There is no fixed timeline for obtaining a car accident settlement. The amount of time it might take to settle depends on many factors. Let’s take a closer look at what a car accident settlement is and the factors that affect car accident settlement timelines.
Car Accident Settlement Basics
In car accident injury cases, a settlement is an agreement among the injured crash victim, the party legally at-fault for causing those injuries, and (most often) that party’s liability insurance company. In a typical settlement, the car accident victim receives an agreed-upon amount of compensation in exchange for releasing the at-fault party and its insurer from further liability.
In most cases, a settlement ends a car accident victim’s legal claim to compensation for crash-related injuries and losses. If the victim has already filed a car accident lawsuit against the at-fault party, then the settlement terminates it. If no car accident lawsuit has yet been filed, then the settlement bars the victim from filing one in the future.
Lawyers for car accident victims negotiate settlements on behalf of their clients. Defense lawyers and insurance adjusters typically negotiate the agreements on behalf of the at-fault parties. Negotiations typically happen in-person in a meeting or series of meetings, over email, by written correspondence, and by phone.
After negotiating the basic terms, lawyers and other party representatives put a settlement agreement in writing. The victim, the at-fault party, and (usually) the at-fault party’s insurer then sign it.
Most of the time, the parties to a car accident case have the right to settle on whatever terms, and for whatever amount of money, they mutually agree. In limited cases, a settlement may also require court-approval.
Most, but not all, car accident cases end in a settlement. The bulk of the cases that do not settle instead either get resolved before trial by a judge, or end in a trial before a judge, jury, and/or arbitrator. In many states, court rules require that parties i try to settle, and often require the parties to participate in non-binding mediation aimed at settling the claim.
Settlement can happen at any point in a car accident case: before a victim’s lawyer ever files a lawsuit, during the pre-trial stages of a lawsuit, on the eve of trial, at trial, or even after the trial has ended.
The Right and Wrong Way to Settle a Car Accident Claim
Before going any further, we feel it is important to note that there is a right way and a wrong way to settle a car accident claim.
- The right way to settle a car accident claim is to hire an experienced car accident injury lawyer who has the skill and know-how to investigate your accident and injuries, build a strong case on your behalf, and negotiate for the maximum damages available.
- The wrong way to settle a car accident claim is to try to negotiate a settlement by yourself, or even worse, to accept whatever settlement the at-fault party’s insurance company offers to you directly before you have a lawyer on your side.
Insurance adjusters who work for liability insurance companies negotiate settlements every day. Their goal in every case is to pay crash victims as little money as possible. The typical crash victim does not have the skill or experience to negotiate effectively against an insurance adjuster. Insurance adjusters know that, and so, they offer settlements directly to victims that fall far short of the amount of money victims actually deserve. They hope victims will take what seems like “easy money” without realizing it is an inadequate sum.
Settlement agreements are final. Once agreed-upon, they bar you from going back to the at-fault party for additional compensation. So, it is extremely important to agree to a settlement only when you feel confident it fully compensates you for your injuries and other damages.
We strongly discourage car accident victims from agreeing to any settlement without first speaking with an experienced car accident attorney. We also strongly discourage victims from trying to handle negotiations themselves. In virtually all cases we have seen where that happens, victims end up with far less money than an experienced lawyer could have secured for them.
Factors Affecting Car Accident Settlement Timelines
Assuming you settle your case the right way, with the help of a lawyer, here are some of the most common factors that determine how long a settlement may take.
When You Get a Lawyer
Obviously, a California car accident attorney cannot start advocating for a settlement on your behalf until you have hired that lawyer. The most surefire way to make sure your settlement timeline lasts as little time as possible is to get it started as soon as you can. That means contacting a skilled car accident injury attorney right away after you suffer your accident injuries.
Connecting with an experienced lawyer soon has other benefits, too. Most significantly, it gives the lawyer the best shot at gathering the information necessary to build the strongest possible case on your behalf. As time passes, items of evidence go missing and witnesses’ memories begin to fade. Quick action by an attorney, however, can preserve that evidence before it disappears.
Also, getting a lawyer right away protects you against the statute of limitations, a law that fixes an expiration date on your legal rights to file a car accident claim. Depending on the nature of your accident, you could have as little as just a few months (and rarely more than a few years) to take legal action. By contacting an attorney immediately, you ensure you do not lose out on valuable rights by missing an important deadline.
How Complicated Your Case Is
Some car accident cases involve a relatively straightforward set of facts: two cars, two drivers, and facts clearly showing who was at fault. In those cases, lawyers for victims can often collect the relevant evidence and begin the process of seeking a fair settlement right away.
