So, you’ve just been involved in a car accident. In an ideal situation, you have no fault in the accident and all parties walked away unharmed. But in all likelihood, there may be some fault to pass around, while you or the other driver may have been injured in the process of the crash. That kind of scenario can lead to litigation, which in turn may feel like it is dragging on for longer than expected.
If this is your first time dealing with auto accident-related litigation, you may not fully understand the timeline before you. Whether you’re the plaintiff or the defendant, you should know and understand the steps in this litigation process to ensure that it stays on course throughout. With that knowledge in mind, you should be able to tentatively estimate how long your current auto accident case will take to resolve.
However, if you are choosing to service your own car accident case, you may find your case dragging on far beyond reasonable expectations. In the end, you may not even get the judgment or settlement you need, either. That’s why it is critical to hire a professional car accident attorney like Joel J. Kofsky before litigation commences.
A Regular Car Accident Case Timeline
As a first time car accident litigant, it can be challenging to understand the legal steps involved with filing a case and bringing it to trial. This simplified timeline should help you better understand these steps, as well as the amount of time that typically elapses between them. If your particular case takes longer than this prescribed timeline, be sure to bring up your concerns with your personal injury lawyer.
Step 0 : Pre-litigation Settlement
Though not a formal step in the car accident litigation process, it is very common in personal injury cases for a settlement to be sought out before any legal suits are filed. In fact, in almost all cases, a litigant’s insurance company will likely offer a settlement package that covers some general costs associated with the accident. This settlement offer is usually a one-size-fits-all deal, so it doesn’t usually financially take into account any injuries related to the accident.
Should you choose to accept this settlement offer, your case will likely be resolved in a matter of weeks. All that will likely be required of you is to fill out some paperwork, including a promise to not sue the insured party for further damages. As a result, opting for an initial settlement may foreclose any opportunity to obtain additional compensation related to the accident.
Also, it’s worth noting that a settlement offer may be presented at any point after a formal lawsuit is filed. In fact, it is not uncommon for an opposing accident lawyer to offer a settlement as soon as a case against their client is filed. They may also offer a larger settlement as a lawsuit against their client progresses, particularly when the facts of the case are against their favor. If you are considering accepting any of these binding offers, be sure to consult with your auto accident attorney first.
Step 1 : Filing Suit
This marks the formal initiation of legal proceedings related to an auto accident. At this stage, the individual seeking damages or compensation (known as the plaintiff) works with their injury lawyer to file a legal suit against the other driver in the accident. Though the precise process for filing differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, this step usually involves filing paperwork with a county or city court.
Depending on the court’s current case backlog of filed cases, this may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. If you are the individual filing suit, then your lawyer will likely hear back from the court if/when your case is accepted. At that time, the court will provide you with steps to further the case, as well as a timeline for completing those steps.
Step 2 : Plaintiff Serves Suit and the Defendant Answers
After a car accident lawsuit has been properly filed, the plaintiff is required to serve the defendant with notice that they are being sued. In many cases, this process of “serving suit” is done by the plaintiff’s legal representative, that is, their attorney. If the defendant already has a lawyer on retainer, that suit may be served directly to that lawyer to expediate the process.
Depending on the circumstance, this process of serving suit may take as few as a couple days or as much as a month or more. Typically, the timeline in this step is dependent on how readily the defendant can be reached. If the defendant is hard to track down, then this step could be drawn out substantially. In some courts, if the defendant cannot be tracked down after a reasonable attempt to do so, the litigant may receive a summary judgement.
In any case, once a copy of the suit is delivered to the defendant, they are required to “answer” the suit. Usually this answer will detail whether they intend to settle the suit or continue its progression towards a court hearing. Defendants in most court jurisdictions are required to answer a pending suit within a month’s time. If a settlement is offered, the plaintiff will then be given an opportunity to accept or deny the offer.
Step 3 : Discovery
By this time, both the defendant and the plaintiff will have obtained an accident lawyer if they desire legal representation. Once that occurs, those legal representatives can begin the process of exchanging case-related information in what is known as “discovery.” Information obtained at this point can be used as evidence against the other party but must be obtained through a request, which the opposing party has the opportunity to deny.
Discovery is one of the most variable steps in the process of accident litigation. At the very least, it will typically take a month or two to complete. However, it may take up to a year or more if the case requires a large amount of evidence (including depositions) to proceed efficiently. However, neither a plaintiff nor a defendant should unreasonably slow this legal process by making superfluous discovery requests.
Step 4 : Trial
After a proper amount of evidence has been obtained, the two litigating parties will agree to enter the trial phase of litigation. To do this, the plaintiff’s personal lawyer will typically inform the court that they intend to move forward with the case. The court will then place the case on the docket, assign a judge to it, and then set a trial date. That date may be soon thereafter if the docket is small. But it may also be months away if the court has a large backlog of cases.
In practice, an auto accident compensation or damages trial usually takes one or two days. Depending on the trial’s progression, a judgement may be provided within that timeline or within a week’s time. If any payments are ordered in the judgement, then the judgement will set forth the timeline in which those funds must be transferred between the parties.
Step 5 : Appeal
Though it does not occur in all accident cases, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal the court’s judgement if they are unsatisfied with it. Often, a court requires appeal requests to be filed soon after a judgement is released. If this is done, the opposing party will be informed promptly.
Appeals processes differ greatly from one jurisdiction to another. Often, they can expand the timeline for a car accident case beyond a year. This is especially the case if the at-issue party decides to appeal the judgement through multiple levels of courts, including city, county, and state courts.
Factors that May Influence a Car Accident Case’s Resolution Timeline
There are a variety of factors that may expediate or delay the resolution of your pending car accident case. For example, the cooperation of all relevant parties is crucial to a speedy trial. However, this means that the plaintiff, defendant, their auto accident lawyers, and both party’s insurance providers must all provide requested information in a timely manner.
If there is a dispute over liability (and there very often is), this can also slow down the litigation process. Often, this becomes a central point of dispute that the parties will need to settle in court. Proving liability, in turn, can also slow the litigation process, especially if it relies on key evidence that is difficult to procure or otherwise time-sensitive.
Finally, any settlement negotiations put forth by either party can take up extra time. This is often because negotiations take place between each party’s legal representative and then communicated to their respective clients.
The Bottom Line
Suffice to say, the litigation process surrounding a car accident lawsuit is not always the quickest or the easiest to follow. Even so, it is a process you’ll need to keep a close eye on if you want to obtain a successful outcome from your case.
Your personal injury attorney can help you keep track of your case’s timeline through every step. That’s why it is important to hire the best to represent you both in and out of court. If you live in the Philadelphia, PA, area, that means calling the Law Offices of Joel J. Kofsky. Their team of skilled litigators is committed to helping accident victims like you obtain quality legal representation at an affordable price.