Stages of a Car Accident Lawsuit
When you are involved in a car accident, the immediate aftermath can be painful, contentious, and often confusing. If you sustain an injury as a result of that accident, what you say and do during those first few moments can have a profound impact on your ability to seek damages for your injuries in the event that the other driver is at fault. Therefore, it is important to remain as calm as possible following an accident, while at the same time collecting as much information as you can without divulging more than you need to.
The cardinal rule to follow immediately after an accident is never admitting fault. Do not admit fault for the accident to the other driver, your passengers, the police, any witnesses, or your insurance agent. Your perception of what happened may be altered by the emotionality of the event, therefore admitting fault may inadvertently pigeonhole you into accepting responsibility for something that is actually not your fault. Next, seek immediate medical attention for your injuries so that their existence and severity can be documented as soon as possible. Also be sure to take detailed notes of all aspects related to your treatment, including the names and contact information of anyone involved (i.e., physician, therapists, pharmacist, etc.). Additionally, if you have visible injuries – such as cuts, bruises, or scrapes – take pictures of them immediately. Outward injuries that heal quickly are difficult to document, so you will want the photographic evidence on your side in the event you seek damages for them. You will also want to obtain a copy of the police report from your accident. Review it and check for accuracy in the facts, making note of any errors or omissions. Finally, you may wish to consult a personal injury attorney who has experience with car accident cases. Even if you have decided not to pursue damages for your injuries, you will certainly want to consult a personal injury attorney in the event that you are asked to sign papers or pre-written statements prepared by the other driver or their insurance company. Signing such documents unadvised can be detrimental to your rights.
If you do choose to file a claim against someone for injuries sustained as a result of a car accident, there are multiple stages involved in pursuing such lawsuits. However, the first thing you must do is contact a qualified, experienced personal injury attorney. Initial consultations are almost always free, and allow you the opportunity to describe what happened to the attorney and solicit their opinion as to the merit of your claim. At this meeting, the attorney will want you to describe what happened during the accident. Next, he or she will likely ask you questions pertaining to your medical treatment, other individuals who were involved in the accident, or potential witnesses. They may also ask if you have been in contact with your insurance company and if so, the nature of that contact and any information you provided to them. At this time, the attorney may state that your case is meritorious and convey their interest in representing you, or they may refer you to another attorney who could potentially better serve your needs. The possibility also exists that the attorney may decline to take your case. More on this website
In the event that he or she decides to take your case, and you decide to hire them to represent you, the next step will include a discussion of the logistics of your case, including a representation agreement, the different types of legal fees, and other expenses that you will incur, and an estimate of the costs associated with your case. The attorney will advise you regarding the next steps of your case, and you may also be asked to sign a form that allows your attorney to receive your medical records. Most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys will also advise you at this early meeting to refrain from discussing the details of your case with others, and instruct you to refer questions to them.
Stage One – Pleadings
If you decide to move forward with your case, the first stage involves filing the initial court papers, known as pleadings. The first of these that is usually filed is the complaint (or petition), which identifies the parties involved, establishes the legal basis for the court’s involvement, states your claims as the plaintiff, and describes the facts that relate to the claims. Also in the complaint will be a demand for judgment or a prayer for relief, which sets forth what you want the court to require the defendant to do, such as pay monetary damages. Next, the court issues a summons, which notifies the defendant that he or she is being sued, refers them to the complaint, and sets a time frame within which they must answer the charges or ask to have the case dismissed. The defendant’s response to the complaint is called an answer, and in this document, the defendant will respond to each paragraph, either admitting or denying each individual charge. More on this website
Stage Two – Discovery
A unique aspect of the United States judicial system is the requirement that all parties disclose the relevant facts and documents to each other prior to trial. This process is known as discovery. There are three types of discovery: written discovery, document production, and depositions. Written discovery allows both sides to question each other, and allows each party to ask the other to admit or deny specific facts essential to the case. During document production, each party is given access to almost every document that is relevant to the case, including computer files. Finally, depositions are sworn statements obtained when a person responds to an attorney’s questions under oath, in the presence of a court reporter (who creates a transcript). During a deposition, it is important to state only the facts that you know, as well as to refrain from providing extraneous information. In order for the discovery stage to work to your advantage, it is important to be truthful and forthcoming with your attorney and others involved and to understand and accept that this process will be time-consuming, expensive, and uncomfortable at times.
Stage Three – Motions
Motions are requests filed with the court by your lawyer, in which he or she asks for the court to rule on a specific matter pertaining to the case. These pre-trial motions can often help to resolve many questions pertaining to a particular lawsuit, and depending on the nature of the motion and ruling, they can even terminate a case prior to it ever going to trial. There are numerous motions that an attorney can file. Motions to dismiss are generally brought forth early in the case, sometimes even before the discovery stage, and are filed when the defendant believes that the complaint is somehow deficient from a legal perspective. Summary judgment motions are made when the central facts surrounding the case are not in dispute, necessitating that judgment be entered for one of the parties involved. Essentially, this kind of motion asks the court to consider the facts, apply the law, and argues that the court issue a judgment in favor of the party that files the summary judgment motion.
Stage Four – Settlement
In reality, a vast majority of personal injury legal claims never reach a courtroom; most are resolved through a settlement. In a settlement, the plaintiff agrees to give up their right to pursue legal action in exchange for the payment of an agreed amount from either the defendant or his or her insurance company. Settlements can be tempting to consider, but may not always be in the best interest of the plaintiff, especially in the event that they have a solid case or suffered a significant injury. As such, if you are considering settling a legal claim after sustaining a car accident-related injury, be sure and discuss the matter thoroughly with your attorney and get their perspective on the matter. There are multiple aspects of settlements that you need to consider, including your attorney’s assessment of your case’s potential worth; verdicts, and settlements from similar cases that may have set a financial precedent of sorts; practical difficulties that might arise if your case goes to trial; possible limits on the defendant’s insurance coverage; the defendant’s ability and available resources to pay a settlement; known negotiating tactics and approach of defendant’s counsel; and how a settlement will affect your attorney fees, expenses, and income taxes.
Stage Five – Trial
For most personal injury trials, regardless of what caused the injury, the basic structure of a trial will be the same. Jury selection will be followed by opening statements, which are made by each lead attorney on behalf of the plaintiff and the defendant. In the plaintiff’s opening statement, their attorney will present the facts pertaining to the accident and the injury, and describe the alleged role of the defendant in causing the damages. The opening statement by the defendant’s attorney will provide the defense’s interpretation of the facts and lays the groundwork for the rebuttal of the evidence that will be presented. Next, witnesses will provide testimony and will then be cross-examined by opposing counsel. Once both sides have presented their evidence and contested the evidence presented by the other side, both sides will “rest” their case. Closing arguments then follow and offer an opportunity for each side to summarize their perspective on the case. The jury will receive instructions from the judge, which outline the legal standards that pertain to the case, and instruct the jury on how those standards must be applied when considering the evidence. Finally, the jury will deliberate on the evidence and return with a verdict, either in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant.
Final Stage – Awards or Appeal
Even if a jury awards damages, it is not always easy to obtain the money. If the debtor is capable of paying the award, they typically will do so in order to avoid additional expenses and collection proceedings. However, in the event that the debtor is unable or unwilling to pay the award, it can be quite difficult to ever obtain those funds. Depending on the circumstances, additional litigation may be needed in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of the debtor’s finances, or wage garnishment may have to be pursued. In the unfortunate event that a debtor files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, an individual’s ability to recoup their judgment award is essentially gone, like that of other creditors. Finally, if the judgment is appealed by the losing party, payment of damages may be further delayed until the appeals process is complete.