Other cases, however, present more of a challenge for car accident lawyers. In a multi-car pileup, for example, lawyers might investigate to determine which car collided with which, and figure out who may owe damages to an injured victim. Or, a case may require a detailed examination of forensic evidence—a worn brake pad, or a pattern of skid-marks on a highway, for example—to determine the mechanism that led to an accident. Or, a victim may suffer from a constellation of injuries and health problems, only some of which resulted from an accident.
The more complicated the factual scenario of a crash and the injuries it causes, the longer it may take to investigate and answer two primary questions before starting settlement negotiations: Who owes money to whom, and how much money a victim should receive?
The Degree of Dispute Over Liability and Damages
Defense lawyers and insurance companies do not always agree with the answers the victim’s lawyer comes up with to those two questions. Sometimes, they dispute that their clients or policyholders owe damages at all. Sometimes, they disagree with the victim’s lawyer about how much money the victim should receive. Often, they do both.
The more that views about liability and damages differ between the victim’s lawyer and the at-fault party’s representatives, the longer it may take for a case to progress to a settlement.
That is one reason why court rules often require mediation between the parties. A mediator’s job is to help each side recognize potential weaknesses in their own arguments, and to establish common ground where they can agree to settle their differences. Many car accident cases settle through mediation.
Your Lawyer’s Strategy and Your Priorities
Over years of representing car accident victims, successful lawyers develop a sense for when it’s a good time to explore a settlement, and when it’s better to wait.
A lawyer for a crash victim may, for example, take into account:
- The timing of obtaining favorable (or unfavorable) evidence;
- The possibility or existence of other injured victims also seeking compensation for the same crash;
- The financial circumstances of the party at-fault;
- Any dispute between the party at-fault and its own insurance company over whether a policy covers the accident;
- The timing of a criminal prosecution or official investigation of the accident; and
- Mounting pressure on either side to resolve a case.
In deciding on a settlement strategy, experienced lawyers also always take their clients’ personal and financial priorities into account. Some car accident victims cannot afford to hold-out for a better offer if an adequate one comes along, for example. Others, in contrast, want to fight for every last dollar they deserve. Likewise, some do not mind the idea of letting a court process play-out, whereas others would prefer to avoid testifying in a courtroom.
Client preferences and priorities can influence a skilled lawyer’s strategy and assessment of when to pursue settlement discussions, and when to recommend that a client accept (or reject) a settlement offer.
How You Can Help Keep Your Car Accident Case On-Track
You cannot control all of the factors that affect the timeline for settling your car accident case, but you can take steps to improve the odds of your case moving as quickly as possible.
Here are some tips.
- Get a lawyer right away. We discussed this above, but it’s worth repeating. The sooner you hire a lawyer, the sooner your car accident claim can get moving, and the better the chances it will settle as soon as possible. Hiring a lawyer does not guarantee you a settlement, or a specific timeline, but it does represent an important first step that it pays to take quickly.
- Communicate your needs and priorities. Make sure your lawyer knows important information about your life, preferences, medical needs, or finances that may influence the lawyer’s settlement negotiation strategy. Miscommunication can slow the process of achieving a favorable settlement, while clear communication can help make your lawyer as efficient and productive as possible.
- Take care of yourself. Your most important job in the aftermath of a car accident is to focus your time and energy on healing from your injuries. Get the medical care you need. Follow your doctor’s advice. Keep therapy appointments and take your medication. This helps keep your case on track for a settlement in several ways. It ensures that you have a reasonably clear medical prognosis, which helps your lawyer calculate the compensation you deserve to receive. It also helps to keep you in a clear frame of mind when it comes time to decide whether to settle your car accident claim or to continue pressing it. Finally, it lowers the probability of disputes over liability and damages, by protecting you against defense lawyers and insurance companies claiming that you made your own injuries worse by not taking care of yourself.
Put Your Car Accident Settlement in the Hands of an Experienced Attorney
Car accident victims tend to want to put the trauma of a crash and its resulting injuries behind them as quickly as possible. The process of pursuing compensation can, at times, feel like drawing out the pain and difficulty.
Lawyers for those victims understand the physical, emotional, and financial challenges facing their clients. They want to help their clients achieve maximum compensation, and they have the skills and know-how to make that happen.
Car accident attorneys also almost always get paid on contingency. That means they only collect a fee for their services if they secure compensation for their clients. In other words, lawyers for accident victims share their clients’ goal of moving a case from start-to-settlement as quickly and efficiently as possible. And, there is no fee to you if there is no recovery of compensation.
So, do not wait any longer to begin the process of seeking a settlement of your car accident injury claim. Contact a skilled, experienced car accident attorney today for a free case consultation.