You might be thinking of filing a personal injury claim after being hurt in a car accident, a slip-and-fall, or another incident caused by someone else's carelessness. If so, you probably have lots of questions: What are my chances of getting fair compensation for my medical bills and other losses? Is it better to hire a lawyer, or can I handle it on my own? What can I do to increase my chances of success? How long will the process take?
To help get answers to these and other important questions, we surveyed our readers across the United States and asked about their experiences with personal injury claims. We also took a broader look at the personal injury claim process, including data from thousands of federal court cases.
Here's what we learned.
Most readers with a personal injury claim in our 2017 survey received a payout. About two-thirds of all readers (67%) received compensation through a settlement.
Only a few (4%) saw their case go to trial, which is typical in personal injury cases. According to data compiled by Westlaw Edge's Litigation Analytics (a property of Thomson Reuters), fewer than 1% of personal injury cases filed in federal court from 2019 to 2023 went all the way to a jury verdict.
Trials can be time-consuming, expensive, and risky for everyone involved. That's why insurance adjusters—as well as the lawyers helping injured people—are usually motivated to reach a personal injury settlement. Negotiations can (and usually do) continue even after a lawsuit is filed.
More than half of the readers in our 2017 survey received payouts ranging from $3,000 to $25,000. But another 26% of readers received over $25,000, making the overall average $52,900. (When you're looking at these results, keep in mind that the readers we surveyed had come to our websites to find information about a claim and to look for a lawyer. It might be that those with the most severe injuries—which lead to a higher settlement or award—immediately retained a lawyer and didn't participate in our survey.)
The outcomes in federal lawsuits shed more light on compensation in personal injury cases. Westlaw Edge analyzed 745 federal personal injury cases from 2013 through 2022 that ended with a settlement or award. Because the exact details of settlements aren't always made public by the parties, Westlaw Edge only looked at cases where that information was available. In those cases, the median settlement amount was $75,000. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn't mean federal personal injury plaintiffs usually receive that kind of compensation. In more than 40% of those 745 cases, federal personal injury plaintiffs received $5,000 or less.
Remember, too, that there's a difference between federal court and state court, and most personal injury cases are handled by state courts. And it's important to keep in mind that the most important factors affecting your compensation are your specific circumstances, including the seriousness of your injuries—not what other people have received in their own cases.
Insurance companies usually focus on a few key factors when deciding how to value an injury case. You don't have control over some of those factors, including:
At the same time, our survey results point to things you can do that affect the likelihood of a successful outcome and the amount of compensation you might receive:
Our survey showed that hiring a personal injury lawyer is the most important step you can take to increase your chances of getting compensation for your harm. More than nine out of ten readers who had legal representation received a settlement or award, compared to about half of those who handled their own injury claims.
Legal representation also made a big different in the amount of personal injury payouts. Readers who hired a lawyer walked away with an average of $77,600 in compensation, compared to an average of $17,600 for those who represented themselves.
This difference in compensation explains why personal injury plaintiffs are willing to pay around one-third or more of any settlement or award to their lawyers. Our readers paid, on average, a 32% contingency fee, which is consistent with (or a little better than) standard rates across the country. For instance, the Texas Legal Services Center reports that attorneys working on contingency typically receive between 33.33% and 40% of any settlement or award. And, according to the New York City Bar's Legal Referral Service, 33% is the ordinary fee.
Our survey showed that, even after subtracting these fees, readers who had lawyers got average net payouts nearly three times higher than readers who didn't. These results aren't surprising. Lawyers know what it takes to build a solid personal injury claim, gather evidence, and deal with insurance adjusters.
It might seem obvious that you'll end up with a higher settlement by negotiating rather than simply accepting the first offer from the other side. This may not be true in every case, but negotiating still appears to be one of the most effective strategies for getting more money.
Most of our readers (70%) held out for a better deal. Those readers received settlements that were $30,700 higher, on average, than the settlements received by those who accepted the insurance company's first offer.
(Get tips on negotiating a fair personal injury settlement.)
Just over half of our readers settled or otherwise resolved their personal injury claims without filing a personal injury lawsuit or even notifying the other side that they were ready to do that. But readers who did take one of those steps were more likely to receive a settlement or award, and their payouts were almost twice as high as those who didn't file or threaten lawsuits ($45,500 compared to $23,000).
Even though most personal injury cases settle, and trials are rare, insurance companies are clearly more inclined to make a reasonable settlement offer if you show them that you're serious by moving ahead toward a lawsuit.
Half of readers in our 2017 survey resolved their personal injury claims within two months to a year, while 30% of readers waited over a year for their cases to be resolved. The overall average was 11.4 months.
It's natural to want a quick payout, but a faster resolution doesn't necessarily mean a better result. Many of the factors associated with successful outcomes and higher payouts also increase the average time needed to resolve claims, including:
Also, the legal process can take time to play out after a lawsuit is filed. According to Westlaw Edge, from 2004 to 2023, most of the federal personal injury cases that went all the way to a verdict took more than a year—and often much longer—from the time they were filed to when they concluded. The typical time from filing a lawsuit to a settlement was just under a year. (Keep in mind that the timeline for a lawsuit filed in state court could differ, though.)
But the fact that successful cases often to take a long time doesn't mean it always makes sense to hold out for as long as possible. If you have a strong case, then the time and inconvenience of a lawsuit might be worth it. If you have a weaker case, it might make more sense to take an early settlement offer, or even to avoid a lawsuit completely. The timeline of any personal injury claim ultimately depends on the facts and on what the people involved are willing to accept.
When it comes to getting the most out of your personal injury claim, our survey results show that there's no substitute for standing up for your rights and pushing for the best result. For many readers, that meant putting their case in the hands of a lawyer.
If you're thinking about making a personal injury claim, your best first step might be to sit down and discuss your situation with an experienced attorney. But if you can't find a lawyer you want to work with, you can learn more about how to handle your own personal injury case.
The reader survey data referenced above is from Martindale-Nolo Research's 2017 personal injury study, which analyzed responses from readers who had personal injury claims, had researched hiring a lawyer, and agreed to participate in the survey. The names of any quoted readers have been changed to protect their privacy.
Some Martindale-Nolo Research articles reference federal court data provided by Westlaw Edge's Litigation Analytics, a property of Thomson Reuters. The data is gathered from federal district court records that include reliable information about monetary awards and settlements. Some settlement agreements may not be reported to the court or may not be publicly available.