Auto accidents generally take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to settle.
However, just as there is no “average” car accident case, so 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 a couple of studies that give an idea of how long it takes personal injury cases to settle or resolve. These studies 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. Nearly all cases are not filed right after the accident. Therefore, many personal injury lawyers estimate that it can take closer to 3 years.
One study was conducted by the National Center for State Courts. It 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.”
However, the study defined “disposition” as a:
- summary judgment,
- default judgment,
- judgment, or
- several other types of resolution.
Of these dispositions, only 10 percent were settlements.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has done 2 studies on the subject. Both of them looked at how much time it took a personal injury case to go from being filed until there was a trial and verdict.
The first study was released in 2004. It 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. 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.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. Lawsuits are very rarely filed right after the accident.
In most cases, they are not filed until
- you have reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) or
- the statute of limitations is approaching. This can take several years.
In California, for example, the statute of limitations for car accidents is 2 years.3 (This sounds like a long time, but attorneys may need weeks or months to gather all the evidence and craft the best case possible before filing a lawsuit.)
The studies also do not account for the cases that settle before a lawsuit has been filed. If you accept the initial settlement offer from the insurance company or the defendant makes a fair settlement offer after the demand letter, the case may settle after only a few months.
Are auto accident settlements different?
Car accidents generally settle slightly faster than many other kinds of personal injury claims. However,
- the specific circumstances of the accident and
- the extent of your injuries
will make more of a difference than just the fact that it was a car crash.
Overall, car accidents tend to cause less severe injuries than certain other types of cases, like medical malpractice. Relatively minor injuries make for a relatively quick settlement process.
Car accidents also happen all the time. The commonplace nature of the claim can make for a shorter timeline because it is a smoother process.
However, some factors can extend or diminish the expected timeline for a car accident case.
Note that many claim adjusters engage in certain tactics to help reduce claim payouts. For example, they may
- delay in responding to inquiries or
- offer quick lowball settlement offers.
Remember, insurance defense firms charge by the hour, and insurance adjusters get paid a flat salary. So they are in no rush to pay you what you deserve.
Auto accident lawyers are better situated to spot these tactics and stand up to aggressive car insurance companies. In turn, they can help you get the maximum value of your case.
Note that if your 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?
There are numerous factors that can change the timeline for settling a car accident case. The 2 most important are:
- the parties’ willingness to compromise, and
- whether there are facts in dispute.
Additionally, the following factors can also influence the timeline of a car accident case:
- the insurance companies involved,
- whether the defendant is insured, 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 the court is backlogged.
A willingness to compromise
If you and the defendant’s insurance company are willing to compromise, it can make it easier and quicker to settle the case. While it will speed up the settlement timeline for your auto accident claim significantly, you may not receive all of the compensation that you deserve.
This happens more often than you might think. 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. In many cases, you may be willing to forgo compensation for your pain and suffering in order to
- resolve the case quickly and
- receive the settlement check.
Unfortunately, many insurance companies know this. They try to delay the case in order to build that financial pressure to settle. Then they make unreasonably low settlement offers to capitalize on your eagerness to end the case.
However, some defendant insurance companies are more willing to compromise. Some recognize that it costs more money than it saves to not fight for every dollar.
Whether there are facts in dispute
It can also speed up the settlement timeline if there are no material facts in dispute. If both sides agree on
- whose fault the accident was and
- the extent of your injuries,
the timeline to settle will likely be much shorter.
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.
Determining each party’s share of responsibility for the crash can significantly alter how much compensation you deserve. Worse, depending on the state, if you were more than half at-fault for the crash, you may not be entitled to any compensation, at all.
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. This can prolong the settlement timeline.
The extent of your injuries is another fact that can be disputed. It will also influence the expected timeline. If the injuries are serious, they can lead to:
- long recovery times,
- permanent disabilities, and
- very high costs for medical care.
Serious injuries often mean that you have not reached MMI before the statute of limitations has approached. 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 and insist that the likely expenses to be incurred are being exaggerated. 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 also mean high medical expenses. Defendants are far more likely to aggressively negotiate and challenge substantial settlement amounts than they are for smaller amounts.6
You should talk with a car accident attorney from a reputable law firm to better understand the likely timeframe for your particular case.
What is the car accident settlement process?
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.
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. Your car accident lawyer will then file the complaint. 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,
- 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.
The 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.7
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).
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bulletin, “Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001” (April 2004).
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 406; Nevada Revised Statute 41.141.
- See, for example, Case v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. .
- See, for example, Finley v. P.G. (. )
- See, for example, Wimsatt v. Superior Court (.