A personal injury lawsuit allows an accident victim to hold the at-fault party financially responsible for their injuries and damages. For example, the victim of a car accident can sue the at-fault party for their economic and non-economic losses. But how does a personal injury lawsuit work? And does every injured person need to file one?
A lawsuit begins with a complaint, which informs the defendant of the impending civil proceedings. Then, both parties exchange information and present their arguments in court. This is the basic framework of how many lawsuits unfold. If you have specific questions about your legal options, feel free to consult an experienced personal injury attorney in your area.
Understanding the Purpose of Personal Injury Lawsuits
Every state allows victims hurt by someone else’s careless, reckless, or intentional actions to hold them legally responsible in court. For example, under Georgia law, victims can sue the at-fault party and demand appropriate compensation for their injuries and any related expenses or losses. If the victim passes away, their loved ones can seek and recover compensation.
Personal injury lawsuits are based on what is also known as tort laws or wrongful injury laws. These statutes create legal liability for anyone who acts negligently and harms someone else. This applies to many situations, including traffic accidents, falls, pool accidents, boating injuries, and more.
A good way to learn if you have a personal injury case is to meet with an attorney who handles cases like yours. For example, you should talk to a traffic accident attorney if you suffered injuries in a collision. You could have a right to hold the other driver responsible and recover compensation. Most personal injury law firms provide free initial consultations for injured people like yourself.
How Personal Injury Lawsuits Work
If you want to file a personal injury lawsuit, understand that there is likely a strict deadline that applies based on your state’s laws. This usually ranges from one year to four years. For example, under Georgia law, an accident victim generally has up to two years to file paperwork and begin a lawsuit.
There are several steps required before a personal injury lawsuit makes it to the courtroom. Understanding this process is important if you are considering litigation. Your attorney can explain each step and the details of what will likely happen in your case during this time.
The following is how many personal injury lawsuits unfold:
The Plaintiff Files the Complaint
As the plaintiff, your attorney can file the initial complaint to begin your personal injury lawsuit. They can prepare documents explaining what happened and why you are suing. These documents also outline the case, describing the injuries, the damages you suffered, and who is financially responsible.
The Defendant Responds
The accused party, known as the defendant, has a limited time to respond to the lawsuit. This is generally around 30 days, depending on state and local laws. With help from their attorney or a lawyer hired by their insurance company, they file paperwork that tells their side of the story. They often deny causing the injuries, blame someone else, or downplay the severity of the incident and your damages.
Discovery and Pretrial Motions Unfold
Once the defendant responds to the lawsuit, pretrial motions can begin. This usually occurs concurrently with discovery. Pretrial motions allow each side to make special requests from the judge. This could include making a summary judgment to end the case quickly or throwing out certain evidence, for example.
Discovery is the term used for an in-depth investigation of the incident. Both sides gather evidence, build a case to support their sides of the story, and share key evidence with the other side.
As a part of discovery, you will likely participate in:
- Interrogatories: Answering written questions under oath
- Depositions: Answering spoken questions under oath in an informal setting
Your personal injury lawyer can guide you through this process, offering advice and representing you throughout. They can remain by your side during any depositions and protect your rights.
Mediation and Other Settlement Talks Take Place
Most civil courts require parties to participate in mediation or another settlement discussion before going to trial. Mediation uses a trained go-between to help the two sides reach a settlement agreement. This is one of the most common types of settlement talks that courts mandate.
If there is no settlement following the required discussion, the judge will put the case on their docket. That means they set a trial date. When this occurs depends on how many cases are in that court, among other factors.
Your Lawyer Argues Your Case at Trial
If an out-of-court settlement isn’t feasible, your attorney and the defense’s legal team could work together to create a jury. Some cases don’t rely on juries, though.
Most trials occur in the local civil courthouse in the county where the incident occurred. They can last a few hours, although some take several days.
Generally, the parts of the trial include:
- The plaintiff or your attorney presents their evidence against the defendant.
- The defense cross-examines any witnesses called.
- The defense presents its side of the story.
- Your attorney cross-examines the defense’s witnesses.
- Your attorney has a chance to respond to the defense’s case.
- Both sides make their closing statements.
- The case goes to the judge or jury.
- There is a positive verdict, and you could receive compensation. If not, you could file an appeal.
Not all lawsuits proceed in this fashion. For instance, your lawyer may continue negotiating with the insurance company while your case unfolds at trial. If the insurer agrees to pay what you need, then there’s no need to see your case through to completion. You can drop the case, accept the settlement, and move on.
Why Your Personal Injury Lawyer May File a Lawsuit
Most personal injury cases never go to trial. Claimants either drop their cases or reach negotiated settlements.
