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Being in a car accident is bad enough, but being served with legal process takes it to the next level. Unless you’re a lawyer (or a very, very bad driver), you may not know what happens if someone sues you after a car accident. Here’s a quick summary of what you need to know and what you can do to protect yourself.

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What Happens If Someone Sues You After A Car Accident: First Steps

First things first: take a deep breath. Once someone files a lawsuit naming you as a defendant, they have to properly “serve” you–that is, provide you with a copy of the lawsuit (the “complaint“). Once they do this in a manner that complies with the service requirements (usually by having a messenger hand you the documents personally), you have a short time to respond.

Next, notify your auto insurance carrier and find a good lawyer. One of the documents with the complaint (the “summons“) should tell you how long you have to respond. You may have as little as a few weeks to do so–don’t delay.

What happens if someone sues you after a car accident and you don’t respond (or don’t respond correctly and on time)? It’s just like when one team doesn’t show up to a game: the team that is present wins by default. The court may decide against you and issue a judgment for the plaintiff (the person who filed the lawsuit), giving them everything they ask for in the complaint.

Who’s Paying For This?

In some situations, your auto insurance policy carrier may provide you with an attorney or pay the cost of your defense. This is because if the plaintiff is successful, your insurer will be liable for paying their damages (up to your policy limits). However, you may wish to retain independent counsel; an attorney working for your auto insurer will put the carrier’s interests before your own.

If you have other insurance coverage, such as an umbrella policy, you should contact that carrier to ask what happens if someone sues you after a car accident. Your policy may have coverage that could provide another source of funding for your legal fees. If you were in a company vehicle or engaged in work-related activities at the time of the accident, you should immediately talk to your employer.

I’ve Hired An Attorney. Now What?

Once an attorney represents you, they will prepare responsive documents and file them with the court. These may include a request for a jury trial (if you are entitled to and wish to have one), an “answer” that responds to each allegation of the complaint, and possibly affirmative defenses or counterclaims.

  • Affirmative defenses are additional facts that could negate your liability for a claim (e.g., claiming the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to or caused the collision).
  • Counterclaims are legal claims that you may have against the plaintiff (e.g., claiming the plaintiff’s actions caused injury to you and requesting compensation for your own damages).

Once your attorney files an appearance and responsive pleadings on your behalf, you have time to take a step back (and another deep breath). The next phase of a lawsuit goes much more slowly than the initial flurry of filings.

Paperwork, Interviews, And More Paperwork

After you file your answer and appearance, most of what happens if someone sues you after a car accident is called “discovery.” The attorneys will:

  • Gather evidence related to the collision
  • Interview witnesses
  • Exchange written questions and requests for documents
  • Order medical records
  • Conduct interviews under oath (called “depositions“)

They may also hire experts to provide opinions about how the crash occurred, the nature and permanence of the alleged injuries, mechanical or structural problems with the vehicles, or other issues. This process can take months or even years for high-value or complicated cases.

During this phase, the attorneys will engage in formal and informal settlement negotiations. Most civil cases settle rather than go to trial. Sometimes, the parties engage in “alternative dispute resolution” services like mediation or arbitration to help negotiate a settlement. These can be more efficient and less costly than a trial. You will be involved in these negotiations, although your insurer will usually be the driving force behind the settlement offers.

Will My Case Go To Trial?

If the case doesn’t settle, you may have to appear in court for a trial before a judge or jury. Fortunately, this is a very rare course of events if someone sues you after a car accident. A trial can be incredibly stressful, but a skilled attorney is your advocate and partner. Your attorney will help you every step of the way through the trial process and prepare you for testimony.

When it’s over, win or lose, your lawyer will help you take the right steps to protect your future. If there is a judgment against you in excess of your insurance policy limits, your attorney will help you figure out how to satisfy it and put the matter behind you once and for all.

TIP: In a civil case, the only thing that’s on the line is money; even if you lose, a civil court cannot throw you in jail or put you on probation.

Protect Yourself And Reduce Your Stress By Hiring A Great Lawyer

Getting sued after an auto accident adds extra stress to a difficult situation. You shouldn’t gamble with your future, ignore the problem, or try to tough it out on your own. If you need help understanding what happens if someone sues you after a car accident, don’t delay–contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

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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