If you or a loved one has been injured in a traumatic event, be it a car accident, slip-and-fall accident or a dog attack, you may be wondering what steps you need to take in terms of protecting your rights and seeking compensation for the injuries, damages and losses you have suffered. You may have a number of questions about what a legal process might entail, what it might cost you and what pitfalls you need to avoid that might jeopardize your claim. Here is a detailed guide to personal injury lawsuits.
What is a Personal Injury Lawsuit? The Basics
Personal injury cases are essentially legal disputes that stem from a mishap or injury where individuals suffer harm as a result of a traumatic event, which is often caused by someone else's negligence or wrongdoing. In such cases, the responsible person or entity, or often their insurance company, will pay monetary compensation to the injured person for medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering and for the cost of ongoing treatment and therapy. If the case involves medical negligence, your attorney will work with insurers and attorneys for doctors or hospitals.
A personal injury case can become a formal lawsuit when you file a complaint in court through a personal injury lawyer representing you at a civil court proceeding. This court session seeks to find the defendants at fault through a court judgment. However, it is more common that such disputes are resolved through an informal settlement after a lawsuit is filed, or in some cases, even before it is filed.
Personal injury lawsuit: These are different from criminal cases, which are initiated by the government against a person accused of committing a crime. A personal injury case goes through the civil justice system where the plaintiff files a civil complaint against an individual, business, corporation, governmental agency or other entity alleging that they negligently or carelessly caused the incident that injured them. Such an action is known as "filing a lawsuit."
Settlement: A vast majority of personal injury lawsuits are settled informally or outside the court. A settlement is typically negotiated between the parties followed by a written agreement to which both sides agree. A settlement means that the parties have resolved the matter through a payment of money instead of taking it through the court system. Personal injury cases may also be settled through alternative dispute resolution procedures such as mediation and arbitration.
Steps in a Personal Injury Lawsuit
Here are the steps typically involved in a personal injury lawsuit:
Settlement negotiations: Your attorney will send what is known as a "demand letter" to your insurance company or the other party, setting forth your case for damages. This paves the way for your lawyer to obtain a fair settlement from the insurance company. A big part of personal injury cases involve negotiations, which is why you need a lawyer on your side who is also a skilled negotiator.
Filing a lawsuit: However, if the other party does not offer a fair settlement or rejects your claim, your lawyer may have to file a lawsuit to help you receive maximum compensation for your losses.
Discovery: This is the part of the process where both parties share documents and other evidence. During this time, witnesses and others may be interviewed by attorneys for either side under oath, and this testimony will very likely be used during the trial.
Trial: When a case simply cannot be settled, it goes before a judge and jury. Your attorney will argue the case in court by presenting evidence of negligence and a judge or jury will determine liability and damages. You need an Orange County personal injury attorney who has trial experience and will not hesitate to take the case to trial in order to get the best possible outcome.
Why File a Personal Injury Lawsuit?
When you suffer an injury that was caused as a result of someone else's negligence or wrongdoing, you could be left with significant medical expenses, lost income and other expenses that should not be on your shoulders. Personal injury lawsuits serve a crucial role of not only helping injured victims seek and obtain compensation that can make them whole, but also help hold the at-fault parties – whether they are individuals, businesses or governmental agencies -- accountable.
Filing a personal injury lawsuit is particularly important for individuals who have suffered catastrophic injuries such as brain injuries, paralysis due to spinal cord damage or limb amputations. These are injuries that could be life-changing and even affect someone's ability to earn a living or enjoy life the way they did prior to the accident. In such cases, plaintiffs may be able to secure compensation for permanent injuries, disabilities, loss of future income, loss of earning capacity and cost of future treatment and therapy.
How Much is My Personal Injury Case Worth?
This is one of the most common questions our clients ask us, and it is a great question. The value of your case depends on several important factors such as the circumstances of your accident, the nature and extent of your injuries, insurance policy limits and so on. What actually drives the value or worth of a case is how much the plaintiff can get in terms of damages including medical expenses, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, loss of consortium and pain and suffering.
Some of those factors may not initially have a clearly articulated value. However, our Orange County personal injury lawyers have found based on past experience that they could offer an estimated case value after assessing your medical records, police reports, statements and other evidence. The entire picture can provide an insight into what you can expert from a personal injury lawsuit and how your case will be valued.
What Your Lawyer Does in a Lawsuit
Your lawyer and legal team are essentially your advocates fighting to get the compensation you rightfully deserve. Once you retain a lawyer, his or her legal team will take a number of critical actions such as gauging the scope of your injuries and the circumstances involving negligence; investigating the accident scene; questioning witnesses; requesting and getting documentation; working with medical experts; reviewing and compiling all evidence in the case from documents to photos and videos; and working with experts who can help provide insights and strengthen your case. Your lawyer will also be able to preserve evidence, which can otherwise be lost or destroyed.
