Auto accidents generally take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to settle in California.
However, just as there is no “average” car accident case, the settlement timeline may be longer or shorter. Two of the most important factors are
- whether there are facts in dispute and
- the willingness of the parties to compromise.
Is there any data on how long it takes for a personal injury settlement?
There are studies that say that personal injury cases tend to take around 2 years. However, these studies only time how long it takes cases to go from being filed to a resolution.
In California, nearly all cases are not filed right after the accident. Therefore, many personal injury lawyers estimate that it can take closer to 3 years.
National Center for State Courts study
The National Center for State Courts looked at 925,344 civil lawsuits filed in 152 different courts in 10 urban counties from July, 2012, through June, 2013. It found that the average personal injury case took 486 days, or 1 year and 4 months, to go from being filed in court to a “disposition.”
Department of Justice studies
One U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) study – released in 2004 – looked at 12,000 civil cases filed in 2001 in the 75 largest counties in the U.S. It found that the average personal injury case took 2 years, 1 month, and a little over 2 weeks to go from being filed in court to a verdict.2
The DOJ’s second study looked at 26,950 civil cases that went to a trial in state court in 2005. It found that, of the personal injury claims, the average timeline was 2 years, 2 months, and about 2 weeks to go from the filing to a jury verdict. Bench trials were slightly shorter, at 1 year and 9 months.
However, these studies do not account for the time between the accident and the filing of the lawsuit. In California, for example, the statute of limitations for car accidents is 2 years.3
The studies also do not account for the cases that settle before a lawsuit has been filed, which in California typically take only a few months.
Are auto accident settlements different?
In California, car accidents generally settle slightly faster than many other kinds of personal injury claims. This is because car accidents tend to cause less severe injuries than certain other types of cases, like medical malpractice.
Also, car accidents happen all the time. The commonplace nature of the claim can make for a shorter timeline because it is a smoother process.
One factor that can prolong the process is the fact that insurance defense firms charge by the hour, and insurance adjusters get paid a flat salary. Therefore, they are in no rush to pay you what you deserve.
Auto accident lawyers are well-situated to stand up to aggressive and stalling car insurance companies so you get the maximum value of your case as quickly as possible. Note that if your California car accident case does settle and you sign a release, the insurer will typically pay you within 30 days.
What factors influence the timeline of a car accident case?
The most important factors that can change the timeline for settling a car accident case in California are:
- the parties’ willingness to compromise, and
- whether there are facts in dispute.
The parties’ willingness to compromise
While your willingness to compromise will speed up the settlement timeline, you may not receive all of the compensation that you deserve, particularly for pain and suffering. Many victims get scared by
- the medical bills that quickly accumulate after a car accident and
- the lost wages that could have paid for some of those bills.
This creates financial pressure to reach a settlement quickly. Unfortunately, many insurance companies try to delay the case in order to build that financial pressure to settle, and they make unreasonably low settlement offers to capitalize on your eagerness to end the case.
Whether there are facts in dispute
If both sides agree on
- whose fault the accident was and
- the extent of your injuries,
the timeline to settle your California car accident case will likely be much shorter.
1. Whose fault was the accident
If it is unclear who caused the accident, a settlement will likely take longer. This is because, under the rules of comparative fault, victims who were partially responsible for the accident will see their compensation reduced by the percentage of their blame.
Defendants and their insurers will look hard for any evidence that you played a role in causing the crash. They will argue that it means you deserve a lower settlement offer.4
Until evidence is uncovered that shows who was really responsible, it can be difficult to settle the case and may prolong the settlement timeline.
2. The extent of your injuries
Serious injuries often mean that you have not reached MMI (maximum medical improvement) before the statute of limitations has approached in California. This can push back the best moment to file the lawsuit and adds time to the settlement timeframe.
Additionally, in filing your lawsuit, you will have to demand compensation for future medical expenses that are, as yet, still uncertain. Defendants fixate on that uncertainty. This factual dispute can create a substantial gap between
- your reasonable expectations of compensation and
- what the defendant is willing to offer.5
Severe injuries – especially those involving permanent disabilities – also mean high medical expenses. Defendants are far more likely to aggressively negotiate and challenge substantial settlement amounts than they are for smaller amounts.
What is the car accident settlement process in California?
1. Initial settlement offer
In the weeks after a car accident, an insurance adjuster from the at-fault party will approach you and make an initial settlement offer. This offer usually only covers your costs for the medical attention you have already gotten for your accident injuries.
However, the offer may seem enticing to you if you are already concerned about being able to pay for these medical bills. Accepting the initial settlement offer will end the case because you will have to sign a release form to receive the payout in the settlement agreement.
2. Demand letter
If you reject the initial settlement offer, the next step is to send a demand letter to the at-fault driver and their insurer. The letter states
- what happened,
- the extent of your injuries, and
- your intent to file a personal injury lawsuit if compensation is not paid before a deadline.
The insurer will typically respond within six weeks. In some cases, this will lead to a fair settlement offer. In others, the deadline will pass.
3. Filing a complaint
Your car accident lawyer will then file the complaint in the California Superior Court with jurisdiction over your case. This initiates the car accident lawsuit. It is filed in court and served on the defendant.
This is the point in the settlement timeline where the studies show that it takes around 2 years for the case to go to trial or reach a disposition.
The defendant will then file an answer to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant admits or denies the allegations in the complaint.
The case then moves into the discovery process, which looks to uncover evidence of the remaining allegations in dispute. Common sources of this evidence in a car accident claim include:
- medical records,
- the police report by the California Highway Patrol or other law enforcement agencies,
- eyewitness statements,
- depositions of the drivers involved,
- details about the property damage sustained in the vehicle accident, and
- information provided in the accident report or insurance claim to the driver’s insurance company.
As evidence is discovered, it will begin to become clear how much compensation you deserve. This will spur settlement negotiations.
5. Settlement or trial
The California Superior Court will also set a trial date. It may also set a date for a settlement conference and may even schedule mediation to get the parties to settle without a trial. (In some cases, the parties submit to arbitration.) Mediation can take several days or even weeks.6
Only if no settlement is reached before the trial date will the case go to trial. Trials can take a few hours or several days, or longer.
- National Center for State Courts, “The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts” (2015). The study defined “disposition” as a dismissal, summary judgment, default judgment, settlement, judgment, or several other types of resolution.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bulletin, “Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001” (April 2004). The median length of a case was 1 year, 9 months, and about 2 weeks. Some cases took longer, though, like products liability lawsuits, which took nearly 3 years on average, and medical malpractice lawsuits, which took 2 years, 9 months, and about 1 week on average. Also, plaintiffs rarely file lawsuits right after the accident. In most cases, plaintiffs do not file until after they have reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) or the statute of limitations is approaching. This can take several years.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 406. Additionally, the following factors can also influence the timeline of a car accident case: The insurance companies, whether the defendant has insurance, at all, whether there are multiple defendants and/or plaintiffs, the complexity of the case and injuries, your intent to take the case to trial, and whether there is a backlog at court.
- See, for example, Case v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. (Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Four, 2018) 30 Cal. App. 5th 397.
- See, for example, Wimsatt v. Superior Court (Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Three, 2007) 152 Cal. App. 4th 137.