The two most common questions we get from people who are making a personal injury claim are, “How much is my case worth?” and “How long will my case take?” Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to either question. Just as every accident is different, so is every injury claim.
As for timing, if the extent of your losses is known and liability is not in dispute, your case could settle in a month or two, before a lawsuit is even filed. But complex injury cases can sometimes take years to resolve, as they languish in the court system.
To get an idea of how long your injury case might take, it’s best to understand the different aspects of a typical claim, and the common steps on the path toward resolution.
Evaluating the Injury
After any kind of accident, it takes time to determine the full extent of your injuries. Doctors are often unable to give an opinion about the seriousness of an injury until the patient's condition has stabilized. In serious injury cases, it may take a year after the accident before a doctor can say that the accident injuries have healed, or to pinpoint health problems that may be permanent.
It's very important to take the necessary time to fully evaluate your injuries and make sure you’ve reached “maximum medical improvement” (often called “MMI” for short). Once you take a settlement offer or get a verdict at trial, that decision is final. You can't go back and ask for more money if you later find out your injuries are more serious than you first thought. So, making sure you get the best result is more important than making sure you get the quickest result. Learn more: How Long Will My Personal Injury Claim Take?
Initial Settlement Discussions
Soon after the extent of the injured person’s losses are understood, and all medical records, bills, property repair estimates, and other documents have been gathered, the injured person (and his or her attorney) will typically send a detailed demand letter to the person who caused the injury (or to that person’s insurance company; learn more about the role of insurance in settling a personal injury lawsuit).
Both sides will test the settlement waters at this point, and sometimes a settlement agreement is reached. If not, it's onto the different stages of a personal injury lawsuit.
Filing the Lawsuit
If settlement talks stall, or the two sides are too far apart on what the case is worth, this is the point at which the injured person will usually file their lawsuit in the state’s civil court system. That means filing a complaint with the court that spells out the allegations against the defendant regarding the accident and resulting injuries, along with a summons, and also serving those documents on the defendant. (More: How and Where Do I File a Personal Injury Lawsuit?)
The discovery period gives each party time to find out all they can about the other side's case. The attorneys exchange disclosure statements that give the facts of the case and list the witnesses and any experts who are involved. You'll be asked to answer interrogatories, which are written questions that you answer under oath.
You'll also be asked to produce documents or authorize others to produce documents for you such as accident reports, medical records and bills, and insurance policies. You may be asked to undergo a independent medical exam to verify the extent of your injuries.
During a personal injury deposition (which is another part of the discovery process), you’ll be asked questions under oath. A court reporter types up a record of everything that is said. Not only will you be questioned about the accident and your injuries, you'll be asked questions about your health, education, job situation, and other topics. Sometimes the questions may seem to get pretty far afield. It's your attorney's job to prepare you for the deposition. Your attorney will also "defend" your deposition by objecting to irrelevant or harassing questions.
It's possible for the attorneys to file all sorts of motions to narrow the issues before trial. The motions could object to certain evidence, or ask that the case be dismissed if there is not enough evidence of liability. To some extent, your personal injury lawsuit will also be at the mercy of the court's calendar, which could be crowded, drawing your case out even longer.
Mediation and Settlement
Settlement conferences, mediation, or arbitration are often required before personal injury cases can go to trial. In mediation, a neutral trained mediator goes over the issues and evidence with the parties to help guide them toward a settlement agreement. Arbitration is different in that the arbitrator acts like a judge to listen to the evidence and decide issues in the case.
If your case doesn't settle, it goes to trial, where a jury (or sometimes a judge alone) decides whether the defendant is in fact liable for the accident, and if so, what your injury is worth. Depending on where you live, it could take six months or so to get the trial scheduled on the court's docket.
The trial itself may last two days to two weeks or more. Once the trial is over, there may be further appeals and motions. It's possible for the parties to settle the case at any point during the trial, all the way up until the case goes to the jury for deliberation.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Does your current caseload allow you to make my personal injury lawsuit a priority?
- Do you anticipate using an expert witness(es) to establish different elements of my case? How long will that process take?
- Can you arrange for my health care providers to wait to be paid until my case is resolved?