Every personal injury claim is different. The facts differ from case to case, and the law differs from state to state. Nevertheless, the timeline below can give you a general idea of how a typical personal injury case proceeds.
What to Do Immediately After an Accident
Immediately after an accident that produces a personal injury, take the following steps if your injuries do not prevent you from doing so:
- Remain at the scene of the accident.
- Call 911 to summon the police and an ambulance. Go to the hospital if you suspect that you might be injured or visit your physician for a check-up soon after the accident.
- Photograph the accident scene, including any injuries, evidence, and property damage.
- Identify any eyewitnesses and get their contact details.
- Identify the at-fault party and obtain their contact details and insurance information. In a traffic accident, you should supply this information to the other driver, whether you are at fault or not.
- Write down the accident details while they are still fresh in your mind.
Your body will pump out adrenaline during and after an accident, potentially blocking pain. This can be dangerous because your body can trick you into believing that you are not injured, even when you are.
Additionally, some types of injuries, such as concussions and soft tissue injuries like whiplash, may take days to manifest symptoms. If you suffered a blow to the head, for example, go to the hospital even if you feel fine.
The Importance of Seeking Medical Treatment ASAP
The medical reasons for seeking immediate medical treatment after a personal injury are obvious. The legal reasons are not necessarily obvious. If you fail to seek prompt medical treatment, the opposing party might claim that your injuries pre-dated the accident. This is especially likely if you suffered a chronic injury such as a back injury.
Seek a Free Initial Consultation With a Personal Injury Lawyer
Almost any personal injury lawyer will offer you a free case evaluation. The consultation might take place via telephone, email, or face-to-face meeting. The lawyer will listen to your story and ask questions designed to determine (i) whether your claim is viable and (ii) if it is viable, how much it is worth. You will be under no obligation to hire the lawyer.
Perform an Initial Investigation of the Accident
The next stage of enforcing your claim is the investigation stage. A lawyer will probably be best equipped for this because they know what kinds of evidence to look for and how to get it.
Did you know, for example, that almost all commercial trucks and many private cars carry an “event data recorder” that records critical details of an accident? Did you know that the opposing party can subpoena your medical records and use them against you in court and settlement negotiations? These are just two of many things a skilled personal injury lawyer can use to help you or warn you about in your case.
A problem you might face is that much of the evidence you need might be possessed by the at-fault party. There is an effective way to work around this limitation, which we’ll discuss below.
Send a Demand Letter to the Opposing Party
Have your lawyer draft a demand letter to the opposing party.
In a demand letter you:
- Briefly describe the accident
- Describe your losses, both tangible and intangible
- State why you believe the defendant is liable for your losses
- Emphasize any unique aspects of your claim
- Demand compensation
Talk to your lawyer about whether you should include a specific dollar amount in your compensation demand. Don’t set a deadline for a response unless you intend to file a lawsuit on that day if the opposing party doesn’t respond by then. If the opposing party is an insurance company, they will probably respond with a “reservation of rights” letter, which is a formality that shouldn’t concern you.
The Negotiation Stage
One of the most important determinants of a successful negotiation has already occurred. Your lawyer either has or has not accumulated a string of victories in court. Selecting a successful trial lawyer is the best way to encourage the opposing party to settle out of court.
Insurance adjusters are professional negotiators. Your lawyer should be skilled at negotiation so that the opposing party will not implement any tactics they would try on an unrepresented claimant.
File a Personal Injury Lawsuit
In many cases, you should file a lawsuit at some point, even if you remain committed to an eventual out-of-court settlement. This is because filing a lawsuit shows the opposing party you are serious about your claim, meets the statute of limitations deadline, and gives you (and the opposing party) access to the pretrial discovery process.
Pretrial Discovery Phase
Pretrial discovery provides both parties with the following court-enforced tools for gathering evidence that is in the possession of the other party:
- Interrogatories: Written questions that the other party must answer under oath.
- Depositions: Out-of-court, under-oath testimony by each side’s witnesses (including any expert witnesses).
- Requests for production: Each party can examine the other side’s physical evidence and documents.
- Requests for admissions: These are requests that the other side admit to certain facts to simplify the case for both sides.
A judge can sanction a party for unreasonable refusal to cooperate with a discovery request from the other side.
Take the Case to Trial
Because parties settle most personal injury claims out of court, few claims make it to trial. Nevertheless, some claims do make it.
A trial consists of the following stages:
- Jury selection
- Opening statements
- Questioning of witnesses and submission of evidence by lawyers from both sides
- Closing arguments
- Jury instructions
- Jury deliberation
- The final verdict
You have limited time to file a notice of appeal. Relatively few claimants file appeals.
Special Cases: Workers’ Compensation Claims and Claims Against the Government
Workers’ compensation claims (most claims that arise from workplace accidents) work very differently than ordinary personal injury claims. You typically cannot take your claim to court unless you find an at-fault party other than your employer. Instead, you must file your claim with the California Division of Workers’ Compensation.
You can take a claim against a government entity to court, but you will need to deal with additional paperwork and tighter deadlines. It all depends on which type of government bureau you sue (state, local, or federal).
Hire an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer to Discuss Your Case
Hire an experienced San Diego injury attorney as soon as you decide on the right attorney for you. The sooner you get a competent lawyer involved in your case, the more likely you are to obtain fair compensation.