Handling a serious personal injury case can sometimes take years. It’s important for clients of personal injury attorneys to understand why some cases take such a long time to resolve.
No two personal injury cases are alike; some are settled relatively quickly, but others drag on for years, frustrating plaintiffs who have suffered injuries (sometimes with lasting effects), lost income and experienced general disruption to their lives. To the injured party, the seemingly endless delays in reaching a resolution can seem unbearable, and even unnecessary.
But no matter how diligently you and your injury attorney are working to move the case forward, there are several factors that may stand in the way of a speedy settlement or trial.
In personal injury cases, it often takes time to assess the full extent of injuries suffered. For example, car accidents and falls can result in multiple injuries, some of which are not apparent at first, as the victim and medical responders focus on the more obvious ones, like a broken limb or a gash on the head. Some other complications—among them whiplash, chronic back pain and sprained or otherwise damaged joints—may not become fully apparent until later, when the injured party realizes their symptoms aren’t going away.
Often, medical care is lengthy and ongoing. Not only does it make sense from a legal standpoint to allow time to assess the full extent and medical cost of the damage, it is in the plaintiff’s best interest not to act too soon and possibly underestimate that cost before reaching “maximum medical improvement.”
The Discovery Period
Another cause for delay is that medical records need to be gathered, and a thorough investigation needs to be done. This can take months to accomplish. Especially in cases with complex questions about who is responsible for a person’s injuries, consulting with experts is often a lengthy process.
Once this information is obtained, to formally pursue a case, the plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer initiates a lawsuit by filing a summons and complaint, which then must be served upon the defendant(s) within four months. After that, the defendant retains a lawyer who answers the complaint, thereby beginning the pretrial “discovery” period, during which lawyers from each side exchange statements on the details of the case and any witnesses from whom they plan to seek testimony. Discovery documents are compiled and exchanged, as is a thorough “Bill of Particulars” that lays out the plaintiff’s theory of the liability, and the extent of the plaintiff’s harm and injuries.
Often months later, after discovery is exchanged, you and the defendant(s), as well as other witnesses, may be required to give depositions under oath. And if either side files pretrial motions—for example, to dismiss certain aspects of the case, or even the entire case—it will take additional time for the court to respond to the motions.
If the lawsuit is not settled at any time during this process, it can go to trial, but even then, the court may set up a settlement conference to see if the parties are able to come to a meeting of the minds. If not, scheduling the trial itself can take months.
Finally, the more money that is at stake in a claim, the more likely the defendants’ insurance companies will stall, exhausting all possibilities of challenging your claim, and possibly driving impatient plaintiffs to settle for less. This is another reason it may be in your best interest to allow the legal process to run its due course.
For motor vehicle accidents, New York is a “no fault” state, which means that if you are injured in a vehicle or struck by one as a pedestrian or bicyclist, the vehicle’s insurance pays your medical bills, lost wages and certain other expenses, no matter whose fault the accident is. For information on how to apply for no-fault benefits in New York state, see the Department of Financial Services website.