Our clients often ask us: How long does a car accident settlement take in California?
The truth is, no standard answer can address that question, as settlements are as unique as the claims they represent. Read on for more information on how long a car accident settlement takes.
What Is a Car Accident Settlement?
According to the California Highway Patrol, nearly 200,000 injury crashes take place in the state each year, resulting in more than 275,000 injuries and more than 3,500 fatalities. This makes California one of the top states for car accident injuries and deaths. Car accident claims are the most common personal injury claims in California.
Only about 4 to 5 percent of personal injury claims filed in civil courts across the U.S. ever actually go to trial. The rest resolve via settlement. A settlement is an out-of-court resolution to a legal claim in which the at-fault party’s insurance provider offers compensation for less than the case is worth. If the amount of the settlement is not enough to cover the claimant’s expenses, their attorney can negotiate with the insurance provider to obtain a higher offer.
How Does the California Car Accident Settlement Process Work?
The settlement process begins when your attorney files a demand with the at-fault party’s insurance provider. This demand provides details of the accident, documentation of the expenses that the claimant incurred, and a request for payment of the full value of the claim. In California, insurers have 40 days to respond to an injury claim.
If the insurance provider offers a settlement that is too low to fairly compensate you for the expenses and impacts of your injury or denies your claim, you and your attorney may file the claim in court. In California, plaintiffs must file car accident lawsuits within two years of the accident for courts to consider the claim.
Filing your claim in court does not mean that the opportunity for a settlement has passed. Settlement offers can come even after the case goes to trial. Often, filing the lawsuit is the catalyst for better settlement offers from the insurer, as litigation is expensive and the insurance company has no control over the outcome once the case goes to trial.
What Expenses and Impacts Does the Settlement Pay For?
In California, car accident claimants can seek compensation for the expenses and impacts of their injury, such as:
- The loss of wages and benefits incurred due to being too injured to work.
- Loss of future earning capacity if you acquired permanent disabilities in the accident that impair your ability to earn an income.
- Past, current, and future medical expenses incurred for the treatment of your accident-related injury and associated complications.
- Property damage you sustained in the accident, such as damage to your vehicle.
- Physical pain and suffering as a result of your injuries, the treatment of them, or associated complications.
- Emotional distress resulting from the injury and the profound changes it has had on your life.
What Constitutes Fair Compensation in a California Car Accident Claim?
A fair settlement for your claim compensates you for the out-of-pocket expenses and the psychological impacts you incurred from your injury.
It is not necessarily difficult to obtain a settlement offer. Some clients receive settlement offers in their hospital rooms. You need a settlement that compensates all of your expenses, however. Once you sign the settlement agreement, your case resolves and you cannot ask for more money if you discover it was not enough.
Most attorneys will opt to wait before engaging in settlement negotiations until you reach maximum medical improvement (MMI) for your injuries. MMI occurs when your doctor determines that your condition will likely not continue to improve, even with additional medical treatment. Waiting until this point will give your attorney a fuller picture of the true costs of your injury.
However, because you have only two years to seek compensation through the courts, waiting for MMI is not always possible.
Do You Need an Attorney to Negotiate a Settlement?
As noted, many claimants obtain settlement offers before they’ve even had an opportunity to speak with a personal injury lawyer. However, the insurance company uses these early, low-ball settlements-particularly when their insured clearly caused the accident-to reduce the amount they pay out.
If you do not know the value of your claim, have not had the chance to seek guidance from an attorney, and are experiencing the stress and worry that usually accompanies serious injuries, you may agree to any compensation they offer.
There are other insurance tactics commonly used when dealing with injury claimants who do not have an attorney, such as:
- Telling the claimant that they are not eligible for non-economic damages.
- Convincing the claimant to release their medical records so the insurance adjuster can dig through the information in search of pre-existing conditions to shift liability from their insured.
- Getting the claimant to make a recorded statement or say something that indicates they were partially liable for the accident.
An attorney can manage communication with the insurance provider. That way, you don’t hurt your case by not being privy to the law. Additionally, your attorney will establish a value to your claim and help you decide what constitutes fair compensation so that you can make informed decisions about whether to accept a settlement.
Factors That Can Affect the Time It Takes to Settle Your Claim
Unfortunately, car accidents in California often involve complex issues that the parties need to resolve. The more complications with the claim, the longer the process will take.
Generally, cases receiving the fastest settlements involve straightforward facts, clear liability, minor injuries, and an attorney to assist the plaintiff.
Some factors that can result in a longer settlement process include:
- Multiple liable parties. Multiple sources of liability in a car accident claim are not entirely bad, as insurance policies have limits, and in high-value car accident claims, the expenses and impacts of the injury can easily exceed California’s standard auto liability policy limits. The ability to spread the liability between multiple policies makes it easier to fully compensate the victim. However, communicating between the insurance adjusters for multiple at-fault parties and getting them to work together to solve the claim rather than attempting to shift their insured’s fault to others can be a difficult endeavor.
- The seriousness of your injuries, as it often takes time to reach maximum medical improvement and get a full picture of your future needs.
- Disputes over liability. It is not uncommon for the at-fault party’s insurance adjuster to attempt to shift liability to you. Your attorney will collect evidence that proves the insured’s liability and protects your claim.
- Insurers that deliberately delay fair offers. In cases involving excessive delays, your attorney can seek compensation for bad faith insurance practices.
What Are the Benefits for the Claimant in a Negotiated Settlement?
While insurance companies prefer to settle claims because it avoids the expense of litigation and allows them a degree of control over the outcome of the case, the claimant enjoys benefits to a negotiated settlement as well, such as:
- Settlements usually take much less time than resolving the claim through court. While you must file a California car accident lawsuit within two years for the court to consider your case, filing the lawsuit is only the beginning of litigation. It can take time for a verdict in your case due to court-mandated meetings and hearings.
- A settlement also allows you to control the outcome of your claim. All decisions in your case are yours to make, with your attorney proceeding in the direction you determined. Once your case goes to court, unless a settlement offer comes during the trial, the outcome is no longer yours to decide, but that of the court.
After Reaching a Settlement Agreement, How Long Will It Take to Receive Payment?
Once you have agreed to accept the terms of an offered settlement, it will take about six to eight weeks to process the payment.
During this time, certain actions will take place, including:
- You will sign a release stating that you have no further claim against the at-fault party’s insurance policy.
- The insurance company will issue payment of the settlement amount to your attorney.
- Upon receiving your settlement, your attorney will deduct a percentage of the compensation for their fees, and provide you with documentation of the services they provided. Car accident attorneys are generally paid through a contingent fee billing method, meaning payment for their services is contingent on a favorable outcome to your claim.
- Your attorney will then satisfy payment to creditors as outlined in the contingent fee agreement you entered into when you and the attorney began working together on your claim.
- Your attorney will forward the remainder of the funds to you.
You Need a Car Accident Lawyer to Accelerate Your Settlement
A car accident lawyer can efficiently move your case through settlement negotiations while protecting you from an insurance company that wants to shortchange you for your injuries. Call a car accident lawyer near you today for your free case evaluation to see how they can help obtain the highest amount of compensation available to you.