If you’ve read much of this site, received my free mini-course or read my ebook, The Car Accident Claims Kit, you know I think that 80% to 90% of all claims can be resolved without going to court, without a lawyer’s help and without letting the insurance company take advantage of you . . . if you take just a little time to learn the basics of the car accident claims system.
However, sometimes you won’t be able to settle with the insurance company. Maybe there will be a disagreement over who caused the accident. Or perhaps the Bad Guys won’t offer an amount that you think is fair for what you have gone through.
That’s when car accident lawsuits occur. Normally, if you can’t settle, you have to go to court.
If your case fits within the limits of your state’s small claims court, I think you can handle the court case yourself, without a lawyer. The more informal, non-technical rules of the small claims court make this possible.
However, if you have to go to regular civil court (not small claims court), you should have a lawyer. The Bad Guys will have a lawyer defending against your case and looking for a technical reason to have your case thrown out. In regular civil court (as opposed to a more consumer friendly small claims court), you need a pro on your side to even the fight.
In case you have to take your claim to court — even though you have a lawyer representing you — it’s helpful to know the process that your case will go through. Here it is . . .
Starting Car Accident Lawsuits
Car accident lawsuits begin when the initial paper, usually called a Complaint, is filed. As the person who filed the case, you are designated as the “plaintiff.”
Next the papers are “served” on the person you are suing, who is called the “defendant.” Within a relatively short time, usually about 20 or 30 days, the defendant must file his Answer in which he raises his defenses.
What Happens Before Car Accident Lawsuits Get To Trial?
The next stage of car accident lawsuits is the pretrial discovery period. During discovery, the two sides of the case exchange information in various ways.
One thing you can expect is that the defense will ask you to answer Interrogatories. You must reply to their questions in writing and under oath. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will assist you in answering the Interrogatories. You can also require the defendant to answer Interrogatories, too.
It is also common for each side to request that the other side produce documents so the requesting side can examine them before trial. Examples of relevant documents are your medical records, your medical bills, and your employment and earnings records if you claim a loss of income. Here, also, you can require the defendant to produce relevant documents too.
It is also normal for there to be depositions. A deposition is a sworn question and answer session where the lawyer who scheduled the deposition asks questions of the witness, called the “deponent.” The defense will probably take your deposition, and your lawyer may take a deposition of the defendant, especially if there is a disagreement over who caused your accident.
If there are any medical issues in your case – such as the exact nature of your injuries or what caused them – the defense will probably have you examined by a health care professional that they choose. The defense calls this an Independent Medical Examination, or “IME,” but it is anything but independent. They will send you to a health care professional to whom they send many plaintiffs for evaluation and, in almost all cases, the health care provider will reach conclusions that are favorable to the insurance company that hired them. Your lawyer will help you prepare for the Defense Medical Examination and may even attend it to observe.
These days, the exchange of information is almost always governed by a Scheduling Order that requires completion by a certain time. Scheduling Orders also commonly require pre-trial settlement efforts such as mediation.
Trial Of Car Accident Lawsuits
After pretrial discovery is complete, if the case has not settled, car accident lawsuits go to trial. Normally, car accident injury cases are decided by juries, but it is possible that your trial will be decided by a judge without a jury.
This is how the trial of car accident lawsuits proceeds . . .
After the jury is selected (if there is one), the case starts with Opening Statements where the lawyers tell the jury (or judge if there is no jury) what the evidence will be and how it will show the merit of their case. Opening Statements are often analogized to a roadmap of the case. The plaintiff gives the first Opening Statement and then the defendant’s lawyer can give an Opening Statement.
Next, the evidence is presented. The plaintiff presents her evidence first, mainly by calling witnesses. When each witness is called, the lawyer calling the witness asks questions first. This is called “direct examination.” Then the other lawyer(s) can ask “cross examination” questions. There can be “re-direct examination” by the first lawyer, “re-cross examination” by the other lawyer and so on, until the lawyers run out of relevant questions. The judge may ask questions, too.
Exhibits, such as a diagram of the accident scene or photos of the damaged vehicles, can also be introduced into evidence.
After the plaintiff finishes presenting her case, the defendant can present his evidence, if he has any.
After the evidence is completed, the lawyers make Closing Arguments to the jury. They tell the jury what they think the evidence has proven and what they think the jury should decide. The lawyer for the plaintiff – your lawyer – goes first, followed by the defense lawyer. Then, the plaintiff’s lawyer has the right to make the last Closing Argument.
Next, the judge tells the jury what law applies to the case. These are called jury instructions. It is the jury’s job to follow the law that the judge tells them, and to determine the facts of the case and apply them to the law to reach a decision.
The jury considers the case in private jury deliberations. In most states, but not all, the jury’s decision must be unanimous.
When the jury announces its decision, the trial of car accident lawsuits is over.