How Long Will My Car Accident Case Take?

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to this question, you're not likely to get it. There's no way to predict exactly how long a specific car accident case will take.

Getting involved in a car accident can be very traumatic and stressful. All you want to do is heal, get your car back on the road, and get on with your life feeling whole again. Especially when filing a personal injury lawsuit is the only way to achieve this goal, you may wonder how long it will take to resolve the matter. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is “it depends.” A car accident lawsuit follows a general timeline of steps, but the length of each step can vary significantly. It could take a few months or even several years, with the prospect of a car accident settlement always an option along the way. Read on to learn more.

The Car Accident Lawsuit Process

Most car accident cases settle, and do not result in litigation (the civil lawsuit process). However, if there is a dispute as to who was at fault for the crash, or the scope and extent of an injured person's damages, a car accident lawsuit becomes a distinct possibility.

The litigation process for each case will differ based on any number of factors, but the following timeline of a personal injury lawsuit provides a rough idea of how long things can take.

  • Step 1: The plaintiff files the complaint and the lawsuit officially begins.
  • Step 2: The plaintiff serves a copy of the complaint on the defendant. This usually takes a few weeks to complete, but can sometimes take several months if the defendant is particularly hard to track down.
  • Step 3: The defendant answers the complaint. Depending on the specific court where the lawsuit is pending, the defendant will have about one month to file its answer to the plaintiff’s complaint.
  • Step 4: Discovery takes place. Each side will request and exchange information that can serve as potential evidence at trial. Discovery almost always needs at least a few months to complete, but can sometimes take up to a year or more.
  • Step 5: The trial occurs. A car accident trial usually only takes a day or two to complete.
  • Step 6: Potential appeal. If one of the parties isn’t happy with the result of the trial, an appeal is possible. There are several levels of appeals. Even just one level of appeal could add several years to the length of a case.

The above timeline actually leaves out several phases of litigation that can add yet another several months to the overall car accident case process. For example, before the defendant answers the complaint, she may file a motion to dismiss in an attempt to win the case before she has to file an answer. Or once discovery is complete, but before trial, a party might try to win the case by filing a motion for summary judgment.

From start to finish, a car accident lawsuit will probably take at least one year to complete, assuming it goes to trial and there is no appeal. But just because a car accident lawsuit has begun, it doesn’t mean it will go to completion. In fact, that's very unlikely. At some point in the process, the case will usually settle before trial.

When Does a Case Settle?

A case can settle almost immediately after the plaintiff files the complaint, or it can settle even after a trial finishes.

Often, a case will settle after one side learns or reveals important information that could swing the case. For example, if the defendant initially denies causing the accident, but during the defendant’s deposition, he admits that he was drunk when he ran into the defendant’s vehicle, there’s no longer a liability dispute. Assuming each side agrees on the extent of the plaintiff’s damages, the chances are pretty good the case will settle very soon after the deposition.

Most settlements occur once discovery is complete, but before trial begins. This means most cases settle within a few months to a few years after the lawsuit commences.

Why a Case Might Drag On

If all car accidents cases were only about the money, it would be easier to predict how long they might take to complete. But some cases aren’t about the money. Plaintiffs may be fighting based on principle, and the lawsuit may represent an opportunity to get justice. Defendants may recognize they have a losing case, but want to make things as difficult as possible for the plaintiff, and therefore drag out the case as long as possible. It's a practical reality that when things get personal, the litigation process can take much longer than necessary.

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