When you have a car accident claim, it matters whether you receive compensation, it matters how much you receive, and it matters when you receive it. Some car accident claims settle within weeks, while others take months to settle. A few take years. Many factors play a role in this disparity.
Table of Contents
Background: Pennsylvania’s “Choice No-Fault” Auto Insurance System
Pennsylvania requires all drivers with vehicles registered in Pennsylvania to purchase a certain minimum amount of auto insurance. Pennsylvania drivers, unlike drivers in most other states, can choose to avail themselves of a “fault” or “no-fault” auto insurance system.
No-fault “Limited Tort” Insurance
If you select no-fault insurance, in the event of an accident, it will pay your medical expenses and out-of-pocket expenses, regardless of whose fault the accident was. It will not compensate you for items like pain and suffering or emotional distress.
You can exit the no-fault system and file a lawsuit for full personal injury damages if your injuries qualify as “serious” under Pennsylvania law.
If you carry no-fault insurance and your injury is not “serious,” it will probably settle quickly, although the amount will be limited.
Fault-Based “Full Tort” Insurance
If you selected “full tort” insurance, you can sue the at-fault driver immediately. You don’t have to prove that your injuries are “serious,” and you can claim full personal injury damages such as pain and suffering.
A Typical Settlement Timeline
Since every personal injury claim is different, there is no “set in stone” timeline for a personal injury claim. Following is a description of a typical timeline for a driver with full tort insurance.
The Aftermath of the Accident
Take care of the following matters at the scene of the accident if you can:
- Swap insurance information with the other driver(s);
- Gather the names and contact details of any witnesses;
- Photograph anything that might be useful as evidence;
- Cooperate with the police; and
- Seek immediate medical treatment if your body suffered any impact at all.
Don’t leave the scene of the accident until the police or the ambulance arrive.
Do You Need a Lawyer?
If damage to your vehicle was slight, you were not seriously injured, and you carry “limited tort” insurance, you might not even need a lawyer. You can probably file a claim and settle it with your no-fault insurance within a few weeks. However, it is likely still in your best interest to set up a free case review with an attorney to make sure.
Participate in a Free Initial Consultation
If you suffered significant damage to your car or you were injured, you carry “full tort” insurance, and/or you believe the accident was someone else’s fault, you probably need to talk to a personal injury lawyer. Most personal injury lawyers will schedule you for a free initial consultation.
Gather the following evidence (with the assistance of your lawyer):
- Copies of all medical bills and prescription drug receipts;
- Interviews with witnesses;
- Banking information to show your expenditures;
- A daily “pain diary” where you record how your injuries have affected your daily life;
- Copies of your medical records; and
- Evidence of lost earnings from your employer.
Depending on the circumstances, you might also contact an accident reconstruction expert to study your case. Your expert witness might have the opportunity to testify (at a deposition) even if you eventually settle your case. Collect any other evidence that your lawyer suggests.
Send the At-Fault Party a Demand Package
A demand package consists of a letter explaining your claim in detail, plus any supporting documents, such as the evidence listed above. Have your lawyer draft the demand letter, because it must be carefully worded.
Commence Settlement Negotiations
The insurance company (or whoever else might be liable for paying your claim) might simply ignore your demand letter or flatly reject your claim. If this happens, skip ahead to the next section.
In all likelihood, however, they will respond with an inadequate ‘lowball’ offer worth far less than half the value of your claim. That’s okay, as it’s a starting point for negotiations, not the ending point.
File a Lawsuit
Hopefully, you will negotiate a generous settlement before you reach the point of filing a lawsuit. You might file a lawsuit even while still hoping to reach a settlement, for the following reasons:
- You want to show the opposing party you mean business;
- Pennsylvania’s two-year personal injury statute of limitations deadline is approaching, and you need to file a lawsuit to beat it; or
- You need access to the pretrial discovery process.
Have your lawyer draft the lawsuit documentation, because it needs to be carefully done.
Conduct Pretrial Discovery
Pretrial discovery is a court-supervised process where each side demands access to evidence that is in the possession of the other side. “Discovery,” as people call it for short, gives you access to the following three legal weapons, among others:
- Interrogatories: Written questions that the opposing party must answer, in writing and under oath, within 30 days.
- Depositions: Cross-examination of the opposing party’s witness, under oath but out of court.
- Demand for production: A demand for the production of documents or physical evidence–a waiver of liability, for example, or a defective product.
You can ask the court to sanction a party who refuses to cooperate. Remember, though, that they can do the same to you. Pretrial discovery is perhaps the most time-consuming aspect of the entire settlement process. It frequently takes 6 to 12 months to complete.
Participate in Mediation
Once you have gathered evidence through discovery, you could be in a much better position to negotiate (depending on whether the new evidence is favorable.) If you reach an impasse, a professionally trained mediator might be able to help you reach an agreement that might elude you otherwise.
Draft a Settlement Agreement
No settlement is final until you draft a settlement agreement and sign it. The opposing party will agree to pay you a certain amount of money, and you agree to drop your claim.
Ask your lawyer to draft the settlement agreement for you, although the other side’s lawyer will probably want to haggle over the exact wording. Once it is signed, it works like any other contract that you can enforce in court.
Step Forward With Strong Legal Support From a Harrisburg Car Accident Lawyer
An experienced Harrisburg car accident lawyer can expedite your claim by keeping you out of court. That doesn’t mean you’ll have to settle for less; many, if not most, insurance companies are willing to settle for more just to stay out of court. Contact a personal injury lawyer today for a free initial consultation.