Personal Injury Case Timeline

What to expect at each stage of a typical personal injury case.

Updated by , J.D.

If you've been injured in any kind of accident that looks like it was someone else's fault, you might be wondering what to expect in a typical personal injury case, including how long the process might take:

  • The timeline of a given personal injury claim will depend on the specific circumstances unique to that case, but you can expect to encounter certain stages as your claim progresses.
  • Most personal injury cases settle, often without a lawsuit being filed in court. So your case probably won't reach every stage we'll discuss here.
  • Keep in mind that settlement could take place at any point on the personal injury claim timeline.

The Accident

A wide variety of accidents could lead to a personal injury claim, especially after an incident in which one person's negligence ends up causing harm to someone else.

From a slip and fall to a dog bite, any time someone else might be on the legal hook for your injury, it's important to take steps to protect any claim you might end up making. For example, after a car accident, be sure to:

  • take pictures of vehicle damage, skid marks, the position of the vehicles, and anything else that might indicate how the crash happened and who might have been at fault
  • get a copy of any police report generated after the crash
  • get the names of any witnesses, and
  • make sure you seek immediate medical attention if you're experiencing any kind of pain or discomfort, or if something just doesn't feel right.

Get Medical Treatment

As we just touched on, if you have even the slightest sense that you are hurt after your accident, go to the emergency room or make an appointment to see your doctor. Not only is this the right thing to do for your health, it's also crucial to any injury claim you end up making.

If you don't see a doctor for some time after the accident, and you file an insurance claim with the at-fault party's insurance company, the insurance adjuster will likely argue that your injuries aren't that serious.

Learn more about the importance of getting prompt medical attention after an accident.

Consulting a Personal Injury Lawyer

Any time someone else might be legally responsible for your accident, It's usually a good idea to at least discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.

You can handle a small personal injury claim yourself (as long as you're comfortable with the process and confident you can get a fair result), but you will absolutely need a lawyer for any personal injury claim where:

  • you suffered significant injury (such as a broken bone or a diagnosed concussion)
  • your medical bills and other losses (like lost income or time missed at work) total more than a few thousand dollars, and/or
  • the other side is putting up a fight on key issues like fault or the nature and legitimacy of your injuries.

You might want to meet with several candidates before deciding on the best fit for you and your case. Get details on what to ask before hiring a personal injury lawyer.

The Lawyer Investigates and Prepares Your Case

One of the first things your lawyer will do is interview you. The lawyer wants to know everything you know about the accident, your injuries, and your medical treatment. Surprises down the line aren't going to help your case, so make sure to answer all questions as completely as you can.

Next, the lawyer will get all of your medical records and bills relating to the injury and will probably also get your medical records for any treatment you have ever had relating to the condition at issue in the case.

Depending on the nature and complexity of your claim, as part of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your position and putting your best case together, your lawyer might also:

  • hire an investigator to assist with things like locating and interviewing witnesses, tracking down surveillance/security video, and finding other helpful evidence, and
  • consult experts (like accident reconstructionists who might piece together how the accident happened, or financial professionals who can speak to complex issues like future lost earnings)

This part of the process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

How Long Does an Average Personal Injury Case Take to Settle?

This is a common question, but there's no reliable data that might supply a useful answer. Perhaps more importantly, the unique nature of every personal injury claim means that any such answer wouldn't be of much use to an individual claimant.

Simply put, the settlement process can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more.

You might file an injury claim with the at-fault party's insurance company and receive a fair settlement in a month or two if:

  • there's enough liability insurance coverage in play
  • your injuries are fairly minor
  • you've made a complete recovery
  • the insurance company accepts that its insured was completely at fault for the accident that led to your injury, and
  • the insurance company isn't challenging the legitimacy of your injuries or your medical treatment.

Very few cases are this neat and tidy, however. At minimum, the time it will take to reach a fair (and full) settlement will be tied the point at which you understand the full nature and extent of your injuries and all of your other compensable losses ("damages" in the language of the law), and your recovery has reached a plateau. Learn more about damages in a personal injury case.

So, if it takes a year for you to get to a point where your accident injuries have healed as much as they're going to, then and only then should you consider settling your case. We'll discuss this a bit more later on.

Similarly, if the other side isn't coming to the negotiating table with a fair settlement offer, you might need to escalate things by filing a lawsuit. At that point, as you and the other side begin the time-intensive "discovery" process, it could mean that settlement doesn't come for a year or more.

Car accident injury claim settlements are some of the most common in the realm of personal injury. Get more information on the settlement timeline in a car accident case.

How Likely Is It That I Will Receive a Personal Injury Settlement?

Most personal injury cases reach some kind of settlement. So, unless an injury claim appears to be completely baseless—the claimant has no medical records to indicate injury, for example—chances are you'll come away with something in the way of a settlement.

