How long does a settlement take? It depends. Let’s examine some of the factors that go into how long it takes to settle.
The quickest injury cases settle directly with the insurance company. If you have a car accident lawyer negotiating for you, they can advise you when a settlement offer is favorable for your situation. This settlement process will take time. However, insurance companies can be difficult, and not every case settles without a lawsuit. So, let’s look at this process that happens when a case doesn’t settle.
How Complicated Is Your Case?
The more parties there are in your case and the more complex the liability issues among the parties, the longer the case will take. An exceptionally complicated case may take more time to settle.
So, you begin by determining how many potential defendants there are. This part of the process is one of many times when an experienced car accident attorney can be helpful. You will need that information to settle, so your lawyer needs to put it together immediately.
Your case may be relatively simple. Another car hit you, you have some injuries, but nothing too serious, and your car needs repairs. You might meet the standard for suing under New York’s no-fault insurance law, but it might be a stretch. The defendant’s insurance company offers you a check, and your lawyer says it’s adequate. You and your attorney are very happy.
At the other extreme, you have a commercial truck as the second in line vehicle when you were in a rear-end collision. The accident happened on a major highway at fairly high speed. You started your medical care and are doing what your doctor tells you to do. You hired an attorney soon after the accident because your doctor said your injuries may require lifetime care. Your car is probably totaled, you have severe injuries, and it’s not clear that you’ll ever walk or work again. Further, 14 other cars were in the pileup, and many of them also suffered property damages and serious injuries.
The truck driver’s employer owns the truck. The employer leases the trailer. The maintenance contract had run out on both the truck and the trailer, and the driver exceeded the federal and state limits for consecutive hours worked. The county had construction debris on the road that it did not clean up, and the weather made the roads slick and visibility poor.
This case will take longer to settle. The finger-pointing and name-calling will take time. Eventually, the various insurance companies-the driver’s, the employer/owner’s, the trailer lessor’s, the two maintenance companies’ (who do not have the same insurance company), the county’s, and the 14 insurance companies for the other 14 victims-may make it clear they will not settle soon.
Nobody will feel comfortable settling quickly with so much uncertainty about the issues and so much money involved.
Filing the Complaint
After investigating, your attorney might know how complicated this case is and begin to talk to you about litigation. If your attorney cannot negotiate a settlement that covers all your losses due to the stubbornness of the insurance company, they might discuss escalating the matter to civil court. An experienced car accident lawyer can often tell whether a lawsuit might be necessary after a few rounds of insurance negotiations.
Your attorney and his staff have already conducted a thorough first investigation of the case. They have all the accident reports, the citations issued, witness contact information, and all the other parties’ contact and insurance information. And they have a pretty good idea of what your case is worth, based on years of experience handling car accidents of every nature.
Every so often, they contact the other side’s insurance company attorneys and talk about settling, but nobody makes serious offers. Your attorney is aware that you meet the standard for suing by having a serious injury and adequate damage claims.
Now your attorney drafts and files a Summons and Complaint in your case. The Summons tells people they have to answer your Complaint, and the Complaint tells your side of the story and asks the court to award you damages. Your attorney can file as much as two years and 364 days after the accident, but they know this case isn’t going to settle this soon and want to start getting more information through discovery.
The defendants all have 20 to 30 days to answer the case, depending on how they received the Summons and Complaint. They will use all of those 30 days because that’s how litigation works. Sometimes one of the attorneys calls another to discuss settling, but they’re not ready for that yet.
The Discovery Process
Despite what you’ve seen in movies and on television all your life, litigation is not about surprises, especially if your attorney is an experienced litigator. One of the first things they teach lawyers about litigation is never to ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. Discovery is a time for finding out all those answers before they need to ask questions in court.
The sides are allowed to take depositions and ask for discovery. Each side can issue subpoenas which are very polite orders to turn over documents or appear for testimony. Finally, each side will take sworn testimony from all the potential witnesses and the plaintiff (you) and defendants in the case. You and the truck driver may give statements under oath.