Your lawyer is also a skilled negotiator who will use evidence and information to help you secure maximum compensation for your losses. If the insurance company or other party denies your claim or refuses to give you a fair settlement, your attorney will go to trial to help you get the compensation you need and deserve.
Your Role in a Lawsuit
Your role as a client is fairly limited in a lawsuit. However, there are a few steps you need to do in order to make sure your case is on the right track. Do not admit fault for your injury. Continue to get treated by your doctor for your injuries. Make sure you follow through on your doctor's instructions.
It can also be extremely helpful to document any ups and downs that you encounter in your daily life because of your injury. Provide your attorney with all documentation and evidence you have that can help your case, be it police reports, insurance documents or photos and videos from the accident scene. Avoid commenting about your case online or on social media. Doing so could jeopardize your case. Follow your attorney's advice on these matters.
What is a Personal Injury Settlement?
A personal injury settlement occurs when both parties come to an agreement on the monetary compensation that is given to the plaintiff. Your actual settlement amount will vary depending on a number of factors including the severity of the injury, the type of accident, your employment situation and the types of expenses you have incurred due to someone else's negligence or wrongdoing.
You won't have to pay your attorney hourly fees or any other costs. Your lawyer will take a percentage of the compensation you are awarded as fees. This is known as a contingency fee. The settlement process could be fairly quick or lengthier depending what is at stake. Often, your lawyer will not accept the first offer. There is likely to be a lot of back and forth and this negotiation process culminates in a settlement when both sides find the result acceptable. Once both parties agree, it could take up to six weeks for you to receive the money.
How Much Does a Personal Injury Lawyer Cost?
The Orange County personal injury lawyers at Timothy J. Ryan & Associates don't charge hourly rates or upfront fees. Instead, we work on a "contingency fee" system. This means we only get paid if you receive compensation. This is an ideal arrangement for all personal injury plaintiffs because it allows them access to quality legal representation, which they could not have afforded had they been required to pay an hourly rate or upfront fees.
Our contingency fee levels the playing field, giving injured individuals access to a firm that has the knowledge, experience and resources to fight for the little guy against large corporations, including insurance companies. We take our contingency fee, a reasonable amount, only after your recovery. In some cases, the court will even order the defendant to pay attorney's fees.
Statutes of Limitations for Cases
Many personal injury lawsuits have strict deadlines within which the complaints must be filed in court. These laws are known as statutes of limitations. In California, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases is two years. What this means is, if you don't get to the courthouse within this period, the court will likely refuse to hear your case and you run the risk of losing your right to compensation. However, personal injury claims against government entities must be filed within 180 days (6 months) of the incident.
There are some exceptions to the statute of limitations. A California court may extend the deadline if the injured individual suffers physical or mental incapacitation due to the injury. If the injured person is under 18, the statutory deadline will begin when the individual turns 18. The deadline may also be extended when the injury was not revealed until after the incident took place. In this situation, the statutory deadline will begin once the injury manifests.
Compensation (Damages) in a Personal Injury Lawsuit
Here are some of the types of compensation plaintiffs can get in personal injury cases:
Medical Bills: Often, anyone who is injured in an accident will need to get medical care. This may include emergency care, diagnostic tests, surgery, hospital stays, doctor's office visits and outpatient care. However, it might not end there. Medical care could be required on an ongoing basis, particularly if the injuries are serious or permanent. The expenses can add up very quickly. Injured victims can be saddled with medical bills that are exorbitant. Damages assessed against the defendant in a personal injury settlement or trial should definitely include medical expenses.
Lost Wages: You can seek compensation for income you lost because you had to miss work. When the injuries are relatively minor, you may be able to get by using paid sick time. However, with more serious injuries, you may need to take more time off. Some individuals who suffer catastrophic injuries may never be able to return to their job, which can be financially devastating to their families.
Pain and Suffering: This type of compensation is calculated and awarded based on the physical pain and mental suffering endured by the plaintiff. The amount of compensation will depend on the nature and extent of your injuries. Evidence in such cases could include medical records showing diagnoses, prescriptions and hospital stays that could show the extent of the injury and duration of recovery.
Emotional Distress: This type of compensation refers to the injured person's mental and emotional state after an accident. Injuries are not limited to physical harm. A personal injury victim could suffer anxiety, depression and other conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These types of damages can be proved by providing medical records and testimony from a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Wrongful Death: These claims are civil actions filed by survivors of an individual killed in an accident as the result of someone else's negligence or wrongdoing. In such cases, survivors not only struggle with the grief of losing a loved one, but also deal with the lack of financial support from a family member. Compensation provided by an award of damages in wrongful death cases can help ease the financial burdens associated with the loss of a loved one. Compensation awarded in such cases typically covers lost income, medical expenses, funeral costs and loss of love, care and companionship.