One thing to keep in mind: If a personal injury lawyer has agreed to take your case and spend their valuable time and resources representing you, that's a pretty good indication your claim is legitimate and has significant value. At that point it just becomes a matter of fighting for the best outcome. Patience can be crucial here.

How Can You Speed Up Your Personal Injury Claim Timeline?

As we discussed above, much of the settlement process depends on factors like your complete recovery from your injuries, so the timeline is mostly out of your hands. But there are a few things you can do to make sure the process doesn't take any longer than it needs to:

  • Tell your lawyer right at the outset about anything that might come up later on and have an adverse effect on your claim. Do you have a preexisting injury or health issue that might relate to your current claim? Were you under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of your accident?
  • Be diligent about keeping your medical appointments, filling all prescriptions, and following your health professionals' recommendations regarding follow-up care.
  • Be responsive to any requests your lawyer makes for documentation or other evidence necessary to build your best case.

Above all, rather than concerning yourself with how to speed the process up, it might make sense to focus on the bigger picture and work toward the most complete and satisfactory outcome, not necessarily the quickest.

Lawyer Considers Making Demand and Negotiating

Many smaller personal injury claims are settled before a lawsuit is ever filed. If the lawyer thinks that the case can be settled, they will make a demand to the other attorney or the other side's insurance company.

A good lawyer will not make a demand until the plaintiff has reached a point of maximum medical improvement (MMI). MMI is when the plaintiff has ended all medical treatment and is as recovered as possible. This is because, until the plaintiff has reached MMI, the lawyer does not know how much the case is worth.

The lawyer should also not file a lawsuit until MMI. This is because, if the plaintiff is not at MMI by the time that the case goes to trial, the jury might undervalue the case.

After the initial demand, the other side's attorney or insurance company will typically respond with their own counter-offer, and both sides will engage in back-and-forth negotiations—pointing out potential weaknesses in one another case, and pointing to strengths in their own, all while trying to boost or diminish the value of the claim. Learn more about how the settlement negotiation process works in a personal injury case.

Your lawyer's experience and skills are a huge asset at this stage, but if settlement talks stall or the two sides are too far apart, the case moves into the "litigation" phase.

The Personal Injury Lawsuit Is Filed

The litigation phase starts when you and your lawyer file a personal injury lawsuit in court. Keep in mind that any lawsuit needs to be filed within strict time limits set by a law called a statute of limitations. For personal injury lawsuits, the statutory time limit ranges from as short as one year to as long as six years, depending on the state. Check the statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits in your state.

Remember, a personal injury case can settle at any point, including shortly after a lawsuit is filed in court. When an injury claimant takes the step of filing a lawsuit and opening up the prospect of a court trial, it can "magically" spur an insurance company into coming to the negotiating table with a fair settlement offer.

The filing of the lawsuit starts the clock running on when the case might get to trial. Every jurisdiction's pretrial procedures are different, but generally it will take one to two years for a personal injury case to get to trial.

The Discovery Phase of a Personal Injury Case

The discovery phase is when each party investigates what the other side's legal claims and defenses are, in an attempt to understand one another's strengths and weakness.

The parties send interrogatories (a fancy word for questions) and document requests to each other, and take depositions of all relevant parties and witnesses, generally beginning with the plaintiff and defendant.

This process can last six months to a year, depending on the court's deadlines and the complexity of the case.

At this point, your lawsuit is somewhat at the mercy of the court's calendar, but settlement talks may be ongoing alongside the litigation process, so the case could technically be resolved at any time.

Mediation and Negotiation

As the discovery period ends, the lawyers will generally start talking settlement in earnest. Sometimes the lawyers can settle just by talking among themselves, but, in other instances, they will go to mediation. This is an alternative dispute resolution process in which both sides of a lawsuit (and their lawyers) get help from a neutral third party mediator to try to resolve the case. (Learn more about mediation of personal injury claims.)

The mediation process itself might take as little as a day or two, but there's no guarantee that the parties will come to an agreement.

Trial

Mediation often works, but if it doesn't, the case is scheduled for trial. A personal injury trial can last a day, a week, or even longer. The length may be increased because, in many states, trials are held for only half a day instead of over a full day. That doubles the length of a trial, but also lets the lawyers and judges get other things done in the afternoon.

One important thing to know about trials is that just because a lawsuit is scheduled for trial does not mean the trial will actually occur on that date. Trials often get pushed because of the judge's schedule. If your trial gets moved, you should not automatically assume that something unfavorable is happening. Trials are delayed all the time, and for the most innocuous of reasons.

For details on this stage of the process in the context of one of the most common types of injury cases, learn what happens when a car accident case goes to trial.

Getting Help After an Injury

Understanding how long your personal injury case might take is important, but your central concern should be getting the best outcome, and that often means having a legal professional on your side. An experienced personal injury lawyer will have the skills and expertise to guide your case through all the stages we've discussed here, all with an eye toward coming away with the best result for you.

Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer. You can also use the features on this page to connect with an injury attorney in your area.

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