If you have suffered preventable injuries due to negligence, you have the legal right to seek compensation for damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Suing after an injury is not a common occurrence for most people, so you may not understand the entire process of bringing a personal injury lawsuit. Most people file an insurance claim after suffering minor injuries and do not need to hire an attorney or take legal action.
However, severe preventable injuries come with significant losses, and victims of negligence typically need to bring a personal injury lawsuit against the party responsible for their injuries. A personal injury lawsuit is a civil legal action against a person, business, or other entity that provides a pathway for victims of negligence to receive compensation for their injuries, legally referred to as damages. Personal injury lawsuits are separate from any criminal cases related to injuries, and victims often fare better when they seek help from an experienced personal injury lawyer.
If you’ve suffered preventable injuries because of another party’s careless choices, you can take legal action to recover damages. If you’ve never been through the process, this guide provides a broad overview of the major steps in a personal injury lawsuit.
Let a Personal Injury Lawyer Evaluate Your Case
It’s best to consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible after suffering preventable injuries. A lawyer can explain the lawsuit process, review your case, and possibly help you reach a settlement with the other side without going to trial. Your attorney might not need to file a lawsuit to obtain favorable results. During your initial meeting, you can expect to discuss the details of your personal injury claim, including information about:
- the event or accident that harmed you. You might have sustained injuries in a traffic crash or another event like a slip and fall accident, construction site accident, pedestrian accident, or bicycle accident. Be prepared to provide as much detail as you can about how your injuries occurred, where they happened, and the timeline leading up to your injuries. The lawyer with whom you consult needs as much information as possible to evaluate whether you have a valid claim and who you should name as a defendant.
- medical treatment. Winning your personal injury lawsuit requires you to prove to the insurance company and/or the court that you suffered harm. Your medical records provide evidence of harm. Also, medical bills show the cost of your treatment. Share the total medical treatment costs you have incurred because of your injuries. This includes ambulance service, emergency room services, hospitalization, surgery, diagnostics, medication, doctor visits, physical therapy, and more.
- the ways your injuries have impacted your income. Severe injuries force victims to lose income. This could be employment income from working for a company or profits from having to close a business. You must provide documentation to prove any income lost because of your injuries. Also, be prepared to discuss if you can return to work and to what extent you can perform your job functions. Depending on how long it’s been since you sustained your injuries, you might not know the full scope of your injuries and whether you’ll recover.
- the ways your injuries have impacted your life. Victims of negligence have the right to seek compensation for pain and suffering and other noneconomic losses when they sue for damages. Noneconomic damages are difficult to quantify, so you need to offer an honest account of how your injuries have affected your personal relationships, job, hobbies, and daily routine. This allows your attorney to accurately evaluate your claim.
Your first meeting with a personal injury lawyer also gives you an opportunity to ask questions about the legal process and recovering damages for your injuries.
Investigating Your Claim
Once you hire a personal injury attorney to help you with your claim, they will investigate your case. Your first meeting provides a starting point for your lawyer to uncover the facts supporting your claim. You need evidence proving negligence; an investigation typically uncovers all parties that might share financial responsibility for your injuries. Personal injury lawyers engage in many activities to build a case for a client. Examples include:
Obtaining Video and Photo Evidence
If the event that caused your injuries occurred in the vicinity of a security camera or a traffic camera, footage of the incident or event likely exists. Camera footage often provides the best evidence of how someone sustained injuries. This helps eliminate disputes over liability, so insurance companies and courts prefer video footage. Sometimes witnesses take photos or videos of an accident or event with their smartphones and post them on their social media accounts. Your attorney will look for and review photo and video evidence that supports your personal injury claim.
Consulting with Specialists and Experts
One way lawyers build a case for a personal injury lawsuit is by obtaining expert witnesses who can speak about specific aspects of a claim. For example, accident reconstructionists can show exactly how a traffic crash happened and how injuries occurred. Medical specialists and experts can speak to someone’s injuries and testify about the likelihood of a full recovery.
