What Are the Steps in a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Every personal injury lawsuit is different. But they all generally follow the same steps until they get resolved, which can happen in several ways. Here’s an overview of the usual steps in a personal injury lawsuit and a personal injury lawyer’s crucial role in getting compensation for the injured person.

A Preventable Injury Caused by Someone Else

Experienced Lawyer for Personal InjuryAll personal injury lawsuits start with an individual suffering physical harm because of someone else’s reckless, intentional, or negligent actions. Numerous circumstances could lead to a personal injury.

Some common ones include:

  • Car accidents
  • Truck accidents
  • Motorcycle accidents
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Bicycle accidents
  • ATV and snowmobile accidents
  • Falls and other dangerous incidents on someone else’s property
  • Construction accidents
  • Harmful incidents caused by defective consumer or industrial products
  • Medical malpractice
  • Suffering abuse or neglect at a nursing home

These are just a few examples. The misconduct of others can create limitless scenarios leading to a personal injury. Virtually any accident or incident could lead to a lawsuit if someone else’s unreasonably dangerous decisions, actions, or inaction played a role in causing it.

Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer

Before filing a lawsuit, the injured party usually must hire an experienced personal injury lawyer to handle their case. It’s easy to find and afford a personal injury attorney. Most personal injury law firms offer a free case evaluation to prospective clients.

They also routinely work on a contingent fee basis, meaning that they do not charge upfront payments or hourly rates but instead retain a percentage of any money they recover for their client as a fee. They only get paid if they deliver results, in other words.

Case Investigation

Once hired, a personal injury lawyer will usually investigate how their client’s injury happened and who bears the blame.

Case investigation often entails:

  • Interviewing the injured client and other witnesses to what happened.
  • Obtaining pictures and videos of the accident, incident, or location where the injury happened.
  • Examining physical evidence such as a damaged vehicle.
  • Gathering and reviewing police accident reports and other official accounts.
  • Consulting with expert witnesses such as medical professionals or forensic scientists who can review the evidence and assist in evaluating the cause of the injury.

Through this investigation, a lawyer aims to develop a clear picture of the events leading up to the injury and to identify as many parties as possible whose misconduct may have had a role in causing it. Typically, investigating a client’s injury takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to complete, depending on the availability of information and time constraints like legal deadlines.

Damages and Recovery Analysis

In tandem with investigating the who and how of the personal injury, a lawyer also examines the scope and recoverability of their client’s damages. They need to understand how much money their client may have the right to receive and whether a liable party has the financial resources to pay.

Potential Damages

Personal injury claimants have the legal right to receive compensation for the full scope of physical, emotional, and financial harm they’ve suffered. That can include payment for their:

  • Medical expenses in treating an injury and related health problems
  • Costs incurred repairing or replacing damaged vehicles or other personal property
  • Other out-of-pocket expenses resulting from the injury or its aftermath
  • Lost income and job benefits from missing work due to an injury
  • Loss of future earning potential or career opportunities due to a temporary or permanent disability
  • Physical pain and discomfort
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of independence
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Struggles living with scarring, disfigurement, or loss of bodily function

You may receive punitive damages if the at-fault party engaged in extreme or intentional misconduct.

A personal injury lawyer assesses each category of damages and calculates the maximum amount their injured client could claim in a lawsuit.

Potential for Recovery

Having established the maximum potential value of a client’s claim, a lawyer next analyzes whether someone with liability has the financial means to pay. After all, you can’t get blood from a stone. It only makes sense to sue for a personal injury if there’s a reasonable chance the liable party can pay the damages owed.

In most personal injury cases, the party at fault for causing the injury carries liability insurance to cover at least some of the victim’s losses. Lawyers frequently seek to establish the size of that liability coverage, which can represent a baseline for the financial recovery the client could achieve. Lawyers also explore whether the at-fault party has personal or business assets they could use to pay a judgment.

Other parties, like an at-fault party’s employer, may also have a legal obligation to pay for the at-fault party’s conduct. Lawyers will typically explore the possibility of such liability and whether those other parties have assets or insurance that could cover the client’s damages.

Finally, a lawyer may also review the injured client’s insurance policies to determine if they provide coverage for any of the client’s losses. Sometimes, a client’s insurance might even serve as the primary source of payment for damages, such as in the case of a car accident caused by an uninsured driver.

Pre-Lawsuit Demands and Insurance Claims

Before filing a personal injury lawsuit, the lawyer for the injured party will often send an informal or formal demand for compensation to a liable party or insurance company. For example, the lawyer may send a letter to an at-fault party outlining the injured client’s case and requesting voluntary payment. Or, the lawyer may prepare and submit a claim to an insurance company under a policy that covers the client’s losses.

