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Timeline of a Personal Injury Case

by Jordan Maurer

The timeline for a personal injury case largely depends on the injured person's medical condition and need for ongoing care, although there are a number of other factors that can play into how long it takes to get a personal injury case resolved.  Some cases resolve in a matter of months, and some go on for years.  Every case is different, but the timeline below provides a general description of each phase of a personal injury case and how long it takes to complete each one.

New client intake

When someone is injured and the situation warrants getting an attorney involved (not every case requires hiring a lawyer. . . ), the case usually starts with the potential client going through an intake procedure.  This involves talking to the attorney or their staff to relay the details of how the injury occurred and what subsequent medical care has been involved thus far. 

Demand letter

If the client hires the attorney, then the attorney usually begins by conducting an initial investigation into the facts and potential witnesses, and by notifying the at-fault parties and/or their insurance carriers.  At this same time, the client should be continuing to follow up with their medical providers.  If the client's condition improves and their medical treatment stops without the need for ongoing follow up care, then the attorney could probably submit a demand to the insurance carrier if liability is not being contested.  This involves getting any investigation reports, medical records, medical bills, and other documents relating to the incident and client's injuries, and then submitting them to the insurance carrier with a demand letter in hopes of settling the case before having to file the lawsuit.

Filing the lawsuit

If the case doesn't settle at the demand stage, then the attorney will file a "complaint" to get the lawsuit started.  The complaint basically tells the court and the defendants what they did, how it harmed the injured person, and what the injured person is seeking to recover as "damages."  Damages are compensation to the injured person to make them whole, or in other words, put them back in their pre-injury position.  Damages are often monetary, but not always.  Damages are discussed more in another blog post here.  So how long does it take before the lawsuit is filed?  It again depends on what kind of medical care is involved and what the defendant or their insurance carrier's position is.  If the defendant is disputing liability, then it might make sense to file the lawsuit right away.  If not, then it could be months after the incident before the lawsuit is filed.  In no case, however, can the lawsuit be filed after the statute of limitations expires.

Written discovery

Once the complaint is filed and the defendants respond, the case then generally moves into the written discovery stage.  In this stage, the parties exchange information and documents in a formal setting through written requests called interrogatories, requests for production of documents, and requests for admissions.  There are specific rules that control how information is exchanged, and the process is monitored by the court to ensure the case is progressing.  This does not mean that the court (i.e. the judge) is actively involved in the case.  Instead, it means that if there is a dispute between the parties, possibly because one party is wrongfully withholding information, then the court could be asked to force the misbehaving party to act correctly or face sanctions.  The parties can exchange written discovery requests throughout the life of the case up until 30 days before trial.  However, the first sets of discovery are usually completed about 30 to 90 days after the lawsuit begins.

Depositions

Depositions come after the written discovery stage.  The people usually being deposed are the parties involved (i.e. the plaintiff and the defendants) and possibly percipient witnesses (i.e. people who saw the incident take place).  The attorneys will use the information contained in the written discovery responses to prepare for the depositions.  A deposition is basically an interview conducted by an attorney where questions are asked, answers are given, and everything is written down word-for-word by a court reporter.  The person being deposed is entitled to have an attorney present that may intermittently make objections to questions that may be improper.  The deposition process helps the attorneys follow up on information not provided in the written discovery responses and helps with evaluating how a witness might appear at the time of trial. The timing of the depositions depends largely on who is being deposed.  For example, in a motor vehicle collision, the defendant driver may be deposed as quickly as possible so as to get their statement while the event may still be fresh in their mind; whereas, the plaintiff may not be deposed until many months later because a full understanding of their medical condition and need for future medical care may not yet be known.  Generally, the party and percipient witness depositions are completed about three to six months after the lawsuit is filed.

Alternative dispute resolution ("ADR")

Some judges won't set a trial date until the parties have participated in "alternative dispute resolution."  This is often done either by mediation or judicial arbitration.  Mediation is where the parties come together and meet with a neutral third-party mediator, who is often an experienced attorney or retired judge.  The meeting serves as an opportunity for the parties to negotiate and compromise in hopes of reaching a settlement.  Judicial arbitration is an event where the parties present a condensed version of their case to a neutral third party, often a volunteer attorney, who will issue a non-binding award after hearing the case.  If the parties do not settle at mediation or agree upon the judicial arbitration award, then the case will proceed onward towards trial.  Depending on the nature of the injury and medical care, and the efficiency of the attorneys in conducting written discovery and depositions, the ADR hearing could potentially be completed anywhere from six months to two years after the lawsuit begins. 

Settlement conference

If the case doesn't settle at mediation, or if the parties do not agree to accept the nonbinding judicial arbitration award, then the case will proceed to a Mandatory Settlement Conference ("MSC").  This is a final effort to resolve the matter before trial and often takes place at the courthouse.  The conference takes place with either the judge or a court-appointed attorney to act as a neutral third-party like the role of a mediator.  If the case doesn't settle at the MSC, then the court will set important dates relative to the trial that are not already part of the California Rules of Court or any local rules.  The parties will then begin preparing for trial.

Expert depositions

Expert depositions are very expensive, so they are generally conducted later in the chronology of events to avoid incurring expenses if the case has a good chance of settling before trial.  If the case doesn't settle at the MSC, the parties will probably conduct expert depositions shortly before trial to feel out the other party's position on liability or other factors, such as the extent of the injured person's need for future medical care and the cost of such treatment.

Trial

The trial in a personal injury case can take place anywhere from nine months (possibly sooner) to several years after filing the complaint.  The trial date largely depends on how fast the case has moved through the written discovery and deposition stages and if the parties are ready for trial.  The trial can last anywhere from one day to several weeks, and even months in some highly complex cases. There are two types of trials: bench trial and a jury trial.  Most personal injury cases are set for a jury trial.  The jury trial begins by selecting a jury, then the parties will present opening statements, present their cases-in-chief, and the present closing arguments and turn the case over to the jury for deliberation.  Once a verdict is reached, the special verdict form is turned over the judge who will then read the results and eventually enter a judgment for the prevailing party.

Disbursement

Whether the case is resolved by settlement or by a judgment against the adverse party, once funds are received from the defendant or the defendant's insurance carrier, those funds need to be deposited into the client trust account before disbursing the funds to the client.  During this process, the attorney needs to settle any liens or unpaid expenses.  When the proceeds are disbursed to the client, the attorney's fee will be paid along with any costs (as provided for in the fee agreement) and liens.  The remaining funds will be distributed to the client and the matter will end.  While the disbursement process is straightforward, the process can take weeks sometimes depending on the number of liens and unpaid expenses.  However, to answer the main question of this blog post and since this is the final stage of the personal injury timeline, the disbursement can take place anywhere from three months to three years (or possibly longer) from the time of the injury.