Most personal injury claims are settled or negotiated outside of court. However, there are some circumstances where you can’t reach an agreement. Your attorney may suggest that it’s time to file a personal injury lawsuit.
If you’re in this boat, the idea of taking your case to court may sound intimidating. Our goal today is to help you understand what to expect. And please understand that this blog post is intended to give a brief overview. Every case is a little different, which is why it’s good to work with a well-rated personal injury attorney who can help you navigate the twists and turns.
Whether it’s a car crash or a dog bite, most injury cases can be settled outside of court. And in most cases, the court system would prefer it that way. This frees up the court’s schedule to hear bigger cases.
But when negotiations stall or fail, a lawsuit can be filed. This shifts the decision-making power to a judge or jury. The two primary reasons why a case may move to a courtroom trial are:
Whatever the situation, taking a case to trial carries risk. A judge or jury could ultimately decide in favor of the defendant. If this happens, you could walk away with nothing and all discussions for compensation can end. Given this, make sure to ask your attorney about cases like yours they’ve taken to trial, and what the outcomes were. On the other hand, remember that most injury attorneys work on a contingency basis which means they only get paid if they win your case. As a result, most attorneys aren’t willing to take on cases if they aren’t reasonably confident that they can obtain a positive jury verdict.
Your attorney will start the process by filing a complaint and summons. The complaint outlines what happened, your injuries, and identifies the party you are seeking compensation from. A second document, called the summons notifies them they’ve been sued. Both of these documents are served to the defendant. Then, they must respond with an answer.
From there, the bulk of the pre-trial preparation is spent in discovery. Discovery allows both parties access to key information about the case. This is one benefit of filing a lawsuit; your attorney may get vital evidence not previously available to settle your case. Discovery can involve interviews under oath (called depositions), physical examinations, and other requests of records.
In general, the pre-trial phase lasts about a year or more. For instance, if our firm files a standard injury case today in Pierce County, the trial date will be set one year from today. In more complex cases, such as medical malpractice, it would be 18 months from today. However, trial dates often get moved further out for a variety of reasons.
At any point during this process, settlement is still an option. As the facts become known about the case, sometimes the defendant will decide it’s in their best interest to make a settlement offer and avoid a costly lawsuit. Remember, you always get the final say in whether to accept an offer. But a skilled attorney can advise you on the fairness of any offer and explain your legal options.
In most Washington counties, cases valued at $100,000 or less will be placed in mandatory arbitration. Instead of a jury trial, you will have an arbitrator hear your case and make a final decision. This is another way the courts keep their schedules free to hear larger cases.
With arbitration, your attorney will be able to go through the discovery process to build your case, though the scope is more limited than a trial. You also may be able to have your case arbitrated in a few months from filing, instead of waiting a year or more from a trial. Another advantage to arbitration is that you may receive any settlement awarded sooner.
We’ve written a separate, longer post outlining how mandatory arbitration works.
Suppose all attempts for settling haven’t worked, and your case is moving forward to a trial. In general, personal injury trials last several days to a couple weeks. However, there are always exceptions. We’ve seen some last more than a month. Your attorney will work closely with you at this stage, carefully preparing you for the courtroom. Here’s what you can expect to take place at court.
Opening Statements. Each party will get an opportunity to present the basic facts of what happened and what they hope to prove over the course of the trial. This step is crucial. It’s the first impression your attorney will make with the jury about your case.
Witness Testimony & Cross Examination. Witnesses from both parties will take the stand. They will be questioned and then cross examined by the other side. You and your attorney may also decide that you should take the stand. If so, rest assured that your attorney will prepare you for this.
Closing Arguments. During this final portion, each party makes a final argument, summarizing their position.
From here, the jury will be given instructions from the judge and will deliberate on the case. If they find for you (the Plaintiff), they will determine how much compensation you should receive for your injuries. If they find for the Defendant, you won’t receive compensation. Sometimes, they will rule that you were partly to blame for your injuries. When this happens, the jury will assign you a percentage of fault. Your verdict amount will then be reduced by this percentage.
Obviously, you play a central role in the success of your lawsuit. There are some steps you can take that will make your attorney’s job much easier in representing you in court.
A good attorney will make time to answer all your questions and inform you of your legal rights at every step. They should explain things in language you can understand. Remember, it’s in their best interest to thoroughly prepare you for trial and all that entails. If they don’t win your case, they are unlikely to get paid.
Likely, you will also be in close contact with your attorney’s staff, such as their paralegal. When looking for an attorney to work with on your case, consider the professionalism and friendliness of their team as well.
At Ladenburg Law, we’re always here to help you with a free case review. That’s right – there’s no cost just to see if you might have a personal injury lawsuit. In fact, we only charge a fee if we decide to work together and win you a settlement. With decades of combined experience handling cases in and out of the court, we know what it takes to win.
Reaching out is easy. You can call or fill out the short form on our contact page. Don’t wait; reach out today.