There’s no fixed timeline for a personal injury case to settle. Every case takes its own course. Some might settle in just a few months, whereas others might take a year or more. And some never settle and instead must go to court for a resolution.
Let’s dig deep into the topic of personal injury settlements, including what they are, how they come to be, and the factors influencing their timing. In this discussion, it’s also key to address the critical role an experienced Atlanta personal injury Lawyer plays in securing the maximum possible settlement (or court award) for an injured individual.
Introduction to Personal Injury Settlements
Let’s start with the basics.
In personal injury law, a settlement agrees to resolve an injured individual’s claim for compensation against one or more parties liable for that individual’s losses. Most personal injury cases conclude with a settlement. A court’s written decision or a verdict after a courtroom trial typically resolves those that do not.
The standard parties to a personal injury settlement are the injured person (the plaintiff), the party (or parties) at fault for the person’s injury and losses (the defendant), and, often, the insurance company that issued liability insurance coverage to the defendant.
In a typical personal injury settlement, the injured party receives a designated payment from the defendant or their insurer in exchange for releasing them from further liability and terminating any legal actions pending against them.
Most settlements mark the definitive end to a personal injury claim. They’re final and largely irreversible. Once you have agreed to settle, you generally cannot reopen the case to seek additional compensation from the defendants or their insurers.
Accordingly, an injured person should only enter into a personal injury settlement if they feel it’s the most favorable outcome they can reasonably hope to achieve with their unique priorities and specific circumstances.
How Settlements Happen
Settlements are typically the fruit of negotiation between representatives of the parties involved, usually their lawyers and, sometimes, an adjuster working for the at-fault party’s liability insurance company. Occasionally, especially in more complex cases, an impartial mediator may assist in facilitating these talks. (In some jurisdictions, mediation is mandatory for all personal injury cases.)
Settlement negotiations can take on many forms. They can happen through email exchanges between lawyers, on telephone calls, or in face-to-face meetings. And they can occur sporadically, take place regularly within an extended period, or be a focused, one-time effort to reach an agreement.
Once the parties agree on the broad terms of the settlement, their attorneys usually draft a written agreement setting everything out in detail. All parties then sign this document, making it a legally binding contract. Each party subsequently performs their duties and obligations spelled out in the agreement, such as transferring settlement funds or filing formal dismissals of pending legal matters.
In ordinary practice, the parties paying the settlement (the defendant and their insurer) send money to the plaintiff’s lawyer. After deducting a legal fee and recouping any expenses, the lawyer distributes the remaining money to the plaintiff or anyone else the plaintiff designates.
Factors Affecting the Timing of a Settlement
The timeline for settling a personal injury case can vary based on numerous factors. Here are just some of the considerations that go into the commencement, duration, and ultimate success of settlement negotiations.
When the Injured Person Gets an Attorney
Having legal representation is critical in any personal injury case. Until an injured person has an attorney handling their claim, real, effective settlement negotiations generally do not happen.
Before this point, an injured person might receive an offer to settle from an at-fault party’s insurer. This, however, tends to be a lowball amount designed to take advantage of the injured person’s lack of legal knowledge and representation.
Engaging an experienced personal injury attorney as early as possible can streamline the negotiation process and increase the likelihood of a favorable settlement.
The Number of Parties to the Personal Injury Claim
Having several parties involved in a case typically means more complicated negotiations. More perspectives, points of contention, and people who must consent to the settlement can often translate to extended talks and a higher likelihood of disagreement and delay. Settling with multiple defendants may require several insurance policies to resolve disputes with each other regarding who should pay the plaintiff or what contributions each should make.
The Amount of Money at Stake
Higher amounts of money at stake make for more complex and lengthy negotiations. When dealing with substantial sums, defendants and their insurers often fight harder to avoid paying, potentially drawing out negotiations.
Higher stakes can also motivate injured parties to consider settlement offers more carefully when determining if they’re fair. In other words, everyone in a high-dollar personal injury case tends to have a strong financial incentive to spend extra time and effort on negotiating a settlement, which can stretch the timeline considerably.
The Factual and Legal Complexity of the Case
Cases involving extensive fact investigations or complex legal analysis can delay or slow settlement negotiations. For instance, if a case involves multiple witnesses or technical subject matter, the negotiation process may take longer. Similarly, if the case’s legal issues are intricate, such as those involving a novel point of law or controversial statute, the settlement process may begin later and become drawn out longer.
Cases involving simple facts and well-established legal principles are more likely to have relatively quick settlement timelines. Parties tend not to want to waste time and money investigating and analyzing personal injury matters when everyone mostly agrees on the essential questions of who is liable and what damages the plaintiff suffered.
Negotiation Strategies and Tactics
The timeline for a settlement can significantly vary according to how the parties choose to approach negotiations. Some parties may choose to delay negotiating until after litigation discovery (the process in which parties exchange information about their claims and defenses), in hopes that additional facts will emerge that strengthen their position.
