Television and radio ads are full of lawyers promising you a large settlement for your car accident case. These lawyers often make it sound like the settlement process is simple and quick, and they rarely talk about the court-based side of things. In truth, a car accident lawsuit can be a lengthy, emotionally draining endeavor, especially when the case does not settle and goes to trial. So what can you expect when you decide to pursue a case for damages arising from injuries you have suffered in a car accident? How likely is it that your case will settle, and when?
Settlement Is the Rule; Trials Are the Rare Exception
As a general rule, it is much more likely than not that your case will settle before it goes to trial. There is no universal nationwide data, but by most estimates, the probability of settling a personal injury case before trial is somewhere between 93 and 97 percent.
There are three main reasons why this is so. First, insurance companies are looking to minimize their risk and costs. The longer a case goes on, the costlier it becomes for the insurance company in terms of legal fees, expert witness fees, depositions, document production, and other litigation expenses. In addition, insurance companies can eliminate the risk of a large jury verdict by settling the case before it's in the hands of a jury, whose tendencies aren't always easy to predict. So, all other things being equal, it is in the insurance company's financial interest to settle a car accident case as early as possible. (Learn more about The Role of Insurance in a Car Accident Case.)
Second, both you and your lawyer will be motivated to settle the case, albeit for different reasons. Your motivation will stem from your desire to avoid the time and stress associated with car accident depositions, independent medical exams, court appearances and the like. In addition, you will want to receive your settlement payout as soon as possible, particularly if your injuries have prevented you from working and earning a living. Your attorney's motivation will arise from the fact that she has likely taken your case on a contingency fee basis, which means that she receives a certain percentage (e.g., 33 and 1/3 percent) of any settlement or judgment obtained. The fewer number of hours she spends on your case, the more lucrative it is in terms of dollars per hour. The practice of law is a business, after all. Learn more about Contingency Fees in Personal Injury Cases.
Third, all parties involved in the case are interested in bringing finality to the proceedings, and a settlement accomplishes this by including a stipulation and court order to dismiss the case "with prejudice", which means that it can't be brought again. When a case does not settle and goes to trial, the losing party typically has the right to appeal the decision to an intermediate appellate court. The appeal process can be drawn out and costly, and may not even bring finality to the case, since there is yet another level of appeal (usually to the state's Supreme Court). In many states it is not uncommon for the appellate process to drag on for three years or longer.
So it's easy to see why most car accident cases will settle before trial. Of course, the amount of your settlement will depend on the severity and permanency of your injuries, the determination of the parties' relative degrees of fault in causing the accident, and your lawyer's negotiating skills. Learn more: How Do I Know What My Car Accident Case is Worth? and When Can I Expect a Settlement in My Car Accident Case?