If you’re involved in a car accident claim, all you probably want is a fair settlement so that you can get on with your life. But what happens if the other driver (or the other driver's insurance company or lawyer) refuses to come to the table with a reasonable settlement offer? It might be time to start a car accident lawsuit in civil court. But what does that look like?
Sometimes there's confusion on the difference between a car accident lawsuit and a car insurance claim, perhaps because a "settlement" can arise in either context, and because you’re often trying to accomplish the same thing in a lawsuit or insurance claim -- recover compensation to pay for the damages you sustained as a result of the car accident.
Generally speaking, a car accident insurance claim arises when you notify the insurance company of a loss in an attempt to collect benefits under provisions of an applicable insurance policy. Any negotiations that take place will typically be between you and the insurance company’s adjuster.
A lawsuit is a type of formal legal action that occurs in the civil court system, where the plaintiff (the person filing a personal injury lawsuit) attempts to recover money from the defendant (the person being sued). If you decide to start a lawsuit, how do you go about doing it?
Step 1: File a Complaint
Lawsuits in most states begin when the plaintiff files something called the complaint (sometimes called a "petition" in certain states) with the court. A complaint is a document that usually consists of numbered paragraphs setting out what happened, the claimed damages, and the legal basis for bringing the lawsuit. After the plaintiff files the complaint, the lawsuit has officially begun.
Step 2: Serve the Complaint on the Defendant
One of the hallmarks of the U.S. legal system is providing notice to someone who is the subject of a legal proceeding. For instance, if the state attempts to punish you for committing a crime, you have the right to know the charges, and you get an opportunity to defend yourself in court. While car accident lawsuits are civil matters (as opposed to criminal), the requirement of notice of the proceedings (the opportunity to mount a legal defense) still exists.
Informing the defendant of the lawsuit means "serving" them them with a copy of the complaint, and usually a "summons." There are special rules for who may serve the complaint, when it must be served, and how. These rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but usually the plaintiff has 30 days to serve the defendant. This deadline can usually be extended when the defendant is difficult to track down.
Step 3: The Defendant Files an Answer
In an answer, the defendant responds to the plaintiff’s complaint and admits or denies the factual allegations listed in the complaint. The answer is also where the defendant will set forth any legal defenses.
Step 4: Discovery
Discovery is the process through which the parties exchange information that’s relevant or likely to lead to the uncovering of relevant evidence. The purpose of discovery is to provide an opportunity for each side to see all the facts so they can plan their side of the case -- building evidence and arguments. In most cases, the discovery process includes interrogatories (written questions), requests for production of documents, and depositions (oral statements made under oath).
Step 5: Trial
After discovery is complete, each side will have all the information needed to present its case in court. The trial will usually consist of each side making opening statements, the plaintiff presenting its evidence (often oral testimony and documents), the defendant cross-examining plaintiff’s witnesses, the defendant presenting its defense, the plaintiff cross-examining defendant’s witnesses, then closing statements.
After closing statements, the jury (or judge, if it’s a bench trial), will deliberate and reach a verdict finding in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant, by a "preponderance of the evidence," and entering a judgment accordingly (if the judgment is in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant will be ordered to pay damages in a certain dollar amount).
There are a number of additional steps that can take place during the course of a car accident lawsuit, such as the filing of motions and appeals. Here are a few more notes on the car accident lawsuit process: