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What Are the Stages of an Auto Accident Injury Lawsuit?

If you have sustained an auto accident injury, you may be considering filing a lawsuit against the other driver, especially if you believe he or she caused the crash. If you are, you will need to know how a personal injury lawsuit makes its way through the court system.

To be eligible to file a lawsuit stemming from an auto accident, youll need to notify both your insurance company, the police, and/or state department of motor vehicles, depending on the laws in your state, shortly after your accident. If you fail to make notification in a timely manner, you may lose your right to sue.

If you live in a no-fault state, your ability to sue is seriously weakened. In no-fault states, each drivers insurance policies cover the losses in an auto accident, including injury and car damages, for their own client. There is no need to establish blame for the accident.

However, many states with no-fault insurance will allow drivers to go after the other driver in court if the medical costs, loss of work, or car repair bills are higher than a no-fault policy will cover. Check with your insurance agent and lawyers who represent car crash victims to see if a lawsuit is a remedy you can pursue.

Whether you live in a no-fault or fault state, insurance policies rarely cover the non-economic losses an accident may cause, such as:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of spousal companionship

If you believe you should be compensated for these type of losses, a lawsuit is your best bet. Talk to your attorney about your odds of collecting from the other driver.

Filing a Lawsuit to Pay for Your Auto Accident Injury

Lawsuits seeking to cover the medical costs of an auto accident injury, as well as non-economic losses and vehicular repairs, are known as personal injury lawsuits, or torts. They move through the court system similarly to other civil cases. And they start with the filing of a complaint or petition.

Most states place a time limit in which you can sue for personal injury. For example, if your state requires a lawsuit to be filed within two years of the injury, then you have two years from the date of the accident to file your suit. Car crash lawyers will best know the laws in your state.

State law will dictate how long the defendant has to respond to your complaint, typically three weeks to a month. The response is likely to contain an answer, which will either admit or deny the allegations. The answer may also claim you are partially or entirely responsible for the accident. This claim is called a counterclaim, and you, too, will be able to respond to it. In addition, the defendants response may include a cross-claim, which says another defendant (if there is one) is responsible for your injuries.

Preliminary Motions

There a number of motions, or requests of the court, the defendant can make that can affect your case, including:

  • Motion for change of venue - which, if successful, will move your case to a different courthouse
  • Motion for a change of judge - which will get your case moved to a new courtroom
  • Motion for removal - which will move your case from state court to federal court (the motion needs to show that the case involves either federal law or that the defendant is from a different state)
  • Motion to dismiss - which does not necessarily dispute the facts of the case but may argue that it was brought in an untimely manner or that no relief is warranted

Even if all these motions - except the last one - are successful, the case continues. Such motions are public and are generally ruled upon without a hearing.

Pre-Trial Practice

If you survive the motion to dismiss, the judge (or the new one in the event the case is moved) will then set a date for trial. Do not be surprised if your trial date is scheduled a year or more into the future, as personal injury cases are usually placed behind other civil cases, such as landlord disputes, in priority.

At this juncture, the judge might order you into mediation. In mediation, you and your attorney meet with the defendant and his attorneys for talks led by a neutral third-party mediator. The mediator will guide the conversation and tries to bring about agreement between the parties. Typically, the mediator is well versed in auto accident injury settlements.

Discovery

If a satisfactory settlement does not result from mediation, your case then moves into the discovery stage. Discovery is the period in which lawyers from both sides of the case investigate the facts. Such investigation may involve interviewing witnesses and examining documents. Both sides are required to share with the other side all information gathered during discovery.

The personal injury attorneys may want to interview the parties, witnesses, and other people who have relevant information in a proceeding called a deposition. Lawyers from both sides are present at depositions and are allowed to ask questions. Just as if they were in court, the interviewees swear to tell the truth, and a stenographer records their answers. The stenographer then makes a transcription of the deposition and provides both sides with a copy.

If the defendant has access to documents relating to the car accident that your lawyer wants, he or she may ask for the defendant to produce the document. The same is true if the defense wants to see documents you may have in your possession, such as medical records from both before and after the auto accident injury.

Both depositions and documents produced in response to interrogatories are evidence that may be used at your trial. Depositions may be read into the record during the trial if that witness is unable to attend the trial. In addition, depositions may be used to impeach a witness if he or she says something at trial that contradicts the deposition testimony.

A common defense tactic is to try to wear a plaintiffs patience thin during discovery. This could be accomplished with the sharing of reams of information to overwhelm you or by examining personal affairs you may not want publicly disclosed at trial.

Post-Discovery Resolutions

If you and your lawyer believe the evidence you gathered during discovery is strong, you may bring a motion for summary judgment. This motion allows the judge to decide the case without hearing from live witnesses or conducting an evidentiary hearing.

The motion will be filed with evidence found during discovery and may also include a memorandum from your attorney explaining why the law supports your bid for compensation. If there is no dispute over key facts, the judge, after reviewing the filing, may grant the motion. However, the judge may deny the motion if he or she believes a trial is needed to resolve disputed facts.

Summary judgment can also narrow the issues by resolving some, but not all, of the issues raised in your original complaint.

Your Case Finally Goes to Trial

Your case may be decided in one of two types of trials: A bench trial with only a judge to decide your case, or a jury trial. In a bench trial, the judge will rule which personal injury laws are applicable to your case and whether the evidence proves the law is on your side. In a jury trial, the judge still determines which laws are applicable, but it is the jury that decides the facts and whether your case meets the requirements of the law.

Few car accident injury cases make it all the way to trial. At any stage before - and even during the trial up until the jury announces its decision - the defense may offer to settle the case with you. While your attorney can advise you on whether youre likely to win your case and for how much, ultimately it is your decision on whether to settle or proceed with the trial.

If you do take the settlement, attorneys form one side or the other notify the judge that the case has been resolved, and it is dismissed. Settlements are usually completed in writing but are not made public, unlike a jury verdict.

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