When you have been injured by a person, business, government or other entity, you may have a personal injury case. Often, people assume you must have suffered life-threatening injuries in order to successfully file a suit. However, this is not always the case. There are many different steps in a personal injury case, and there are some factors that are unique to California. This can become confusing for someone not well-versed in personal injury law.
While the average person may not be familiar with the intricacies of a personal injury lawsuit, there are some important milestones to consider. From identifying whether you have a case to deciding whether to settle or take the case to trial, here are the major steps in a personal injury lawsuit:
Figure Out if You Have a Case
Before anything else, if you are injured, you need to worry about your health. Visit a healthcare professional or, in more serious cases, immediately go to a hospital. Not only will this help you heal faster, documentation of your injuries will be highly beneficial if you do have a viable case. After you have been treated, get in contact with an attorney. Many offer a free initial consultation. During this meeting, you can give the details of your case, and the attorney will recommend whether the lawsuit is worth pursuing.
During you initial consultation, your attorney will ask some common questions beyond asking you to describe, in detail, exactly what happened. These questions may include:
- Are you covered by insurance?
- Did you seek medical treatment? If so, can you access your medical records to prove it?
- Is there documentation of the accident, say from a police report?
- Has anyone else talked to you about your accident? If so, what did you say?
- Are you currently in pain? Where are you in the healing process?
After the initial line of questioning, the attorney will give you some options. If the case seems to not be winnable, they may not take your case. Or, if it is a specialty they don’t focus on, they may refer you to another attorney. If they do take on your case, they will lay out precisely what to expect next.
Starting the Paperwork
Once the attorney has decided to take your case, they will begin on the initial paperwork that must be filed with the court. The first document is called a complaint or petition. In this document, both the plaintiff and defendant will be named, as well as an outline of the case. This includes what happened to cause the injury, at least from your side. It also includes what you want the defendant to do, like pay your medical bills and other damages.
After the complaint is filed, the defendant is notified via a summons. If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show in which a character “gets served” court papers, they most likely had a summons delivered to them. This document simply lets the other person know they’re being sued and when the initial court date is. It also gives a deadline for the defendant to respond to the suit or even seek to have it dismissed. If they don’t respond to the summons and miss the hearing, a bench warrant may be sent out for their arrest.
Become a Detective
Now that the paperwork has been filed and the case is in motion, you need to find evidence to back your claim. Of course, the police have likely done a lot of the legwork for you. But, you need to gather police records, medical records, interviews from witnesses and everything else that may help prove the defendant is guilty. The more detail you can get, the better. The opposing attorney will sometimes ask questions, like “What color shirt was my client wearing at the time of the alleged incident?” While you can often object to such questions, it’s better to err on the side of too much detail than not enough.
During this process, your attorney will likely conduct a few depositions as well. These are essentially “practice trials” that help determine what evidence each side has. So, witnesses could be deposed, but you could as well. It’s vital to speak truthfully during depositions, and to never guess. Guessing and lying could seriously undermine your case. The discovery process is often a long one, so be patient. Taking time to gather as much evidence as possible can be a boon for you and your case.
To Settle or Not to Settle: That Is the Question
A vast majority of cases are handled outside of the courtroom through settlements. This is often preferred by attorneys and participants alike. During a settlement hearing, a few things happen. One, the defendant agrees to pay a certain amount of damages (and accept any other consequences). In return, the plaintiff agrees to not pursue any legal action. While this is a quicker process than going to trial, it has its drawbacks. The most important among these is that the settlement is often lower than what you might be awarded in court.
If you are not satisfied with the settlement, you can have the case tried before a jury. This can be a gamble, as the jury may side with the defendant instead. But if you and your attorney believe you have a very strong case, it could be beneficial to have it go to trial. This process follows a general flow:
- Opening statements. Both attorneys present their case to the jury
- Cross-examination. Witnesses, possibly including you and the defendant, will be questioned by both attorneys. Evidence is also considered during this time
- Closing statements. After all is said and done, both sides utilize testimonies and evidence to show why their clients are in the right
- Deliberation. The jury will leave the courtroom and discuss the case, deciding whether the defendant is innocent. This process could take anywhere from a couple hours to a few days
- Reading the verdict. After the jury decides their verdict, they will return to the courtroom. The jury foreman, or lead juror, will read their verdict. The judge has the final say, but will almost always agree with the jury’s verdict
If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, a mistrial may be declared. This may cause the case to be restarted with a new jury, or it may be dismissed altogether.
After the Case
If the jury sides with you, congratulations! However, your work is not done. It may take time to collect your full damages. This can be due to the fact that the defendant can’t afford to pay, or they may appeal the court’s decision. However, if you are not paid due to the defendant’s financial instability, there are still steps you can take. You can have their wages, and even their bank accounts, garnished. Businesses can even have money seized. But, if the defendant files for bankruptcy, you may not get any of the unpaid damages.
If you lose the case, you have a few options. Your main option is to appeal the court’s decision. While this is similar to bringing the case to court, there are some key differences. There is no jury in appellate courts. Rather, a panel of judges reviews the initial court decision and the facts presented. If they decide the original decision was incorrect, they can overturn it. This is usually the end of the line, but in select cases it may go to the state or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
As you can see, the road toward compensation for your personal injury is a long, tenuous one. That’s why it’s best to have a highly experienced team of attorneys fighting on your behalf. The Ernst Law Group has decades of experience defending the rights of those who have suffered personal injuries. For more information about how we can help you or to schedule a free consultation, contact us today.