If you were in a car accident, you likely have many questions about what happens next. You could have the right to pursue compensation from the driver you think caused the accident or, more specifically, that driver’s insurance company.
If they do not cooperate, you may have to file a lawsuit against the driver and their insurer to pursue financial recovery for the expenses and losses you sustained due to the crash. Before doing so, you should know what to expect throughout the insurance claim and lawsuit process. A Bakersfield car accident attorney can also prepare you for what to expect during litigation so you can make informed decisions about how to best proceed with your case.
How a Car Accident Attorney Can Help With Your Lawsuit
Hiring a car accident attorney after a crash means having an experienced advocate who can guide you through each step of the claims process.
A car accident attorney can also improve your chances of maximizing financial recovery from the at-fault driver or insurance companies by:
- Investigating the crash to recover evidence needed to build your case against the at-fault driver and their insurance company
- Working with experts in accident reconstruction, automotive engineering, or medicine to explain what caused the accident and the injuries you suffered in the crash
- Documenting your expenses and losses, including future anticipated expenses
- Explaining your legal options and prepare you for each stage of litigation
- Filing claims and lawsuits on your behalf against the liable parties
- Negotiating a fair settlement with the relevant insurance company or companies
- Taking your case to trial if the insurers refuse to offer you a fair settlement
What Compensation Can You Recover in a Car Accident Lawsuit?
A car accident lawsuit can provide financial recovery for expenses and losses you sustained due to injuries and property damage.
The compensation you may receive in a car accident lawsuit can include money for your:
- Costs of vehicle repairs or reimbursement of your vehicle’s value if the accident destroyed it
- Medical and rehabilitation expenses to treat the injuries you suffered in the crash
- Lost wages or income after missing time from work or suffering reduced earnings in a modified-duty role while recovering from injuries
- Diminished future earnings and job benefits due to permanent disabilities that prevent you from returning to the workforce
- Physical pain and anguish
- Emotional distress and trauma
- Lost quality of life or life expectancy due to injuries or resulting disability
The First Steps in Your Car Accident Claim
You can do certain things after a car crash to protect your health and legal rights. Below are the initial steps you will need to take in the days and weeks following a car accident.
1. Gathering Evidence at the Scene of the Accident
You should begin to collect evidence at the scene of the car crash, if possible to do so safely. Take photos and videos of details of the scene, including damage to the cars involved in the accident, skid marks on the road, traffic controls, weather and road conditions, and visible injuries you sustained.
Remember to exchange insurance information with the other driver or drivers involved in the accident and get the contact information for any eyewitnesses to the crash. Do not discuss details of the accident with the other driver or any eyewitnesses, as insurers can use the things you say against you later.
2. Reporting the Crash to the Authorities
Remember to report the car accident to the authorities by calling 911 to report injuries, contacting law enforcement directly if no one requires medical assistance, or filing a report with the relevant authorities.
In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles may require you to do so within 10 days of the accident. Police who respond to the scene of the car accident may ask you to provide a statement. Stick to the facts as you remember them. Do not exaggerate or guess any details about the crash.
You can tell the officer, “I don’t remember,” if you cannot recall a detail about the accident.
3. Notifying Your Insurer
You should also report the crash to your auto insurance provider promptly after the accident. Your policy may require you to give your insurer notice of an accident by a deadline, often within a few weeks. Failing to notify your insurer of the car accident promptly may jeopardize your right to coverage under your insurance policy and limit your ability to recover compensation under your insurance coverages, including uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage.
4. Seeking Medical Attention
Seek prompt medical attention from paramedics at the accident scene or by going to the hospital or your doctor’s office immediately following the accident. You will want a prompt diagnosis of your injuries to begin treatment and to document your injuries resulting from the car accident rather than something else like a pre-existing condition or a later accident.
5. Following Your Treatment Plan
Follow your doctor’s treatment plan and instructions for your car accident injuries. Putting off treatment or ending treatment early risks minimizing your compensation in your car accident lawsuit if the insurance company argues that you failed to mitigate your losses by not following through with recommended treatment and rehabilitation. More importantly, not seeking treatment may prevent your injuries from healing or worsen the pain and physical impairment you experience.
6. Gathering Financial Documents
Make sure to keep all bills, invoices, or receipts of expenses you incur due to the car accident, including medical treatment and vehicle repairs. Gather your pay stubs or income statements if you cannot work or suffer a reduction in income due to your injuries.
7. Request a Copy of the Crash Report
Remember to contact the law enforcement agency that responded to the crash to request a copy of the police accident report. You can also request copies of crash reports filed by any drivers involved in the accident. This evidence can prove vital to your claim.
