Auto Accident Settlement and Lawsuit Timeline

Most car accident cases settle before trial, but it could still take several months to a year before the car accident case finishes.

By , J.D. Villanova University School of Law
Updated 12/21/2021

A car accident can be traumatic, and the resulting injury claim process can be stressful, especially when filing a lawsuit feels like your only option:

  • A big question on car accident claimants' minds is "How long will this take to resolve?" Unfortunately, the only reliable answer 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.
  • The prospect of a car accident settlement is always an option along the way.

The Car Accident Lawsuit Process

Most car accident cases settle through the car insurance claim process, without a lawsuit ever being filed in court. 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 standard timeline of a personal injury lawsuit provides a rough idea of how long things can take.

  • Step 1: The plaintiff files and serves the complaint
  • Step 2: The defendant answers the complaint.
  • Step 3: Discovery takes place.
  • Step 4: The case settles. Car accident cases can settle at any time, although most car accident cases settle after discovery and before trial.
  • Step 5: The trial occurs.
  • Step 6: Potential appeal.

Step 1: How Long Will It Take to File and Serve the Complaint?

It only takes a few moments to file a complaint with the court, but getting the facts necessary to prepare a complaint could take several days or even a few months. One thing the plaintiff needs to worry about is filing the complaint before the applicable statute of limitation expires. That's the law that sets the deadline for filing a lawsuit.

After filing the complaint, the plaintiff must serve a copy of it on the defendant. This usually takes a few weeks to complete, but can take longer if the defendant is particularly hard to track down. If it takes extra time to serve the defendant, the plaintiff will often have to ask the court for an extension.

Step 2: How Long Does the Defendant Have to Answer the Complaint?

Depending on the court where the lawsuit is pending, the defendant will have about one month to file its answer to the plaintiff's complaint. The answer is the plaintiff's opportunity to respond to the plaintiff's allegations. It's also where the defendant can list out any affirmative defenses or counterclaims.

Step 3: How Long Will it Take to Complete Discovery?

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, especially if there are disputes over a party's access to certain information.

Step 4: How Long Does a Car Accident Settlement Take to Complete?

A car accident case can settle almost immediately after the plaintiff files the complaint, or it can settle after a trial finishes. Often, a case will settle after one side learns or reveals important information that could potentially decide the case. This is why most settlements don't happen until discovery is complete. (Car accident cases in particular tend to settle via the insurance claim process, perhaps after a few weeks or months, but once a lawsuit is filed, settlement is unlikely until the parties complete discovery.)

For example, if the defendant initially denies causing the accident, but during discovery video evidence emerges showing the defendant running a red light, 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. Even if this revelation means the plaintiff has a slam dunk case, the plaintiff will often agree to settle now to avoid the uncertainty of trial

Given how long it usually takes to complete discovery, most cases settle within a few months to a few years after the lawsuit commences.

Step 5: How Long Will the Trial Last?

A trial starts with the plaintiff presenting evidence to support their allegations. This evidence will typically take the form of eyewitness and expert testimony and the submission of relevant documents, like photographs and medical records. After the plaintiff finishes, it's the defendant's turn to present evidence to refute what the plaintiff just claimed. A car accident trial usually only takes a day or two to complete.

Step 6: How Long Will an Appeal Take to Complete?

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 take six months to a year to resolve. Sometimes, a defendant uses the prospect of appeal as leverage to settle a case. They threaten a lengthy and expensive appeal unless the plaintiff agrees to accept a settlement amount that's less than what the plaintiff might reasonably expect to win at trial.

How Long Does a Complete Car Accident Lawsuit Take?

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, as most car accident lawsuits settle before trial.

Why is My Car Accident Settlement Taking So Long?

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 plaintiffs may be fighting based on principle, and the lawsuit may represent an opportunity to get justice.

On the other side, 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.

Hire a Car Accident Attorney for Your Case

Whatever lies ahead for your car accident case, it's crucial to have a car accident lawyer on your side. Discussing the details of your situation with an experienced legal professional is the best way to get a sense of how your specific claim timeline might play out, and how much your car accident case might be worth.

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