Though the personal injury timeline follows a basic sequence, it’s not linear and it’s not speedy. All legal proceedings are time consuming, but personal injury cases are particularly so. It’s an arduous process gathering all the facts. Researching, compiling medical evidence, and speaking with physicians and other experts, and keeping it all organized requires close attention to detail.
And then there are the insurance companies. There is hardly a personal injury case that can avoid dealing with them at some point along the way. Cutting through their red tape involves several cycles of ask, wait, and review before you have everything you need. Finally, once the lawsuit is filed, there is a lot of back-and-forth between attorneys, clerks, and experts and that means lots of waiting.
But you shouldn’t rush the process. When you are the victim of an accident, sometimes the only way to find closure and receive justice is for the legal system to compel appropriate action. The good news is, an experienced personal injury attorney knows how to navigate this system and can patiently guide you through the lengthy and complex process. Our personal injury lawyers have handled over 2700 cases, so we like to think we are very well equipped to successfully handle 99% of all personal injury cases.
So here are the main stages of a typical personal injury timeline.
GET MEDICAL TREATMENT
The most important thing to do after your accident is to see a physician. The best idea is to see your doctor on the same day as your accident, even if you don’t think you were hurt. In car accidents, some of the most severe injuries are internal and go unnoticed. A doctor will know what to look for, what injuries are typical in various types of accidents, and what you should do to take care of yourself. Be sure your treatment is documented carefully. This will be the beginning of a long paper trail leading from your accident to a settlement or judgment in your favor.
CHOOSE YOUR LAWYER
Consult with an attorney right after you seek medical treatment. Every day that passes between you and your accident is another chance to forget important details. In your initial consultation, you’ll tell your attorney what happened and they’ll ask you questions to get as much information as possible. It is a good idea to bring relevant documents that can confirm any information you provide. This is how he or she will assess the strength of your case and decide how best to proceed. Personal injury firms handle consultations in various ways. Some charge a nominal fee, but most will meet with you for free and operate on a contingency basis. That means they don’t get paid until you receive compensation.
After the initial consultation, the attorney will either take your case, ask to consider it for a short time, refer you to another attorney, or refuse to take it altogether. Once an attorney takes your case and an agreement is reached about legal fees, a letter of representation is served to the insurance company and the defendants. The lawyer will then start investigating your claim.
INVESTIGATION OF YOUR CLAIM
Before a lawsuit is filed, your attorney will do as much investigating as possible to prepare your claim. It’s important to do this now while you still have control of the timeline. Once a lawsuit is filed, outside parties (insurance companies and opposing counsel) can create more work and run up more legal fees for you. Tapping the brakes at this stage allows your lawyer to research every detail of your case at a pace that will prevent him or her from missing anything important. Included in this phase is a letter of representation that your lawyer will send to the defendant’s attorney, the insurance companies involved, or any other parties from whom your side needs information.
LETTER OF DEMAND AND NEGOTIATING
After your lawyer has a pretty clear picture of your claim, he or she will draft a letter to be sent to the party responsible for your accident. This will be a lengthy and specific letter outlining the facts of your case, liability as determined by your attorney, any medical treatment you required, and any additional damages sustained in the accident.
Also in this letter is an itemization of demands enumerating your expectations for compensation, exhibits of any documents (like medical bills), and a deadline for responding to the demands. This is the jumping off point for negotiating a possible settlement and the final step before filing a lawsuit. If you can reach a settlement at this time, consider yourself lucky. Your personal injury timeline will have been shorter than most.
THE LAWSUIT IS FILED
If no settlement can be negotiated, the next step is to file a lawsuit. Your lawyer will prepare a legal complaint which outlines the parties involved, what transpired from your point-of-view, the legal basis for your grievance, and what you are seeking in the way of compensation.
Some time later, the defendant is served a summons, a notification from the court that they are being sued. It will include your petition and a deadline for responding. Answering your claim is done by admitting, denying, or claiming insufficient information to do either. They may also answer with a counterclaim (an explanation for why you are at fault), an affirmative defense (a legal reason why they aren’t liable), or a motion to dismiss based on any of the above. Then you have a designated amount of time to answer the defendant.
This series of exchanges can require several months, mountains of paperwork, and plenty of waiting.
Now both sides will be gathering facts about the case. The first step in this fact-finding mission is interrogatories. These are questions that each party poses in writing to the opposing side. Knowing the right questions to ask is critical. Your personal injury attorney will prepare this document and will help you answer (or not answer, if appropriate) the interrogatories posed by the defense.
Next, both sides will be asked to produce all documents related to the lawsuit such as accident reports, medical records (which you may be asked to authorize), electronic communications, or anything else that will be used in preparing their cases.
Oral depositions follow. These are sworn statements in an informal setting, probably an attorney’s office, used to build both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s cases before trial. Your attorney will ask specific questions of the defendant and will advise you of how and when to answer questions when you are deposed by the defense.
At some point during the discovery process, the defendant’s attorney will likely ask you to be examined by a physician of their choosing. Legally, all findings, experts, and the subjects about which they will testify must be disclosed to the opposition.
MEDIATION AND NEGOTIATION
Even at this stage, there are still a few ways to avoid the inside of a courtroom. First, many states require parties to go through mediation before a case goes to trial. This is a conference conducted by a judge or other neutral party in which both sides attempt to settle the case a trial. If mediation is successful, the mediator writes up the terms of the settlement and everyone signs.
Sometimes, a judge will dismiss a case. Reasons for dismissal include failure by either party to adhere to the process or timeline, lack of jurisdiction by the court, or failure by the plaintiff to prove that there is a claim.
If mediation fails and the case isn’t dismissed, the matter proceeds to trial. All of the facts and testimony compiled up to that point are presented in court before a judge and/or jury. Personal injury trials can take anywhere from four days to three weeks including a jury deliberation. The judgement will be delivered at the end of the trial.
The better your attorney’s reputation, the more likely you are to reach a settlement before your case goes to trial. However, rushing to settle before you have had an opportunity to realize the full impact the accident, both physical and financial, is a mistake. In most cases, and definitely at RDPA, your lawyer isn’t being paid by the hour so they aren’t lining their pocket by stretching your case out longer than necessary. Their primary goal is to help you navigate the personal injury timeline efficiently but thoroughly and secure the best compensation and medical care for you in the aftermath of your accident.