8. Working With Expert Witnesses
Your car accident lawyer can bring in expert witnesses to help prepare your case for your car accident lawsuit. Accident reconstruction or automotive engineering experts can explain who or what caused the accident, while medical experts can explain your injuries, prognosis, and future medical needs.
Vocational experts can explain how your injuries and disabilities limit your ability to work, and financial experts can calculate your future losses of earnings. Expert reports and testimony can bolster the strength of your case and facilitate a fair and full settlement with the insurance company.
9. Negotiating a Settlement of Your Car Accident Claim
Once you and your attorney have investigated and prepared your legal arguments in support of your claim, you can write a demand letter to send to the insurance company. The demand letter formally notifies the insurance company of your compensation claim, outlines your allegations in support of your claim against them, and requests a certain amount of compensation to resolve your case.
The demand letter often begins the settlement negotiation process in a car accident claim. The insurance company will send a response to your demand letter, either denying liability or making a counteroffer for settlement. You and your attorney will exchange settlement offers with the insurance company or its attorneys until you hopefully reach a mutually acceptable compensation figure to settle your case.
What is Statute of Limitations on Car Accident Lawsuits?
Or “how long do I have to file a car accident lawsuit?”
You may need to file a lawsuit in your case accident claim if the settlement process drags on long enough. Filing a lawsuit often motivates the insurance company to settle, and your willingness to go to court demonstrates your dedication to recover fair compensation.
Filing a suit also becomes necessary as the statute of limitations expires on your car accident claim. In California, the statute of limitations on personal injury claims arising from a car accident requires you to file suit within two years of the crash, while you must file lawsuits for property damage within three years. There are few exceptions to these deadlines. Courts can permanently dismiss car accident lawsuits filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations.
In addition to the statute of limitations, certain additional laws may apply if you have a car accident claim against a government entity. For example, the California Tort Claims Act requires you to provide the relevant government entity with notice of your car accident claim within six months of the crash or face the loss of your right to recover compensation from the government.
Steps for Filing Your Car Accident Lawsuit
A lawsuit begins when you file a complaint with the trial court. By filing a suit, you become the plaintiff, while the party or parties you file your lawsuit against become defendants. Your complaint states your allegations against the defendant or defendants and requests relief from the trial court, usually financial compensation.
After filing your complaint with the trial court, you must serve a copy of the complaint and the summons from the court on each party you have sued. Doing so puts the parties on notice of the suit. They can then file an answer to admit or deny each allegation in your complaint. The opposing parties may also file a counterclaim to assert legal claims against you or crossclaims to seek relief from third parties like other liable parties against whom you did not file suit.
Following the pleadings stage, the parties will engage in the discovery process. In discovery, both sides of the lawsuit exchange documents, information, and other evidence in their possession, in addition to taking depositions of witnesses. Discovery narrows the issues in dispute for trial by uncovering all evidence and identifying all uncontested facts.
2. Motion Practice
Parties may file various motions with the trial court during and after discovery. Pretrial motions may include requests to admit or exclude evidence. The parties may also file motions for judgment in their favor based on the facts uncovered in discovery, arguing that no issues remain for trial and that the undisputed facts entitle one side to judgment as a matter of law.
Parties in car accident lawsuits often continue settlement negotiations during discovery and motion practice as the legal dispute narrows and the trial approaches. A car accident lawsuit can settle at any point before the return of the verdict at trial.
A car accident lawsuit not resolved through a settlement or court motion will eventually reach trial. A car accident lawsuit may resolve issues involving liability for the crash and resulting injuries, the extent of losses sustained by an injured party, or both. A trial takes place before a jury or, if the parties choose, a judge who sits as a fact-finder.
During the trial, the parties can present evidence and witnesses, cross-examine the opposing side’s evidence and witnesses, and present opening and closing arguments to the jury or judge. The jury or judge will return a verdict ruling on the issues at trial. The trial judge will then reduce the verdict to a judgment.
4. Obtaining Satisfaction of the Judgment
A plaintiff in a car accident lawsuit who wins at trial will obtain a judgment they can enforce against the defendant or defendants to recover compensation. Usually, the losing defendant or their insurance company will pay the compensation awarded to the plaintiff in the judgment.
But if the defendant refuses to voluntarily pay the judgment, the plaintiff may need to return to court to execute the judgment against the defendant’s assets. The county sheriff can seize and sell these assets, with the proceeds of the sale turned over to the plaintiff. Once the plaintiff has been fully paid, they will file a satisfaction of judgment with the court to close the case.
Either party who believes that legal errors occurred during the trial process can file an appeal of the verdict and judgment. Parties may not re-litigate factual disputes in an appeal but instead must show what law or laws the trial court misapplied to prevail. An appellate court that grants an appeal may award relief such as modifying the judgment, reversing pretrial orders, or ordering a new trial.