Send a Demand Letter to the Named Defendant(s)
Once a lawyer evaluates your case, determines you have a valid claim, and you hire them to represent you, they can begin working on your case. After investigation, your attorney has the information they need to determine how much your claim is worth. Most personal injury cases end in settlement because going to trial is expensive for both sides. So, sending a demand letter on behalf of a client to start negotiations is typically the first step in a personal injury claim. The demand letter typically goes to the insurance company involved in the claim. The letter is usually part of a package of information that includes:
- Medical documentation and photos of your injuries
- Documents and other evidence to support your personal injury claim, including photos, videos, police reports, and witness statements
- Copies of receipts, bills, payroll stubs, and other information that shows economic losses related to your injuries
- Statements from expert witnesses and specialists to support claims for pain and suffering and other noneconomic damages
The insurance company typically responds quickly with a settlement offer once you file a claim and your attorney sends a demand letter. Sometimes, insurance companies make early settlement offers before receiving a demand letter. Insurance providers make early settlement offers to satisfy victims of negligence with enough money to get them to accept the offer and waive their right to file a personal injury lawsuit. These offers are often far lower than the value of a claim. It’s best to discuss all offers with a lawyer. In most cases, an experienced lawyer can use an early offer to negotiate a higher settlement amount for their client.
Once you receive a response from a demand letter and you choose not to accept an offer, your attorney can respond with another demand letter that either:
- includes an amount that you would accept that is lower than the amount in the initial demand letter.
- repeats the demand for the total compensation requested in the first letter.
Settlement negotiations can go back and forth multiple times before both sides agree on an amount. If you reach an agreement, the personal injury claims process stops. You sign the agreement, waive your right to seek compensation in the future for the same injuries, and receive payment.
Although both sides have the incentive to avoid costly litigation, settlement negotiations can still fail. If you cannot reach an agreement with the insurance company, your personal injury lawyer can help file a lawsuit.
File a Formal Complaint with the Court
If settlement negotiations fail, your only choice to recover damages for your injuries is to bring a personal injury lawsuit against those responsible. Bringing a lawsuit requires filing formal documents with the court. You must file the official papers within the statute of limitations period for personal injury in your state, typically between two and four years. Your attorney will file the documents for you and ensure you meet all deadlines. Once the suit is filed with the court, you can expect to wait at least a year before going to trial.
Preparing for Trial
Most victims of negligence have months to prepare for trial once the documents have been filed. Sometimes formally filing a lawsuit brings insurance companies back to the table to negotiate. At the very least, they take the claim more seriously when the court has papers. If they make an offer, your lawyer will advise you on your options. Regardless of whether negotiations restart, your lawyer will begin preparing for trial.
Preparing for trial includes many things, most of which qualify as discovery. Discovery is when both sides gather more information about the event or accident, your injuries, and other facts relevant to the claim. Both sides have already gathered massive amounts of information. Discovery focuses on uncovering unknown facts related to the case. Your lawyer will dig for more information to support your case, including additional witnesses, evidence the other side has collected, and anything else that is relevant.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Depending on the situation, alternative dispute resolution might occur after filing official documents for a personal injury lawsuit. Mediation is often the go-to form of alternative dispute resolution. During mediation, both sides and their lawyers meet with a neutral mediator who helps both parties resolve the claim. If settlement negotiations fail, lawyers and insurance carriers like to try mediation because it’s much less expensive than going to trial. Additionally, mediation is fairly flexible compared to other types of dispute resolution. The mediator can discuss the case separately with each side and find creative solutions. The mediator’s recommendations are not binding like a judge’s ruling or other types of dispute resolution. Also, either side can walk away from mediation anytime during the process.
Final Resolution: Settlement or Trial
It doesn’t happen often, but a personal injury claim will occasionally settle within a few days before the scheduled trial. Last-minute negotiations are typically a last-ditch effort to avoid facing a jury. If your case does not settle, your lawyer will bring it before a judge. After both sides present evidence, a judge will make a final ruling on the case and award damages. If your case involves severe or permanent injuries, it will likely go in front of a jury too.
A personal injury lawsuit is a civil case. Civil trials are different than criminal trials. Instead of proving that someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a judge or jury decides the case based on the preponderance of the evidence, the idea that it’s more than 50 percent likely that the defendant is responsible for injuries. Most personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence, so your lawyer must also prove negligence to the court. Reach out to a personal injury lawyer.
If a judge or jury rules in your favor and awards compensation for damages, the insurance company will send payment within a few weeks, sometimes sooner. They typically remit payment to the plaintiff’s lawyer, who deducts attorney fees, unpaid medical expenses, and other costs of representation. The injured party receives the balance. If an insurance provider is not named as a defendant, you might struggle to collect your award. Your lawyer can advise you on the best way to move forward.