Why Do Most Personal Injury Cases Settle?

The vast majority of personal injury claims settle to save time and money, and to avoid the risks of trial.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Of the hundreds of thousands of personal injury claims pending at any time, only a small fraction—maybe one out of ten—will actually end up in a trial. Stated a bit differently, the overwhelming majority of personal injury claims settle. Why is that?

Filing a lawsuit (or defending a lawsuit) and going to court can be time-consuming, risky, and expensive. These factors and more mean there are lots of good reasons to settle your injury claim. Let's explore several of them.

Avoiding the Risks of a Lawsuit

Litigation—filing a personal injury lawsuit in court, and possibly taking the case to trial—is fraught with uncertainty. Lots of steps are involved, and each step offers chances for bad things to happen.

Surprises (not the good kind) often appear during the "discovery" phase of a case, when the parties exchange information and find the evidence they might present at trial. Sometimes an investigator finds a crucial piece of evidence that hurts your case. Or one of the parties gets flustered into saying the wrong thing during a deposition.

Then there's the trial itself. Witnesses can buckle under cross-examination, or not show up at all. The judge might decide to admit evidence that's bad for you, or exclude crucial evidence you need to prove a claim or defense. Ask any experienced trial lawyer and they'll tell you: You never know what a jury might do.

Yes, there's always the option of filing an appeal if you lose. But don't count on the court of appeals to save the day. In most appeals, the appellate court upholds what happened in the trial court. And appeals, like trials, aren't cheap. An appeal can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take more than a year to complete.

Saving Money

Lawsuits are expensive. Even a simple car accident case with reasonably clear facts and injuries can cost tens of thousands of dollars to prepare for trial and present to a jury. In a complicated medical malpractice or product liability case, expenses can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Personal injury cases often require expert witness testimony. In a car accident case, for example, you might need an expert witness to calculate the speed of the vehicles at impact or to explain how certain injuries happened. It's also not unusual to need medical or vocational experts who can explain injuries and treatments, and their impact on the plaintiff's ability to work.

Expert witnesses often charge several hundred dollars per hour for their time. Time spent investigating facts and preparing reports, traveling, and testifying (during discovery and at trial) adds up quickly. Some personal injury lawsuits will involve several expert witnesses.

(Learn about expert witnesses in a medical malpractice lawsuit.)

Personal injury cases also require lots of paralegal and attorney time. In a complicated case, attorneys might spend hundreds of hours preparing documents, analyzing discovery, reviewing evidence, preparing witnesses, and arguing motions in court.

Finally, note that if a case goes to trial, the losing side might have to pay some of the winning side's case expenses (called "costs"), and in some cases even attorneys' fees. Settling the case allows both sides to avoid this risk.

(Learn more about costs in personal injury cases.)

Saving Time

It can take more than a year (sometimes several years) from the time a lawsuit is first filed in court to the time the jury returns with a verdict. That can be a long wait for a plaintiff who's unable to work and can't pay their bills.

But a winning jury verdict doesn't mean that the plaintiff gets paid right away or that the defendant is off the hook. The trial court might decide there were mistakes made during the trial, and that the parties should try the case over again. Even if the trial court lets the verdict stand, there's always the possibility of an appeal.

(Find out more about how long personal injury cases take to resolve.)

Reducing Workload

There are only so many hours in a day. If lawyers had to take every personal injury case to trial, they'd quickly run out of time. And law schools would need to start graduating a lot more new lawyers. Settling cases, in other words, is an effective way for lawyers to manage their workloads.

In addition, many law firms are volume-driven businesses. They take on a large number of cases anticipating that most of them will settle. Even if the amount they earn in most cases is modest, with enough cases they can still be profitable.

(Find out how personal injury lawyers get paid.)


Courts are public places. What gets filed in court and what happens in a courtroom are—in most cases—matters of public record. In a personal injury lawsuit that goes to trial, lots of information you might prefer to keep private becomes available to anyone who knows where to look. And lots of people do.

For example, the plaintiff likely wants to keep sensitive medical information from becoming public. A corporation would prefer to keep employee misconduct or a malfunctioning product from making headlines. Settlement offers a chance to keep potentially embarrassing details off the record.

Avoiding Additional Stress

Litigation is difficult and stressful for everyone involved. Even business defendants don't like it. Employees and business officers must take time out of their day to prepare to testify in depositions or at trial, gather and review documents for discovery, or talk to the company's lawyers about the case.

The plaintiff is forced to relive a very painful event time and again in discovery. During a trial, the plaintiff must testify in court, probably while in an emotionally vulnerable state. Many plaintiffs would gladly give up the chance for an increased damages award in exchange for a guaranteed settlement check.

Not Having to Admit Liability

Most settlement agreements include language that lets the defendant admit no liability while agreeing to pay the plaintiff money. For many business defendants, this is a privilege worth paying for. It makes the case go away and lets the business maintain its public image.

(Learn more about the settlement process, including settlement tactics to watch out for and what to do when settlement efforts fail.)

Get Help Settling Your Personal Injury Case

If you're like the overwhelming majority of personal injury claimants, you just want to see your case settle quickly and fairly. The best way to do that is with an experienced attorney who knows how to investigate your case and negotiate with insurance companies and their lawyers to get you the best possible outcome.

Here's how to find a personal injury lawyer in your area who's right for you and your case.

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