What Are "Costs" In a Personal Injury Case?

Significant expenses will inevitably arise with certain kinds of personal injury claims.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're thinking about filing a personal injury claim after any kind of accident, it's important to understand that in order for you and your lawyer to put together your best case, a number of costs and expenses are unavoidable. In this article, we'll explain:

  • where costs often come from in a personal injury case
  • who pays for costs in a personal injury case (both as they come up, and ultimately), and
  • why keeping costs down probably shouldn't be your priority as a personal injury claimant.

The Difference Between "Costs" and "Fees" In Personal Injury Cases

To the average person, the words "costs" and "fees" mean the same thing. But in the legal profession, they refer to pretty distinct things.

The term "fee" typically refers to the amount an attorney charges to handle a case. A good example is the contingency fee, which is the percentage of the recovery the plaintiff's attorney will receive as compensation for working on a plaintiff's personal injury case.

The term "cost" includes expenses for pretty much everything else in litigation. The most common (and most significant) costs in a personal injury lawsuit include:

  • court filing costs
  • expert witness fees
  • administrative expenses (including database maintenance on larger cases)
  • deposition costs, and
  • costs of investigation and information-gathering.

Let's look at each of these categories in a little more depth.

Court Costs In Personal Injury Lawsuits

Court costs include the filing fee for the complaint (usually between $100 and $400), paying the daily stipend for jurors (should the case go to a jury trial) and serving the summons and complaint on the defendant. (Learn more about filing a personal injury lawsuit.)

If the plaintiff wants a copy of in-court testimony, they will have to pay the court reporter for a copy of the transcript. A copy of the transcript can cost anywhere from $2 to $4 per page, so an all-day in-court testimony can easily result in a $400 transcript.

Expert Witnesses In Personal Injury Cases

After your attorney's fees, this is probably the largest expense in a personal injury lawsuit. An expert witness may charge several hundred dollars an hour to review your case, prepare an expert report, and testify at trial. In a simple personal injury case, this can amount to several thousand dollars. In a complex case, it can be tens of thousands of dollars, especially if your case requires several expert witnesses.

In many personal injury claims, it is the expert witness costs that really make the difference. A car accident case rarely requires a liability expert. The only expert typically needed is your treating doctor. If your lawyer suggests that you go see a medical expert for trial, ask why. 95 times out of 100, your own treating physician will be a better expert witness for you at trial than a "hired gun" expert.

A Personal Injury Trial (Almost Always) Requires an Expert Witness

Product liability and medical malpractice cases can require multiple experts, who can charge thousands of dollars. A $50,000 to $100,000 bill for experts in those types of cases is not uncommon.

But practically any personal injury lawsuit that goes to trial will need at least one expert witness. This is because personal injury cases require plaintiffs to present certain technical arguments (such as the cause of an injury) that the average person wouldn't know anything about. And court rules do not allow just anyone to testify about any subject. Let's use an example to illustrate.

Let's say you're hurt due to the medical malpractice of a doctor. To win your case in court, one of the things you must do is explain:

  • how the doctor acted negligently, and
  • how this negligent conduct caused your claimed injuries.

Who Qualifies As an Expert In a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Can you use a non-medical professional to explain this for you? You could in theory, but a judge or jury wouldn't give them much credit for their testimony. On the other hand, you could have a doctor give the same testimony and a judge or jury would give the doctor's opinion much more weight.

Court rules recognize that testimony from someone who is not an "expert" doesn't add much to a case, and in certain situations can actually distract the jury and cause confusion or spread misinformation.

Very few people have the credentials to qualify as an expert witness and also have the ability to explain complex technical and scientific concepts in a way a jury can understand. So it's easy to see why hiring an expert witness can be both necessary and costly.

Administrative Expenses In Personal Injury Cases

All court cases will require some administrative expenses, such as postage, copying, travel, legal research, and producing trial exhibits. In a very simple and short case with few document-based pieces of evidence, this won't be much, perhaps less than a few hundred dollars. But in litigation that lasts several years (which is common in personal injury lawsuits that go to trial), these administrative expenses can add up to thousands of dollars.

Deposition Costs

A deposition is the taking of sworn, non-trial testimony on the record. Usually, this means asking a witness questions with a stenographer recording everything said. The party requesting the deposition will pay for the stenographer's time, as well as a copy of the transcript. For a deposition lasting a few hours, this can amount to $500 to $1,000.

