The different terms to explain the varying stages of a personal injury case can be confusing and misleading. If you're wondering where your case is at present, and when it is likely to conclude, you may have heard the terms 'pre-litigation,' 'settlement,' and 'litigation.' But the difference between these terms may not be clear to you. This blog post will help explain the stages of a typical California injury claim.
After an injured person contacts the at-fault party's insurance, a claim is opened, and the "case" is in the pre-litigation stage. Law firms and injury attorneys refer to your matter as a "case," but that does not mean that your matter is in court. In the pre-litigation stage, the parties exchange information freely and without guidance or regulation from the court. Lawyers are, of course, guided by ethics requirements of the State Bar of California, and insurance companies are required to act within the Insurance Code, but there is not judge or jury presiding over the process. This is important to understand because the claim is not on a timeline, meaning the pre-litigation process might last from as short as a day or a few days, to over a year. That's not to say there is no limit to how long it can last. In California, injured claimants are required to file their claim with the court within two years of the date of the accident. After two years, the claimant cannot claim recovery in court. In short, if you don't file a lawsuit in court within two years, you're not going to be able to recover financially for your loss, no matter how grave your injuries. This is called the Statute of Limitations. Again, in California, the Statute of Limitations is two (2) years. If you remember anything of the rules that govern your case, remember this: you must protect your right to recovery by filing a lawsuit in the appropriate court within two years of your loss.
During the pre-litigation stage, the insurance company that insures the at-fault driver (the person who caused the accident) may offer to settle your claim. They may offer you whatever amount they determine is reasonable. There is no judge or jury to determine whether the offer is fair. For example, if you were injured in a car accident and broke your leg, you may have large medical bills, been out of work for some time, and unable to walk for months. But if the driver who hit you was insured by GEICO, you may get a call from a GEICO claims adjuster who says he wants to make it right and offer to settle. He may offer you $5 or $500, and tell you that all you have to do is sign a release and they'll give you a check that same day, no questions asked. Of course, that's a ridiculous amount of money for anyone with that kind of injury to settle for, but there are no parameters within which the insurance companies must offer a specified amount. If you accept, you cannot ask for more money in the future.
Because many people are unaware of how California injury claims work with insurance companies, many claimants assume that the small amount of money (say $500) is to cover immediate expenses, and more money is available in the future. This is not the case. Insurance companies do not incrementally distribute settlement money. Sometimes, they will simply send you a check that says on the bottom something to the effect of "for full and final settlement of his/her injury claim." If you cash the check, you're done: you cannot get more money in the future. Need more treatment? Expecting to have surgery soon? Rehabilitation therapy required? It will not matter, and you cannot recover more money at a later date. For this reason, all claimants should be exceedingly cautious when signing any documents with insurance companies, or cashing any checks. A short consultation with an injury attorney may save you a lot of money!
Settlement means you agree to accept money in exchange for waiving your right to future recovery. That is, the insurance company will give you a check, and by cashing that check, you agree not to sue their insured in court. If at a later date you feel that the amount of the settlement was not enough, you cannot file a lawsuit, and if you do, it is likely to be thrown out of court. If, however, you reach a fair and reasonable settlement within two years of the date of your California car accident, you do not need to file a lawsuit to get your money. A good California personal injury lawyer will make sure the insurance company issues the check and all the required paperwork is acceptable and in your best interest - all of this, of course, before the two year mark.
If you are not able to reach a settlement agreement, litigation may be necessary. This means you file a lawsuit against the person who caused your injury. Sometimes this means filing a lawsuit against several different people or entities, such as a driver who was driving a work vehicle at the time of the accident - you would file a lawsuit against the individual and the entity he or she was working for. Filing a case in court can be tricky, and consulting with an injury attorney is highly advisable.
Once the case is filed, attorneys on both sides will exchange information and paperwork regarding the case. Your case will be put on the court calendar, and a court date for your trial will be chosen. Due to high volume, court dates are often 18 months to over two years out. During that time, your attorney will work towards a fair and reasonable settlement. This means your case may never go to trial. From your perspective as a claimant, you won't have to go to court, and your attorney will handle the necessary paperwork. Nobody wants to go to court - not you, not the attorneys on the other side, and not the person who caused the accident.
Litigation can be costly for all parties involved, and if your case goes to trial, costs can rise quickly. Fortunately for plaintiffs, most injury attorneys cover all costs up front, meaning your case will go forward without you having to pay out of pocket. In the end, the costs come out of your award or settlement, but at least you don't have to pay out of pocket to seek fair compensation for your injury. Once litigation closes, you are likely to receive a check to compensate you for your losses, including payment towards your medical bills and money for your pain and suffering. This is assuming you win. An experience car accident attorney will be able to give you a good evaluation of your case and the likelihood of success.
If you were injured by the negligence of someone else, The Lions Injury Lawyers P.C. are eager to speak with you and discuss your claim. All consultations are free of charge. The Lions Injury Lawyers represent injured persons throughout the state of California, including residents of Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and San Diego County. To speak with a lawyer at The Lions Injury Lawyers, call (949) 329-5000, or visit their website at www.TheLionsLawyers.com to fill out information regarding your injury.