If you're considering a slip and fall lawsuit, you may wonder how long the process will take. Depending on a variety of factors, once a slip and fall case goes to court, it can take months or even years to resolve. But like other civil lawsuits involving personal injuries, slip and fall cases go through a number of distinct stages.
Let's look at the timeline of what to expect if you're filing a lawsuit against a property owner for an injury caused by an unsafe property condition. (The legal term for these kinds of cases is "premises liability.")
It's possible for a slip and fall injury matter to begin as a lawsuit filed in court (by the injured person against the property owner, for example). But in most situations where an insurance policy covers the underlying accident, a claim is first filed by the injured person, under the property owner's policy. And if a fair injury settlement can be reached, that will be the end of the matter. Learn more about insurance coverage for slip and fall accidents and how to make a claim.
But if the property owner's insurance company and the injured person are too far apart on key issues like fault for the slip and fall and how much the claim might be worth, the injured person might file a lawsuit (becoming the plaintiff in court) against the property owner. (Keep in mind that settlement can still be reached at any time.)
The first step in starting a slip and fall lawsuit is filing the "complaint", the document that explains the nature of your claim.
Each state is different when it comes to how much detail needs to be included in the complaint. Some states require a detailed factual summary; while others merely require that the complaint contain enough information to put the defendant on notice of the plaintiff's claim.
In any state, you must file your complaint in the court where you will bring your lawsuit, and you must serve it—along with a summons—on the party you will be suing. The summons will order the defendant to file a response to the complaint within a set amount of time (typically 20 days).
Learn more about filing a personal injury lawsuit.
The "answer" is the document the defendant files in response to the complaint. In an answer, the defendant is typically only required to admit or deny each allegation in the complaint (or state that the defendant does not have enough information to admit or deny a particular allegation).
In addition, an answer typically includes any "affirmative defenses" the defendant intends to raise in response to the plaintiff's allegations. If the defendant can eventually prove that one or more of these defenses applies, that can reduce their liability or eliminate it altogether. Learn more about Defenses to a Personal Injury Lawsuit.
As mentioned above, a defendant's answer is typically due within 20 days of being served with a complaint. However, a defendant may usually secure an additional 20 days by agreeing to waive certain legal defenses.
This is the phase of the case where the parties involved learn as much as they can about the case. The initial discovery phase involves:
Next, the injured person and others (like the property owner) will almost certainly need to attend a deposition. Learn more about depositions in slip and fall cases.
The discovery phase may take anywhere from three months to a year or more, depending on the complexity of the case, the duration of your medical treatment, and the court's schedule.
Before trial, the parties may file certain motions with the court in an attempt to resolve specific issues. The most common pre-trial motions include:
Parties will often attempt to resolve a lawsuit without a trial. Two common methods for doing this are mediation and settlement conferences. These two alternative dispute resolution methods are similar in their style. One key difference is that the parties typically arrange mediation on their own with a private mediator, while the court may order a settlement conference. Your judge (or an assigned magistrate) will conduct the settlement conference.
Learn more about mediation of personal injury claims.
Usually, mediations and settlement conferences take place near the end of the discovery phase. They may occur early on in a lawsuit if there is little dispute over liability, and the parties simply need assistance reaching middle ground as to how much a claim is worth.
Trial occurs after discovery is closed. Your case will be set on a "trial docket" with the court. The court will hear the cases in the order set on its docket.
Depending on the complexity of your case, and the judge you draw, your trial will likely take two to five days. Slip and fall cases are often not very complicated, so they usually wrap up by the third day.
If you prevail at trial, you don't take a check home from the courthouse. You'll have to collect on your judgment. Typically, a losing defendant has 30 to 60 days to pay a judgment. If payment isn't made in line with the deadline, your lawyer may take additional measures to force collection. Learn more about the challenges of collecting a court judgment.
Now that you understand what a court-based slip and fall case might look like, you might want to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of your potential claim. If so, discussing your situation with an experienced personal injury attorney might be a good next step. Learn more about finding and working with a personal injury lawyer.