Still, your lawyer may leave litigation an option if:
- They’ve dealt with the liable insurer before. Experienced lawyers know which insurance companies settle and which ones don’t. Upon learning about the liable insurer in your case, they may keep litigation open, as they can use this as leverage during negotiations.
- The insurer denies your claim. You have options if the liable insurer refuses to pay what you’re owed. One of those options involves filing a lawsuit and taking your case to trial.
- The liable policy doesn’t cover all of your damages. If the at-fault party carries the minimum required insurance, this coverage may not account for each of your losses. This could especially be the case if you suffered a life-altering injury or lost a loved one. A lawsuit could yield compensation not included in the liable policy.
- Your attorney thinks they could secure punitive damages. Sometimes, another party’s egregious negligence harms others. When this happens, the court may decide to levy punitive damages, which punishes the at-fault party for their reckless conduct. An insurance claim can’t yield punitive damages; however, a lawsuit can.
Your lawyer may also file a lawsuit to protect your right to litigation, even if an insurance settlement is on the horizon. That’s because, as noted, if the statute of limitations expires, you could lose the right to seek damages. Filing your lawsuit within this period allows you to secure compensation via litigation if it becomes necessary.
What to Know About Personal Injury Lawsuits
If you’re considering litigation, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Lawsuits don’t resolve themselves immediately. On TV, it seems like civil cases open and close within minutes. That’s not the case for real-world situations. Your case could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to reach a fair conclusion.
- Lawsuits don’t come with surprises. Televised courtroom dramas love plot twists, like surprise witnesses and last-minute forms of evidence. Again, these things likely won’t happen in your case. Both sides have the same information to work with and must follow certain protocols to get some information admitted as evidence.
- You might not have to testify. You may have concerns about giving a statement on the stand. Yet, you might not have to testify in the first place. If there’s compelling evidence that asserts your right to damages, your attorney may rely on a written or verbal statement you made to get your point across.
- Your state may not cap how much you can request. Some states don’t limit how much money you can request via a personal injury lawsuit. This means there’s no limit to what you can request from the at-fault party. Your attorney can advise you accordingly if that’s the case.
When you partner with an attorney, they can explain what you can expect from the legal process. That way, you can understand how a personal injury lawsuit works.
An Attorney’s Role in a Personal Injury Lawsuit
While it is possible to handle a personal injury lawsuit on your own, law firms don’t typically recommend it. Personal injury lawyers have the knowledge, experience, and resources not available to most injured claimants. And, the fact is, litigation requires a lot of time and attention.
A personal injury attorney’s job begins long before filing a complaint in civil court. They need to take several steps before preparing the paperwork to sue. This includes:
Investigating the Case
Before an attorney can demand compensation from the insurer or file suit against the at-fault party, they need evidence to support the case. This information must show the insurer or jury what happened, the at-fault party’s liability, and your damages.
Investigating these cases is not always easy. Sometimes, obtaining the report filed by police and interviewing eyewitnesses is enough. In other cases, lawyers must call in experts for accident recreation, information about the client’s prognosis, and other details. They may need to identify and analyze other evidence, including videos, photographs, and medical records.
Negligence is key in most personal injury cases. When a party acts carelessly or recklessly, and there are injuries, they generally acted negligently. Proving this is necessary to hold them legally accountable. This is what the evidence gathered during the investigation is for.
With supporting evidence, your attorney can show negligence occurred.
There are four elements required to show negligence:
- The defendant owed you a certain duty of care.
- They breached this duty of care.
- Their breach caused the incident.
- You suffered injuries and financial losses because of the incident.
For example, consider a car accident case. A motorist owes others a duty of care to drive cautiously. For example, they must stop at red lights. Failing to do so would be a breach of this duty. Violating a traffic law can often cause a collision, and when these incidents happen, victims can suffer a wide range of injuries and damages.
Identifying the Liable Party or Parties
Once your attorney documents that negligence occurred, they can determine the liable party. In most cases, the negligent party is liable for the harm that occurred, including injuries and financial losses. In some cases, there could be other liable parties, too. For example, when a commercial driver causes a crash, their employer could be vicariously liable based on state law.
Valuing the Injured Claimant’s Expenses and Losses
As a part of their investigation into the accident, the attorney must identify the damages the victim suffered. For example, your attorney can collect your medical bills, repair estimates, paperwork related to time away from work, and other documentation that shows your expenses or losses.
They may also work with medical experts and economists to understand your anticipated damages. This is important because they need to know the full range of your related damages. The attorney also will estimate a value for your non-economic damages, including pain and suffering.
Using this information, they can put a fair settlement range on your case. This allows them to better negotiate for a fair payout and document your losses if the case goes to trial.