We’ve all seen the movies and TV shows where the big case goes to trial and the jury deliberates a verdict while the Plaintiff and Defendant sit on pins and needles. Yes, it can be just as exciting in real life as it is in fiction. But the reality is that the vast majority of lawsuits never make it to trial.
So the answer to the question of this blog is not very often. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. Therefore, in this blog post we’ll examine why most personal injury lawsuits (and the vast majority of court cases, both civil and criminal) settle well before a jury reaches a verdict. To help with this explanation, we need to fully understand how civil lawsuits work.
How Do Personal Injury Lawsuits Start?
They usually start with an insurance company not paying out as much money as the injured individual would like. In the vast majority of personal injury cases, when the victim receives compensation for his or her injuries, it’s not the responsible individual who writes the check. Instead, it’s an insurance company.
When the person at fault for the injury is an individual, any payout is probably coming from a home or car insurance policy. With companies, they have liability policies to protect them in case one of their employees harms someone else. And if there’s no potential insurance policy to recover from, the harmed individual usually won’t file a lawsuit (unless the potential Defendant is very wealthy).
After someone gets hurt, they will go to the person they think is responsible and ask for compensation. The person allegedly responsible for the injury will then notify his or her insurance company.
If the insurance company pays out the claim to the victim’s satisfaction, there’s usually no lawsuit. But if the insurance company doesn’t pay enough, or doesn’t pay at all, then a personal injury lawsuit is possible. Even then, there could be a lot of negotiating and posturing between the two sides to avoid going to court.
What Happens During a Civil Suit?
A civil suit begins when the Plaintiff files a complaint. This is where the Plaintiff outlines what happened to them and the legal theories that support the request for damages from the Defendant.
The Defendant can respond in two ways to a complaint. They can file a motion to try and dismiss the lawsuit (which usually fails, or only succeeds in dismissing a part of the Plaintiff’s claims). The Defendant can also file an answer, where the Defendant responds to each allegation set forth by the Plaintiff.
Next, it’s time for discovery. This is where the parties seek information from the other side in the hopes of uncovering evidence that will help them win their case. Most discovery requests take the form of:
- Depositions. These are in-person question-and-answer sessions where the person being deposed is under oath.
- Interrogatories. These are written questions that ask for written responses.
- Requests for production of documents. These ask the recipient to produce certain documents.
While discovery takes place, each side is reassessing its case and identifying facts and expert witnesses they plan on using at trial.
Fact witnesses testify as to what they observed. This might be someone who saw how the injury occurred. Expert witnesses testify about a unique subject that the average person doesn’t know much about. This could be a doctor who treated the plaintiff and can discuss the seriousness and causes of the plaintiff’s injuries.
After discovery is complete, one or both sides might try to win the case without going to trial by filing a motion for summary judgment. These often get denied by the judge because, even if the legal standards say one side should win on a motion for summary judgment, judges don’t like to throw out cases without having the opportunity for both sides to present their cases at a trial.
Assuming neither side won their case on a motion for summary judgment, there’s a trial. After the trial, both sides will usually have the opportunity to file an appeal.
Depending on the specifics of the personal injury case and the court it’s in, all of the above can take a few years. If the parties are lucky, it’ll take a little under a year.
Why Most Cases Settle Before Trial
After reading what it takes to get to a civil trial, it’s easy to see why both sides try to settle their case before trial. But depending on the circumstances, they may have different reasons for settling.
First, it’s expensive to litigate. Most personal injury Plaintiff attorneys work on a contingency basis, so they only get paid if they can recover something for the client. But it still costs them money to file court documents, hire expert witnesses and conduct investigations into what happened.
On the defense side, the attorneys normally bill by the hour (and a few hundred dollars an hour at that) so the Defendant knows that a case that goes all the way to trial can potentially cost them six figures in legal fees and costs.
Second, anything can happen at trial. No matter how sure you are that you’ll win, people are unpredictable. Juries can reach decisions that defy logic, judges can let their biases affect how they rule and witnesses may not testify as expected.
For instance, you might have a great expert witness that can help you prove that the Defendant’s negligence caused your injuries. But during cross-examination, they buckle under the defense counsel’s questioning even though your attorney prepared them on how to respond when asked those very questions.
Third, one or both sides want to be as discreet as possible. Trials are public events, so anyone can see what happens. If there’s going to be information revealed that’s embarrassing or might lead to long-term damage to a company’s reputation, there’s a lot of incentive to settle a case and avoid a trial.
Fourth, the Plaintiff needs the money as quickly as possible. Accepting a Defendant’s settlement offer of $40,000 might be a bad move if the Plaintiff believes he or she can get $100,000 at trial. However, a Plaintiff might have bills that are piling up and they can’t afford to wait two to three years to get the $100,000 (and remember, trials are never guaranteed). Parties could be contacting a bankruptcy attorney in Montgomery, Alabama and need to settle to avoid financial disaster. Many times someone’s personal circumstances can greatly affect these decisions.
Fifth, settling a case is the safest way to end a case. Even after a trial, there’s the potential for post-trial motions and appeals. Getting through the appeals process can take longer than getting to trial. Another consideration for Plaintiffs is that Defendants will sometimes threaten an appeal to convince a Plaintiff to accept less money than they won at trial.
For example, let’s say a Plaintiff spent two years to get to trial and won $200,000. The Defendant could threaten the Plaintiff with another two years of litigation for an appeal unless the Plaintiff accepts a post-trial settlement offer of $150,000.
Most personal injury lawsuits, as well as various other types of litigation, will never get to trial. Due to the time, money, effort and unpredictability of litigating a case, both sides have strong motivations to settle a lawsuit as soon as possible.