Personal injury cases generally take between 6 months and 3 years to settle. However, there is no “average” case. This makes it impossible to say what an “average” timeframe for settlement would be. While there are many factors, the most important are the victim’s eagerness to settle and the extent of his or her injuries.
Is there any data on how long a personal injury lawsuit takes?
There are very few studies that have looked at how long a personal injury lawsuit normally takes. However, there are 3 studies that show that personal injury cases generally take around 2 years to go from being filed in court to the trial. Given that most personal injury lawsuits are not filed on the day of the accident, these studies suggest that personal injury claims probably take up to 3 years to settle.
The first study is by the U.S. Department of Justice. Personal injury claims, referred to as “tort cases” in the study, took an average of 26.5 months (2 years, 2 months, and about 2 weeks) to go from the case being filed to a jury verdict. If the trial was a bench trial, rather than a jury trial, these cases took an average of 21 months (1 year and 9 months) to go from filing to decision. However, some types of personal injury cases took longer than others. False imprisonment cases, for example, took an average of 40 months (3 years and 4 months) to take through a jury trial.1
The second study is also by the U.S. Department of Justice. While it is dated, having been published in 2004, it looked at a large data set of 12,000 cases that were filed in the largest 75 counties in the U.S. during 2001. It found that the average personal injury case took 25.6 months (2 years, 1 month, and a little over 2 weeks) to go from filing to verdict. The median timeframe was 21.5 months (1 year, 9 months, and about 2 weeks). However, some types of cases took longer, like:
- product liability claims (35.1 months, or nearly 3 years), and
- medical malpractice claims (33.2 months, or 2 years, 9 months, and about 1 week).2
The third study looked at 925,344 civil cases that were filed between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 in 152 different courts in 10 urban counties. It found that, on average, it took personal injury or tort cases 486 days (1 year and 4 months) to go from filing to “disposition.” 69 percent took up to 540 days (about 1 year and 6 months) to reach disposition. Products liability and medical malpractice claims tended to take longer. The term “disposition,” however, included:
- case dismissals,
- default judgments,
- summary judgments, and
- other resolutions.
Of these, only 10 percent were classified as settlements.3
While these studies may make it seem like personal injury claims generally go to trial in around 2 years, that it not quite accurate. Instead, they say that these claims take 2 years to go from filing to trial. Personal injury claims are rarely filed in court right after the accident. Many personal injury lawyers prefer to wait for the victim to reach maximum medical improvement (MMI) before filing the case. When the accident led to severe injuries, the victim might not reach MMI before the statute of limitations approaches. The length of the applicable statute of limitations will depend on the type of claim and the state. For personal injury claims, most statutes of limitations will be between 1 and 3 years. In California, for example, it is generally 2 years from the date of the injury.4 That period of time between the accident and the filing of the lawsuit is not taken into account in any of the studies.
Additionally, only around 3 percent of personal injury cases go all the way to trial. The rest settle, get dismissed, or are resolved in some other way.5 This means that the vast majority of personal injury claims end well before the trial that these studies focus on.
Some personal injury claims are settled without ever being filed. This can happen if, for example, the victim accepts the initial settlement offer from the insurance company representing the at-fault party.
As a result, personal injury lawyers generally agree that most claims take between 1 and 3 years to settle. The wide range is due to the differences in each case.
What are the most important factors for the length of a personal injury case?
The 2 most important factors that will influence the length of time it takes a personal injury case to resolve are the extent of your injuries and your eagerness to settle. However, other factors may also play a role.
If the severity of your injuries is high, it will likely prolong the accident case. Serious injuries generally lead to:
- lengthy recovery times,
- long-lasting or permanent disabilities, and
- extremely expensive medical bills.
One of the most important types of compensation that can be recovered in a personal injury case is the victim’s medical expenses.
In many cases, though, the victim is still recovering and is receiving ongoing medical care when the statute of limitations approaches. Because lawsuits are easily dismissed if they are filed after the statute of limitations has expired, personal injury attorneys will be forced to file the claim in court even though the victim does not know the final total of his or her medical expenses.