Defendants or insurance companies may also try to pressure the plaintiff to settle by delaying negotiations until the plaintiff starts to feel financial strain.
Some parties, conversely, try to gain a strategic or tactical advantage by pressing for quick settlement talks.
A defendant or insurer worried about revealing potentially damaging information may rush to offer a settlement before a plaintiff files suit. Or, occasionally, parties may enter into settlement talks simply to gauge their opponent’s viewpoints and confidence levels, not intending to strike a deal until much later or at all.
Settlement negotiation, in short, can often resemble a game of cat and mouse. Each side angles to pursue talks when they believe they enjoy the greatest advantage and have the most to gain. Often as facts develop and a case proceeds, the parties’ views on settlement tend to coalesce around the benefits of reaching a settlement rather than spending more time, money, and effort on fighting. Sometimes jockeying for advantage causes the parties’ views to diverge so sharply that settlement becomes impossible.
What Happens When Personal Injury Cases Do Not Settle
Despite the prevalence of settlement in personal injury cases, not all end that way. If the parties cannot agree on a settlement agreement after negotiating, a court may instead resolve the case after the plaintiff files a lawsuit. There are two common ways that can happen.
Through a Court’s Decision on a Written Motion
A personal injury lawsuit can resolve through a court’s decision on a written motion filed by one of the parties. A motion is a request for a court to decide an issue. The parties in a personal injury lawsuit often use written motions to narrow the issues in a case or to gain an advantage in settlement negotiations.
Most commonly, the resolution of a case on written motions occurs at the end of the discovery period through a motion for summary judgment(a party’s written request for the court to decide the case based on facts no one disputes) without a trial.
But it can also happen earlier in a case through a motion to dismiss, in which a party asks the court to throw out the lawsuit on procedural grounds or because the facts alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint, even if true, do not amount to a viable claim.
A court decision on a written motion can resolve a personal injury lawsuit completely (one side or the other wins) or only partially (leaving the rest for a trial to resolve).
Through a Courtroom Trial
A personal injury case that the parties fail to settle or resolve through a court’s decision on a motion will typically go to trial. At trial, a jury (or judge in a bench trial) will hear evidence presented by both sides and determine liability and damages. The jury’s (or judge’s) decision after hearing the evidence resolves the case (although either party may have the right to appeal).
Trials are unpredictable and can lead to a wide range of outcomes. The risk of an unpredictable result at trial is one reason parties tend to prefer settling personal injury cases when they can reach an agreement that suits their interests. By settling, they control the outcome of the case and (to some degree) what people say about it in public. A trial, by contrast, leaves their fate in the hands of a judge or jurors with no personal stake in what happens.
On occasion, one side may want a trial. They may see it as an opportunity to make a public statement, clarify an issue of law, or “go for broke” after failed settlement discussions. Parties with those perspectives may prefer taking their chances in court rather than settling.
Steps You Can Take To Keep Your Personal Injury Case on Track
Even though you might not have full control of the timing of a settlement in your personal injury case, there are several steps you can take to ensure that your case progresses smoothly and that you have the best chance of a successful outcome. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind.
Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer Immediately
Do not wait to hire an experienced personal injury lawyer to handle your claim. Legal representation is not just nice to have in a personal injury case—it’s essential.
A skilled attorney can handle every step in securing compensation for you, prevent you from missing deadlines or making mistakes that harm your rights, and act as a fierce advocate for your interests in settlement discussions.
By involving an attorney early, you protect your rights from the very start. Once hired, a lawyer can initiate a thorough investigation of your claim, gather evidence, liaise with other parties involved in the case, and begin negotiating on your behalf.
Do Not Accept Lowball Settlements
Insurance companies often attempt to minimize their financial exposure by offering injured parties lowball settlements early in the claim process, sometimes before they have spoken with a lawyer or learned the extent of their injuries and losses. Remember: once you accept a settlement offer, you typically cannot reopen your case or seek additional compensation.
Resist the temptation to say yes to a lowball settlement simply because it happens quickly. Even if you want to settle as soon as possible, a skilled personal injury lawyer can step in, negotiate on your behalf, and almost always get you far more than what an at-fault party or insurer initially offered.
Hold on to Documentation for Your Lawyer To Review
Documentation of your accident, injuries, and losses can be critical to a successful personal injury case. So please, hold on to all medical records, doctor’s reports, receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses related to your injury, photographs of your injuries or damage to your property, and any correspondence with the insurance company or other parties.
Your attorney may need this documentation to build a strong case and demonstrate the full extent of your damages. Saving it to give to your attorney saves them the time and effort of tracking it down.
Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer Today
The timeline for settling your personal injury claim can depend on several factors that lie beyond your control. But you do control one essential element of how quickly your case proceeds: when you hire a lawyer to represent your interests.
The sooner you have an attorney handling your personal injury claim, the quicker it can reach its conclusion, whatever that might entail. To learn about the prospects for settling your case, contact an experienced personal injury lawyer today for a free consultation.