Everyone will now start looking at all this evidence they’ve received, and the case issues will come into sharper focus. Usually, discovery requests have to be met within 30 days or so. Still, there will be some arguing, objections, and motions that the court will rule on, and lawyers will work to finish all the statements, document exchanges, and interrogatories (which New York limits).
Both sides may start to think about serious settlement negotiations as they see the other side’s evidence. If you have a strong case, the defendant might offer a favorable settlement as they do not want to go to trial if you will likely win.
The court sets a trial date. You’re thinking about all your bills and getting a little more eager for a case resolution. The various insurance companies on the other side now know that their driver was on his 16th hour of driving, having been awake for 28 hours trying to meet a delivery deadline, and had four previous traffic citations, one of them for reckless driving. This might lead them to resolve the case then and there.
Your attorney is a little more confident about settling now. After all, you’re a hardworking mom with your cute kids and a job you loved but may never do again. You’ll do well in court against a rule-breaking, reckless driving trucker with tons of insurance money behind his defense. The sides are beginning to move a bit but not where you need them.
The case can now go two ways.
First, the various defendants’ attorneys realize their case is terrible and their defendant worse. They look seriously at the money your attorney is asking for, figure out what they’ve paid in the past for similar cases, and factor in you personally versus the trucker personally. This leads them to a pretty big number that they can split up among the various defendants and their insurance companies. They offer this figure to your attorney.
Your attorney must present their offer to you. Your attorney can tell you it’s a terrible offer and advise you to turn it down, but they must tell you about the offer and allow you the chance to accept it.
But assume for the moment that it is not a good offer and you decide to go to trial. You can still settle at any time until the jury comes in with a verdict.
Trial and Judgment
Much like a more formal version of discovery, the trial will have witness testimony, documentary evidence, physical evidence, possible expert opinions, and various rulings by the judge. Each side calls witnesses one at a time, and both sides ask questions. The plaintiff (you) gets to present witnesses first, and the defendants’ attorneys can cross-examine those witnesses.
Cross-examination allows the lawyer a little more leeway to ask questions. Still, your attorney can always object to one of their questions, and the judge will decide whether the witness has to answer.
The attorney shows documents to witnesses who answer questions about them. Some witnesses are only there to establish the validity of the documents so lawyers can present them as evidence.
After all your witnesses testified and you entered all your evidence, the defendants will engage in the same process.
Meanwhile, the issues are becoming clearer and clearer, and the defendants are considering the very big check the jury may tell them to write. They are now talking quite seriously to your attorney about settling the case. Some defendants may settle independently to get themselves out of the case and, not coincidentally, limit their liability.
When your attorney accepts their check, which they must provide not more than 21 days after everyone signs the settlement, the court dismisses the case against them can’t you cannot file it again.
In our scenario, several defendants have settled, but others are standing fast.
The defendants continue to present their cases, and another one or two of them settle out. The lawyers make a lot of objections and motions and briefs, and that slows things down further.
After all the witnesses, objections, motions, and evidence, each attorney in the case may speak directly to the jury, stating their views of the case and what they believe the evidence has shown. These are the final arguments. After those are complete, the judge gives the case to the jury, which renders a verdict and notifies the judge.
The judge then calls everyone back into the courtroom, reads the verdict privately, and then instructs the jury foreperson to announce the verdict. The judge can overturn the verdict if the evidence doesn’t support it or find the damages awarded too high or too low. Once a final judgment is reached, however, the defendants must pay the judgment or appeal.
Let’s assume they pay the judgment because they want to conclude matters. You get all the money you wanted and a little more, and you and your attorney are both happy. It was worth waiting, despite the time it took to obtain the settlement you deserve.
Your attorney will keep you apprised each step of the way and make recommendations based on the evidence and facts of your case. It can be a complicated process, but with an attorney to guide you, the process becomes easier. Contact us for a free consultation.