Loss of Consortium: If you have been injured so badly in an accident that you lose your ability to have a complete or intimate relationship with your spouse or partner, you may be eligible to seek compensation for loss of consortium or loss of companionship.
Punitive Damages: In some cases, courts or juries may award punitive damages to punish defendants whose injurious actions were particularly egregious or outrageous. This is different from compensatory damages because it seeks to make an example of the defendant in order to deter others from acting in a similar manner. For the court to award punitive damages, the actions of the defendant must have been either intentional or the result of wanton or willful misconduct.
What You Should Know Before Filing
If you have suffered serious personal injuries, here are a few things you should know before filing a lawsuit.
Personal Injury Lawsuits Are Designed to Protect You
If you have been injured, you know you are facing mounting medical expenses, lost income and often times, your entire life is turned upside down. The primary goal of personal injury lawsuits is to make you whole, protect your legal rights and your financial future. A personal injury lawsuit will help you recover compensation for your injuries, damages and losses.
People Who Lawyer Up Recover More
Research has consistently shown that people who retain the services of a personal injury attorney recover three times as much compensation as those who decide to do it on their own. Personal injury lawyers know how to evaluate claims and they know what it takes to negotiate and obtain the best possible settlement for their clients. If the insurance company is not willing to come to an agreement, your attorney can take the case before a judge and jury.
The Sooner You Call, the Better
When do you call a personal injury lawyer? The sooner you call, the better. Doing so can help you avoid costly mistakes such as saying the wrong thing to your insurance company or failing to document your injury. An attorney can also guide you through a complex legal process and communicate with insurance companies and lawyers for other parties on your behalf.
It Costs Nothing to Get Started
At the Law Offices of Timothy J. Ryan & Associates, we charge our clients nothing for the initial consultation. We believe that every person should have access to quality legal representation, irrespective of who they can afford. We also work on a contingency fee basis, which means you don't pay any upfront fees and we only get paid if you win. The money comes from the settlement or jury verdict we obtain for you.
Don't Sign Anything Before Consulting an Attorney
It is important that you do not agree to a settlement or sign any paperwork before talking to your lawyer. This is because the insurance company only has their best interest or their bottom line in mind. They will try to settle for less than what your case is actually worth. Your lawyer will look out for your best interests and make sure that your rights are protected every step of the way.
There Are Two Ways to Win a Case
Personal injury cases may end with a settlement or an award, if it goes before a judge and jury. A settlement is an agreement between the two parties as to what the plaintiff will get in terms of compensation. A verdict is a decision made by a judge or jury after hearing arguments and seeing evidence from both sides. While most personal injury cases culminate in settlements, some cases do go to trial especially if the parties are unable to reach a settlement.
Establishing Negligence is Paramount
In personal injury cases, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. This means you must establish that your injury was caused by the negligence of the defendant or that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care for your safety. If negligence is proved, the defendant can be held liable for any resulting damages you suffered as a result.
Personal Injury Cases Can Be Time-Consuming
There is no question that personal injury cases can be lengthy and complex. Insurance companies often try to drag out the process because they believe that might cause the victim to cave and settle for less. It is important never to settle for less than what your case is worth. Our Orange County personal injury attorneys are committed to finding a quick and efficient resolution to your case. But our main goal is to achieve the best possible outcome for you.
It's Hard to Value a Claim Without Reviewing the Facts
There are a number of factors that could affect a personal injury claim including the severity of the injuries and the circumstances of the incident that caused your injuries. It is impossible to determine the value of a claim without first looking at the facts of the case. Our attorneys understand how to evaluate a claim and we will leave no stone unturned to fight for maximum compensation.
You Have Limited Time to File a Lawsuit
Under California law, you only have two years to file a personal injury lawsuit. If you wait for too long, you may lose your right to compensation. This is why it is imperative that you contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible to make sure you don't miss the deadline for filing your lawsuit.
Settlements Aren't Taxable — Most of the Time
It is important to understand that settlements in a personal injury lawsuit are not taxable under state or federal laws. There are, however, some exceptions depending on the type of personal injury claims. Your attorney can help you clarify some of the more specific tax questions. Typically compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of consortium and attorney's fees are not taxable.
In 2017, the Trump Administration signed a tax law that stated compensation from a personal injury settlement or award is only tax-free if the injuries are physical. This means emotional distress does not qualify as physical. It can be confusing to differentiate between physical and other injuries. An experienced Orange County personal injury lawyer can help you better understand what part of your settlement or award may be taxable.
Contacting an Experienced Lawyer
If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of someone else's negligence or wrongdoing, our Orange County personal injury lawyers can help you better understand your legal rights and options. Call us today at 714-898-4444 for a free, comprehensive and confidential consultation.