The Personal Injury Lawsuit Process
If you have sustained injuries because of another party’s intentional harm or negligence, you might be toying with the idea of bringing a personal injury lawsuit against the party who caused your injuries. In fact, Florida law entitles you to seek damages in civil court when another party causes you harm. Serious injuries giving rise to a lawsuit might occur in a wide variety of scenarios, but they all share at least one characteristic—costliness.
Injured persons have medical bills piling up while many times they aren’t able to work. Families might have to hire extra help to replace services the injured person provided before the injury, such as cooking, cleaning, lawn care, and child care. When you add these additional expenses as well as the physical pain and emotional stress, an injury can mentally and financially bankrupt a household.
Yet, thinking about a lawsuit can be overwhelming, especially if you have never been through the process before. To ease your mind and answer some questions you might have, we provide the following guide to demystify how a personal injury lawsuit works. Below you can read more about the steps and stages you will go through from hiring a personal injury attorney until settlement or litigation, including some critical considerations. For more legal help schedule a free consultation with Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today.
Hiring a Personal Injury Attorney
Personal injury cases can be highly complex depending on the event that led to the injury and the number of parties involved in the case. The best way to maximize your chances of a favorable outcome is to hire a reputable personal injury attorney to represent you in your lawsuit. You can request a referral from friends, family members, colleagues, or other professionals with whom you have business.
You can also find a lawyer near you through the Florida Bar Association and check out peer reviews on sites such as Super Lawyers. Look for an attorney who specializes in the specific area of your injury, such as auto accidents, medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, boat accidents, or product liability injuries.
Additionally, you want a lawyer known for exceptional client service, so you can rest assured he or she will communicate with you and diligently advocate to get you the compensation you deserve for the losses incurred as a result of your injuries. This means finding a lawyer who knows how to negotiate well with insurance companies but isn’t afraid to fight for you in the courtroom when settlement isn’t an option.
Investigating the Event That Led to Your Personal Injury
Once you hire a reputable personal injury lawyer, he or she will investigate the event that led to your injury. The goal of an investigation is for your attorney to uncover all the relevant facts of your case, so he or she can devise the best strategy to advocate for you. The stronger the case your attorney builds, the more leverage you have for negotiation and the more evidence you have to support your case. What your lawyer will investigate will depend on how you were injured.
In motor vehicle accidents, your attorney might obtain cell phone records to prove a driver was distracted when he or she caused an accident; obtain maintenance records if you were in a truck accident, or interview other medical professionals if you were a victim of medical malpractice.
An investigation also includes gathering your current and past medical records, obtaining police reports, and gathering witness statements. In some cases, your attorney might have to consult with outside experts like forensic scientists and accident reconstruction specialists who can offer expert opinions about how an accident or injury occurred. Finally, an investigation will help your attorney ensure you have a viable case.
Sometimes, after exploring your records and learning about your injury, your attorney might advise you that filing a personal injury lawsuit isn’t your best course of action.
Time Limits for Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit
If you are considering filing a personal injury lawsuit, you need to take action sooner than later. Each state has specific time limits, called statutes of limitations, for injured victims to take legal action and seek damages in civil court. Once the clock runs out, a court will not listen to your case, unless you qualify for a rare extension, or toll. Your attorney can advise you on whether the court will stop your clock.
Florida has a few different statutes of limitations for different types of personal injury claims. Here are the associated time limits for the most common types of personal injury cases:
- Traffic accident injuries. If you have been injured in a car, truck, or motorcycle accident, you must file a personal injury lawsuit within four years from the date of your accident. Scooter, pedestrian, and bicycle accidents also fall under the four-year statute of limitations.
- Neglect and abuse. If you, your child, or an elder you love has suffered injury as a result of abuse or neglect, you also have four years to bring suit against those who caused harm.
- Product liability injuries. If you have been injured as a result of a defective product, a four-year statute of limitations applies.
- Medical malpractice. If medical error or negligence caused your injury, you have two years to take legal action; however, medical malpractice cases are special personal injury cases that have extra requirements that fall out of the normal process of a personal injury lawsuit.
- Injury claims against the government. If the State of Florida, a county, or city is responsible for your injuries, you must file a lawsuit within three years under Florida law.
- Wrongful death claims. When an injury is fatal and causes the loss of a loved one, eligible surviving family members have two years to file a wrongful death suit.
