If you're thinking about filing a personal injury claim after any kind of accident, it's important to understand that in order to present your best case, a number of costs are unavoidable. In this article, we'll explain:
To the average person, the words "costs" and "fees" mean the same thing. Not so in the legal profession. 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 largest) costs in a personal injury lawsuit include:
Let's look at each of these categories in a little more depth.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 reach a few thousand dollars.
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 about $500.
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.
First things first. Do you really want your personal injury lawyer to prioritize keeping case costs down and litigate your case on a shoestring?
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 a personal injury lawyer based on whether he or she charges for photocopying?
If a personal injury lawsuit is filed, then there is no way around incurring court filing fees, sheriff's fees, deposition transcripts, and (often) mediation fees. If the case is in suit, your lawyer has to take depositions of parties and witnesses, or else the insurance company is going to think your lawyer is not serious. And if a lawyer takes a deposition, a transcript needs to be prepared and paid for.
With respect to experts, almost every personal injury case is going to require some type of expert witness. Even your treating physician is considered an expert, and experts don't do depositions and trials for free. They charge, and often they charge a lot. Some doctors charge thousands of dollars for appearing at a personal injury deposition.
Perhaps a better way to consider costs and expenses in personal injury litigation is to get a realistic idea of what they might be, and what they might be going toward. When interviewing prospective lawyers, ask them how much they anticipate costs being if a personal injury settlement can be reached going into suit, and how much the costs might be if the case does go into suit.
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 $3,000 to 5,000, depending on the expert witness fees.
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 get it wrong sometimes. 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.
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 shouldn't be your priority certainly—not at the expense of a fair result.
Learn more about getting an attorney's help with your personal injury case. You can also use the tools on this page to connect with an injury lawyer in your area.