Car accident lawyers will tell you this is one of the most common questions from prospective clients, but it's also one of the hardest to answer, especially when important pieces of the car accident puzzle are missing. As the case progresses, a car accident attorney should be able to provide a ballpark estimate of what the plaintiff can expect to recover by way of settlement. But it's a different story if a car accident case goes to trial. In any event, a car accident attorney will want to manage the plaintiff's expectations by explaining the factors that have the greatest impact on car accident case value, so that's what we'll focus on in this article.
There are three types of damages available to a plaintiff in a car accident case: economic, non-economic and punitive damages.
Economic damages are out-of-pocket losses directly related to the car accident. These include medical bills, lost income, and vehicle repair costs. In a car accident lawsuit, economic damages are the easiest to calculate, although it can be difficult (or it may take some time) to determine the full scope and extent of your car accident injuries, at least until you are mostly or completely healed (you've reached so-called "maximum medical improvement").
Non-economic damages refer to losses that are less tangible, including things like pain and suffering. These are not always available when the accident takes place in a no-fault state.
Punitive damages don't compensate you for your losses, but exist to punish particularly bad conduct on the part of the other driver, such as when he or she recklessly or intentionally caused the car accident. Punitive damages are harder to get and aren't usually available in a typical car accident case.
When you sue another driver for damages sustained in a car accident, it's rarely the defendant who actually pays out a settlement or court award. Instead, it's the defendant's car insurance company that pays. So, the defendant's policy limits may determine how much money you can realistically recover.
Until your lawyer can confirm the details of the defendant's car insurance policy, the attorney can't know for sure what your case is worth. This is because even if the attorney can somehow accurately estimate your losses damages, if the defendant only has the state's minimum car insurance coverage, and has no significant income or assets, your case value will match the defendant's policy limits. Learn more about how car insurance affects a car accident case.
Unless both sides are in agreement as to the amount of damages and liability (which is unlikely, otherwise there wouldn't be a lawsuit), you'll have to provide evidence that:
That means, until your treatment is completed, all medical bills become available, property damage estimates get prepared, and your attorney can build a case proving the other driver was at fault (this will be done through police reports, traffic or dash cam footage, witness statements, depositions, and other investigation), it will be difficult to estimate what your case is worth.
The trial venue is another factor that affects the value of a car accident case. Only a jury or judge (if it's a non-jury trial) can ultimately determine what a car accident case is worth. But not all juries and judges will decide cases the same way. Some counties, even those right next to each other, will have significant differences in the tendencies and biases regarding personal injury lawsuits. Local attorneys learn which counties and federal districts are more "plaintiff friendly" or "defendant friendly."
In some situations, there will be more than one potential location where a lawsuit can take place. Until your attorney chooses where to file the lawsuit, and the defendant confirms it won't contest the chosen location by filing a motion for change of venue, there may be a significant unknown in determining what your case is worth.
With so many factors at play, it's easy to see why your attorney may need to wait until your case is well underway to determine what it might be worth. Learn more about how a car accident lawyer can help your case.
Have you been in a car accident?
Take our free car accident quiz to find out if you're likely to get a settlement.