When this happens, the personal injury lawsuit will demand compensation for anticipated future medical expenses, in addition to compensation for the bills that have already been paid. However, it is difficult to anticipate what medical treatment will be needed in the future. Defendants utilize this uncertainty when making settlement offers. They claim that very little medical care will be needed in the future. It can be a struggle to get them to pay for what the victim will likely need. This can delay the settlement and prolong the case.
The other most important factor is the victim’s eagerness to settle the claim. If the victim is willing to accept a smaller settlement offer rather than holding out for more money, it can speed up the case.
Many accident victims are willing to accept less money in order to get it sooner. It is easy to get scared by the accumulating medical bills and lost income. The financial pressure to end the case for a lower settlement amount can be significant, even if it would leave the victim’s pain and suffering uncompensated.
However, many defendants and their insurance companies use this pressure to protect their assets. It is a common tactic for defendants to drag their feet and delay the settlement process in order to increase the pressure on the victim to settle. That way, the defendant can offer a smaller amount and still have it accepted. If the victim is eager to settle and willing to receive less than what they deserve, a settlement can happen more quickly.
Some other factors that can influence the time it takes to reach a personal injury settlement are:
- whether the court is backlogged,
- whether the defendant is an individual or an insurance company,
- if there are factual issues that are not clear, like if there are any questions as to whether the defendant was actually at-fault for the accident,
- the victim’s intent to take the case all the way to trial, and
- if the victim was partially to blame for the accident.
Getting a case review and establishing an attorney-client relationship with a lawyer from a personal injury law firm and getting his or her legal advice is very important if victims want to make an informed decision about when or whether to settle.
What is the process for a personal injury claim?
A week or so after the victim gets hurt in an incident, like a car accident, an insurance adjuster from the defendant’s insurer will approach and make an initial settlement offer. This offer is designed to look like a reasonable settlement that will cover all of the victim’s losses. However, it rarely does so. If the victim accepts the offer, he or she will have to sign a release waiver that takes away their right to sue. This can end the personal injury case in a matter of weeks.
If the victim does not accept the settlement offer, the next step is to send a demand letter. This letter is sent to the person who caused the accident, as well as to his or her insurer. It explains what happened, demands compensation for the victim’s losses, and informs the recipients of the victim’s intent to file a lawsuit if compensation is not paid within a certain period of time.
If the defendant makes a fair settlement offer, the case can end before a lawsuit is filed.
If a reasonable offer is not made, the victim and his or her attorney can initiate the lawsuit by filing the complaint. Like the demand letter, the complaint explains what happened, lists the victim’s losses, and states why the defendant should be made to pay for them. Unlike the demand letter, though, the complaint is filed in court and served on the defendants in the case. It has to be filed before the statute of limitations has expired.
For the 3 studies that estimated the amount of time it takes for a personal injury case to resolve, this is the starting point for their timeframe. From here, the studies said that it takes an average time of around 2 years to bring the case to trial. However, several steps have already been taken before this point in the claim process.
After the complaint has been filed, the defendants will file their answer to the complaint. This admits or denies all of the allegations made in the complaint.
Both sides will then engage in the discovery process. This seeks to uncover evidence regarding the allegations in dispute. That evidence can take the form of:
- medical records,
- police reports,
- interrogatories, and
- eyewitness statements.
Throughout the discovery process, there will be settlement negotiations. As evidence is discovered, it will become clearer what would be a fair compensation amount.
The court hearing the case will set a trial date. It will also schedule a settlement conference and potentially even mediation to encourage a settlement.
If no settlement is reached before the trial date, the case will go to trial. The parties can settle the case right up to the moment of the jury’s verdict.
For discussion as to car accident cases specifically, please see our article on the auto accident settlement timeline.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report, “Civil Bench and Jury Trials in State Courts, 2005” (October 2008).
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bulletin, “Civil Trial Cases and Verdicts in Large Counties, 2001” (April 2004).
- National Center for State Courts, “The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts” (2015).
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report, “Tort Cases in Large Counties” (April 1995).