to settle faster than other kinds of tort cases, with almost all in the study sample settling in less than 14 months.
A professor at Cornell University Law School wrote a law review paper arguing that it is unlikely that the settlement rate for personal injury cases was above 90 percent. However, the paper found that the settlement rate for personal injury cases could be as high as 87 percent while noting that other studies have found settlement rates as high as 95 percent. So your case probably will settle, and it likely will do so quicker than other kinds of tort cases.
Many Factors Affect the Time it Takes to Settle
The question you are likely to have is how quick is “quicker?” That’s a harder question to answer. Because every case is different, it probably is a question that is impossible to answer without knowing the specifics of your case. Most cases are fairly simple—fault is clear, insurance coverage is adequate for the damages involved, and no one suffered truly serious or life-long injuries. Those kinds of cases can settle fairly quickly, probably not within weeks, but settlement certainly is possible within just a month or two. However, that is under ideal circumstances, if the word “ideal” can ever apply to a traffic accident.
The process usually begins with a demand letter, setting forth your claims. In simple cases—clear fault, well-defined damage and injury claims—the insurance company likely will dicker a bit, but eventually settle. However, there is no legal time limit for an insurance company to respond to a demand letter in most jurisdictions. They might see an advantage in delay.
Many complicating factors can drag out the time it takes to reach a settlement in a traffic accident case. This could include any factor that makes liability less clear or makes the insurance company or other party—including the driver you claim to be at fault—unwilling to settle for a reasonable amount.
These could include:
- The severity of damages. This includes damage to your vehicle and damage to your person—your injuries, both physical and mental. If the accident totals your 25-year-old Toyota Tercel and you get a broken arm with no complications, that is unlikely to result in major delays to your settlement. If the accident totals your brand new high-end import performance vehicle and leaves you with injuries that require multiple surgeries and many months—or even years—of therapy, that is probably going to slow down the settlement train. Also, if you suffer injuries that are likely to be life-long, such as brain damage, paralysis, loss of a limb, or similarly severe injuries, the astronomical cost of future care for such injuries almost undoubtedly will slow, or possibly even prevent, a settlement. Negotiations will be protracted, as the other driver’s insurance company—or even yours, if you were at fault—will try to minimize the amount it has to pay out. If they try to limit their pay-out unreasonably, settlement talks could go on for quite a while.
- The level of cooperation from the responsible driver or insurance company. This goes, at least in part, to the first point. If you have very expensive injuries, the insurance company involved—yours or the other driver’s—likely will try to minimize what they have to pay and might not be particularly receptive to initial settlement demands. If the other driver insists he was not at fault and calls upon his insurance company to act accordingly, the insurance company might not too cooperative, either, depending upon the merits of the driver’s claim to be blameless.
- Legal proceedings. If initial settlement talks go poorly, your lawyer is fairly likely to file a legal complaint. This can hasten the process, but it does not necessarily do so. Insurance adjusters do not get points off for declining to settle if they have a good reason. If the insurance company believes there is good reason to fight a claim, you might be in for a long haul.
- Questions of fault: If fault is not clear, the other driver or his insurance company could be reluctant to settle, or at least reluctant to settle for as much as you are asking for.
If some or all of these factors are in play, and if the other driver’s insurance company is foot-dragging on a settlement, you might have to move things to the next level.
Sometimes Litigation Is Necessary
Different attorneys take different views on when to file a lawsuit for their client in a traffic-accident personal injury case. Some prefer to file suit as soon as the client hires them. Others prefer to let settlement negotiations proceed for a bit to see how things are going before filing suit.
Neither approach is wrong. Filing a suit right away puts a certain amount of expense on the attorney. It also starts clocks running with the court for attorney conferences, the start of discovery, the end of discovery, deadlines for pre-trial motions, and other court requirements before trial, including setting a trial date at some point. One theory holds that a litigation schedule forces the insurance company to hold their feet to the fire and increases pressure to settle.
Another theory holds that if the insurance company is willing to fight against settling to the point of going to trial, threatening the company with a litigation schedule is not going to change the company’s mind. Both viewpoints have valid support. The primary advantage of filing a lawsuit early in the process is that, if the insurance company is willing to fight the claim, it is better to file suit early and move the litigation process along. Waiting to file only prolongs the process.
Filing a lawsuit is not a guarantee that your case will go to trial. In fact, it probably increases your odds of going to trial only slightly more than actually being in an accident does. Cases can settle as soon as the complaint is filed, they can settle once discovery is over, they even can settle after the trial is done, but before the jury comes back with a verdict.
A case can settle at any point before a judgment is entered in favor of either the plaintiff or defendant. Realistically, it could settle after that—the winning side might want to avoid the risk of the judgment in their favor being reversed on appeal or to simply avoid the cost of an appeal. Even if your case goes to trial, settlement remains a possibility at every step along the way.
What are those steps? Litigation is a fairly well-defined process. Every case is different, but court procedures mandate a certain order to how a case proceeds. Naturally, all steps can be delayed or prolonged, but certain things may take place during the course of a lawsuit.
- Filing a complaint: This is how every lawsuit starts. Maybe filing a lawsuit will give a jumpstart to settlement talks, but maybe it won’t. It is a long time between filing a lawsuit and reaching a verdict, and insurance adjusters are judged on whether they achieve a good result for the company, not on how long it takes. Don’t expect the settlement to happen as soon as your attorney files a lawsuit.
- A discovery conference: This is when the court and the attorneys for the parties meet and decide on a schedule for discovery, which is the period when the parties exchange document requests and interrogatories (questions, basically) to gather information about what happened. Each side will serve the other with document requests and interrogatories, and each side must respond with relevant documents or information.
- Discovery: Each side files its requests, and the other side has a set period of time to answer, usually 30 days, but depending upon agreements made during the discovery conference. As the facts available become clear, it becomes more likely that one side or the other—or both sides—will perceive weaknesses in their case and be more willing to settle. If the matter has made it this far, this is a point at which settlement becomes more likely, as both sides are now in possession of all of the available facts regarding what happened.
- Pre-trial motions: These can include motions to seek or exclude evidence—such as particularly gory photographs from the accident scene—to challenge expert testimony, or even to dismiss the case or for summary judgment, in which case the party filing a successful motion wins because there is no dispute of fact and the moving part prevails as a matter of law.
- Trial: This really doesn’t happen very often, but going to trial is not necessarily the end of the possibility for settlement. Many cases settle just as the trial is opening, and more than a few cases have settled when the case goes to the jury, or even while the jury is deliberating. Plaintiffs and defendants each decide how they think the trial went for them and make settlement decisions accordingly. Once a judgment is entered, the parties remain free to settle, but the prevailing party then has considerably less reason to give up anything that amounts to less than the judgment obtained.
- Appeals: The prevailing party has little incentive to settle for less than the judgment awarded unless that party wants to avoid the time and expense of an appeal of the result of the trial. This could be true if there is the possibility that an error of fact or law occurred that might result in the judgment being overturned or sent back for a new trial.
How Long a Settlement Takes Depends on the Facts of the Case
Every case is different, and every settlement will take a different amount of time. Some will happen quickly, and some won’t. Sometimes the case will go to trial because disputes of fact are sufficient to make one side unwilling to settle for what the other side is offering. Sometimes those disputes won’t be significant enough to make either party willing to fight the case in court. How long a case will take to settle, in other words, depends upon the case.
If you were recently involved in a car accident and have questions contact a car accident attorney today.
Brauns Law, P.C.
3175 Satellite Boulevard, Bldg 600
Duluth, GA 30096