Sending a Demand Letter to the Insurance Company
Almost all personal injury lawsuits begin with a lawyer sending a demand letter to the insurance company involved with the event that led to an injury. This might involve auto insurance, homeowners’ insurance, business insurance, or other types of carriers depending on the situation. In some cases, a demand letter might go directly to a business or individual. Regardless, your demand letter will typically include the following:
- Why the allegedly at-fault party is liable for damages
- A description of the injuries you sustained as a result of the defendant’s intentional harm or negligence
- A description of economic costs such as medical expenses and lost wages
- A description of non-economic costs such as pain and suffering, decreased quality of life, or loss of consortium
The demand letter serves as a jumping off point for pretrial negotiations. The insurance company (or whomever the demand letter went to) will review the letter. They might deny the claim or offer a settlement. In some cases, you might be able to avoid court, but insurance companies don’t like to pay out large claims, even when their policyholder is at fault. When the insurance company refuses to pay or offers a low ball settlement, your attorney will take the next step to initiate a personal injury lawsuit.
Filing an Official Complaint With the Court
An official complaint notifies the court you are filing a lawsuit to seek compensation for damages related to your injury. Like a demand letter, most official complaints are filed against an insurance carrier, but depending on the circumstances, your lawyer might file the suit against an individual, a business, or a government entity.
The official complaint lists all parties involved, which can include more than one plaintiff and/or defendant. It also includes your legal claims against the defendant with supporting facts and evidence and a demand for judgment that states the amount and kind of damages you are seeking.
After filing the formal complaint with the court, you have 30 days to serve all documents to the defendant(s) and they have 30 days to respond to the complaint. If they do not respond, the court will typically rule in your favor by default. In most cases, the defendants will respond, which means the next step is discovery.
The Discovery Process
Discovery is often the longest part of a personal injury lawsuit. It can take months, and in complex cases involving multiple defendants, it might even take years. During this time, both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s legal teams spend time formally gathering information about the case. This includes deposing witnesses, gathering evidence, and obtaining relevant documents such as medical records, police reports, insurance reports, and information to support lost wages. Each side must share information with their opposition.
Although this is physically done in a deposition, lawyers from both sides also send the other side requests for documents and information. During discovery, both sides can file motions with the court. Your attorney might file for a delay or for a judgment and the defense might file for a delay or for dismissal.
Negotiation and Settlement of Personal Injury Lawsuits
Near the end of the discovery process, another round of negotiation often occurs. Many defendants in personal injury cases, especially insurance companies, don’t want the expense of going to court, especially when they know their policyholder is at fault. After discovery, both sides have a much better idea of what happened. When the defense knows they are liable, they are willing to negotiate to avoid the possibility of having to pay out a much higher verdict from the court.
Some cases go through mediation to try to reach a settlement before going to trial. Mediation is simply a formally planned negotiation. Both sides try to come to an agreement that usually includes the plaintiff dropping their lawsuit for a certain amount of money. Of course, the success of negotiation hinges on whether or not both sides can agree on an amount that properly compensates the plaintiff for damages and losses related to their injuries.
Going to Trial Over a Personal Injury
The vast majority of personal injury cases settle litigation. Yet, sometimes the defense is unwilling to offer full and fair compensation in a settlement. They might even dispute liability, so negotiation was never an option. During the trial, each side has an opportunity to present their case and call witnesses to testify. This might include eyewitnesses or expert witnesses who can speak to liability and the value of the claim. Depending on the situation that led to the injury, character witnesses might even be a part of the trial.
Keep in mind that a civil trial is not the same as a criminal trial. In cases where an injury is connected to violations of the law, such as drinking and driving, drug use, assault, or abuse, the defendant might also face criminal charges. In a civil trial, your attorney must prove the defendant(s) was negligent and that the negligence caused you harm.
Courts consider the facts of the case and accompanying evidence and rule in favor of one side. If the court rules in favor of the defendant, the case will be dismissed. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, they will also determine how much the defendant must pay in damages.
Collecting Settlement Money or Judgment
Once the court has made a ruling, both sides have a short period of time to decide if they want to appeal the case. Even if no party decides to appeal the decision, it can still take some time to collect damages. The money will go to a special account and your attorney must pay any parties who have a legal claim to the money. The same thing happens when both sides reach a settlement agreement.
You will also have to waive your right to sue and most likely sign a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding you from discussing the details of your settlement with anyone else. Additionally, personal injury attorneys typically take cases on a contingency fee basis. This means you pay attorney fees out of any settlement or verdict in your favor. Your attorney will deduct his or her fees, and then write you a check for the amount that is left after all debts are satisfied.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765