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A car accident can derail your life. Injuries can make it difficult or impossible for you to work, care for your family, and enjoy life. Getting your vehicle repaired (or replaced) can be expensive and inconvenient, and the auto accident settlement process can be infuriatingly slow to reimburse you and pay your expenses. Understanding the big picture and knowing what to expect can make it a little less annoying.

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The Auto Accident Settlement Timeline

The Aftermath: Days And Weeks After An Accident

Immediately following an accident, everything moves quickly. Vehicles get dragged from the scene and driven or towed away. Injured victims head to the emergency room or make appointments with their doctors. Police reports are filed, tickets may be issued, and, within hours, the scene is all clear and traffic resumes its course.

For the parties involved, however, the hard part is just beginning. The weeks after an accident involve figuring out how to work within your injury limitations, endless calls to health insurance companies, and negotiations with your employer about time off. Insurance adjusters for the at-fault driver(s), other parties, and your own policy call to interview you about the collision. If the at-fault driver was charged with a traffic offense, you might be contacted by their attorney or summoned to appear in court.

This is when you should contact an attorney. Don’t wait until you’ve finished your medical treatment or physical therapy. Don’t talk to your adjuster, their adjuster, or anyone who is “just trying to help.” Call an attorney and schedule an appointment before making any statements beyond the initial police reports.

Hiring an Attorney: The First Steps

Most personal injury lawyers offer a free initial consultation. This is an opportunity for them to listen to your story, look at documentary evidence of the accident (like photos and police reports), and evaluate whether you may have a legal claim.

If it looks like you’re at fault, the attorney probably won’t take your case. If they think you have a claim, they will most likely offer to represent you on a “contingency basis.” This is a type of fee agreement where they take a percentage of what you recover in an auto accident settlement or judgment when the case is finished. Before you commit, you will review a written breakdown of how any settlement will be divvied up and how costs and expenses will be paid. In most cases, if your attorney doesn’t help you recover, they don’t get paid.

After you sign a retention agreement, your lawyer will likely ask you to sign authorizations allowing them to obtain medical records directly from your health providers. They will ask you to provide any photos, videos, witness information, or other relevant evidence that you already have. They may ask you to keep a journal to document your recovery and how your injuries impact your daily life. This phase is called “discovery,” which can take weeks or months.

Preparing And Sending A Demand Letter

After your attorney reviews your medical records and other evidence, they usually can estimate what they think your case is worth. Before spending the time and money to conduct in-person (or video) interviews of witnesses, medical providers, and possibly consulting experts, your lawyer prepares a demand letter. This is a formal request to the at-fault party to settle the case for a specific sum of money.

Auto accident settlement demand letters describe the circumstances of the accident, the nature of your injuries and treatment, and your anticipated future care needs or permanent limitations. They usually include spreadsheets itemizing your damages and documents supporting those claims.

You may be surprised how high the amount of the demand is. In most cases, a personal injury plaintiff can recover many kinds of compensatory damages. These vary from state to state but can include:

  • Medical expenses
  • Childcare costs
  • Lost wages
  • Reduced future earning capacity
  • Transportation costs
  • Vehicle damages
  • Other out-of-pocket expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of enjoyment/loss of consortium

If the at-fault party’s actions were particularly egregious, you might also have a claim for “punitive damages.” These are only available in some states for very specific bad acts or omissions that endanger the public (like drunk driving). While the point of compensatory damages is to “make you whole,” punitive damages punish a defendant and discourage that behavior going forward.

Asking Relevant Questions: Witness And Expert Depositions

After your attorney sends a demand letter, they engage in settlement negotiations with the opposing counsel and the insurers. If they cannot agree, they will conduct recorded interviews (“depositions”) of the witnesses to the accident and your medical treatment providers. Your attorney may also conduct depositions of experts–like crash experts, engineers, or medical experts–if they are helpful to your case.

For example, let’s say you are pursuing claims against a car manufacturer because the accident was caused by your car’s steering system failing. Your attorney would likely retain experts to testify about the design, mechanics, or construction of the car.

Unfortunately, setting up and conducting these interviews usually takes weeks or even months. By this point, it has probably been a year (or more) since your accident. Most states allow two years to file a lawsuit for personal injuries, but there are many exceptions. If you’re approaching the statute of limitations, your attorney may recommend you file a lawsuit.

Alternatives To Trial: Negotiation And Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

As you can see, the auto accident settlement process involves a lot of coordination, paperwork, and time. Going to trial, however, is even more expensive and time-consuming. Even in the best of times, the court system is usually backed up–your case may not be scheduled for trial for months (or years) after an accident. If your attorney’s efforts to negotiate a settlement are unsuccessful, they may suggest using an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service like mediation or arbitration.

ADR proceedings are like mini trials, held before a single person or panel acting as the finder of fact. Each side presents its case. In a mediation, the factfinder makes recommendations and helps negotiate an auto accident settlement package that is fair and agreeable to both sides. In an arbitration, the factfinder issues a decision about liability and damages. If both parties agree that this ruling is “binding,” they agree to abide by it as if it came from a court rather than pursuing the case further. Otherwise, the case may still proceed to trial.

The Secret To Surviving The Auto Accident Settlement Process

An attorney is an essential factor in negotiating a fair auto accident settlement. They also relieve you of the burden of directly communicating with insurance agents and other attorneys and guide you through the entire settlement process. If you have been in an auto accident, an experienced attorney is the key to getting your life back on track.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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