Investigation and Information-Gathering

This expense may be minimal in many cases. You can obtain medical records and police reports for free, or for a small fee. However, if special investigation or research is necessary, such as hiring a private investigator or sending someone to conduct research that can only take place in person, information-gathering costs can be significant.

Who Pays for "Costs" In a Personal Injury Case?

The specifics depend on the details found in the attorney fee agreement, but in most personal injury cases, the client will ultimately "pay" for the costs associated with their case, in the sense that the attorney will deduct those costs from any settlement or court award the client receives. But if the client doesn't end up receiving any money, most attorney fee agreements in personal injury cases make clear that the attorney will absorb the case costs, and the client won't be on the financial hook.

Ask Your Lawyer When Costs Will Be Deducted From Your Personal Injury Settlement/Award

With a successful personal injury case (one that ends with the client receiving a settlement or court award), when the costs are deducted—before or after the attorney takes their legal fee for representing you—can make a difference in how much you end up getting. Let's look a little closer at this issue, with a hypothetical case where:

  • you receive $100,000 in settlement
  • your attorney's contingency fee percentage is 30 percent, and
  • your case costs are $15,000

If case costs are deducted after your attorney takes their contingency fee percentage, your attorney gets $30,000 (30 percent of $100,000) and you get $55,000 (the remaining $70,000 minus $15,000 for costs).

But if costs are deducted before your attorney takes their contingency fee percentage, the starting amount is essentially $85,000 ($100,000 minus the $15,000 for costs). So, your attorney gets $25,500 (30% of $85,000) and you get the remaining $59,500.

In this example, the timing of the deduction for costs results in a difference of $4,500.

Learn more about what to ask a personal injury lawyer before hiring one.

How Can I Keep Costs Down In My Personal Injury Case?

First things first. Do you really want your personal injury lawyer to prioritize keeping case costs down, and litigate your case on a shoestring, rather than focusing on getting you the best result?

Costs Are Inevitable

Maybe you can find a lawyer who won't charge for postage and photocopying, but those expenses are pretty common and are rarely going to be more than a couple of hundred dollars, and do you really want to be choosing personal injury lawyer based on whether they pass the costs of photocopying on to their clients?

If a personal injury lawsuit is filed, there's no way around incurring court filing fees, sheriff's fees, deposition transcripts, and (often) mediation fees. At this point, your lawyer has to take depositions of parties and witnesses, or the insurance adjuster is going to think your lawyer isn't serious. And if a lawyer takes a deposition, a transcript needs to be prepared and paid for.

With respect to experts, most personal injury cases require some type of expert witness or consultant. Even your treating physician is considered an expert, and experts don't do depositions and trials for free. Some doctors charge thousands of dollars for appearing at a personal injury deposition.

Be Realistic About Personal Injury Case Costs

One way personal injury claimants might approach costs and expenses is to get:

  • a ballpark dollar estimate of what the costs might be in their particular case, and
  • a clear sense of what those costs might be going toward.

When interviewing prospective lawyers, ask them how much they anticipate costs being if a personal injury settlement can be reached without going into suit, and how much the costs might be if it becomes necessary to file a personal injury lawsuit.

For example, for a straightforward car accident case that gets settled before filing suit, costs could be under $1,000. But if that same "easy" car accident case goes into suit, costs could increase to $5,000 to 20,000, depending on whether there are expert witness fees and other big-ticket costs.

Personal Injury Case Costs Are Often a Balancing Act

Balancing the cost of a personal injury lawsuit with the potential recovery isn't easy, and it takes a lot of experience to do it effectively. And even the most experienced and successful attorneys sometimes get it wrong. There are many situations where the attorney can spend additional time and money to present a more powerful case, but it may not produce a cost-effective return on investment.

The best thing you can do as a client is to discuss this balancing act with your attorney to make an informed decision.

What's Next?

The best way to understand the financial side of your potential personal injury case is to discuss the specifics with an injury lawyer. As we've discussed here, getting a sense of how costs work is one thing, but keeping costs down certainly shouldn't be your priority—not at the expense of a fair result.

Learn more about getting an attorney's help with your personal injury case.

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