Sometimes, these initial efforts trigger negotiations that lead to a settlement of the client’s claim without the need to file a lawsuit. At a minimum, they give the lawyer and injured client the chance to evaluate whether to sue the party they’ve approached for payment or to continue developing the claim.

Complaint and Answer

If the lawyer and client decide to proceed with a personal injury lawsuit, the lawyer will prepare and file a complaint and any other necessary paperwork with the court and serve it on the party being sued. The complaint contains a short, plain statement of the basis of the client’s (or plaintiff’s) personal injury claim. Filing and serving these documents officially starts the personal injury lawsuit.

The party sued, known as the defendant, has a short window of time to file and serve an answer that states whether they agree or disagree with the allegations in the complaint. A defendant may also make claims of their own (known as counterclaims) against the plaintiff.

The defendant may also have the option of asking the court to dismiss the complaint immediately. If the defendant asks for dismissal, the court allows the plaintiff to respond, then decides whether to grant or deny the request. Dismissals at this stage are relatively rare in personal injury cases.


If not dismissed, the lawsuit proceeds to a phase known as discovery. In discovery, the parties can explore the facts and evidence underlying each other’s claims and defenses. Discovery involves asking the other side questions and requesting the production of information. Typically, each side asks the other to disclose documents and other evidence and answer written questions (called interrogatories) about their case. Then they conduct interviews under oath (called depositions) with key witnesses.

A personal injury lawyer uses discovery to develop the injured client’s case and to probe for weaknesses in the defendant’s. Skilled lawyers who conduct thorough, strategically sound discovery can often turn an average case into a sterling one.

Settlement Negotiations

Throughout discovery, lawyers for both sides in a personal injury case can engage in settlement negotiations. They may do so informally on phone calls or by trading emails. Or they can agree or be ordered by the court to engage in formal talks facilitated by a neutral third-party known as a mediator.

Sometimes, the information revealed in discovery compels one side or the other to push for a settlement. For example, if a defense witness makes damning admissions proving liability in a deposition, the defendant may propose a settlement rather than continue fighting a losing battle.

In the typical personal injury settlement, the injured party receives money from the defendant or the defendant’s insurance carrier. In exchange, the injured party releases the paying party (or parties) from further liability and drops the lawsuit against them.

Settlements usually end a personal injury lawsuit. It’s virtually impossible to re-open a settlement once the parties have agreed to it. Personal injury lawyers work hard to ensure that any settlement they recommend to their clients represents the most favorable outcome possible.

No one can force the parties to settle, not even their lawyers or a judge. The decision to settle belongs to the parties alone.

Summary Judgment

After completing discovery, the parties have a short window to prepare and submit written arguments asking the court to decide the case in their favor without a trial. These requests are known as motions for summary judgment. The thrust of a summary judgment motion is that the undisputed evidence established through discovery requires the court to decide the case for one side or the other.

The court reviews the written arguments and responses. It may also hold an in-person hearing in a courtroom to consider any other oral arguments the lawyers want to make. Then, it will decide whether to grant or deny the motions in whole or in part. If the court grants a motion, that resolves the case on whatever issue the court decides. If the court denies the motion, only a trial will resolve the issue.

Frequently, a court will grant a summary judgment motion in part and deny it in part, narrowing the scope of the issues remaining for trial.

For example, a court might grant a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the injured party’s claim of extreme recklessness justifying punitive damages but deny the motion as to a claim of negligence. Then, a trial would decide whether the defendant acted negligently and, if so, how much the defendant owes to the injured party as compensatory damages.


If a personal injury lawsuit neither settles nor gets decided on summary judgment, it will usually go to trial. At trial, lawyers for the parties present evidence and arguments to a judge and jury. Each side can call witnesses to testify under oath, cross-examine the opposing party’s witnesses, and introduce exhibits like documents or photographs to support or contradict witness testimony. The lawyers also have the chance to make opening and closing remarks to the judge or jury.

Once each side has presented the case they wish to make, the judge or jury decides whether the defendant is liable and, if so, the amount owed in damages. If they decide in the plaintiff’s favor, the defendant must pay the amount they direct.

Enforcement of the Settlement or Judgment

Any resolution of the case in the injured party’s favor, either through a negotiated settlement, a ruling by a judge, or an award after trial, gives the injured party the right to collect money from the defendant. A personal injury lawyer can take any necessary steps to ensure that happens.

Defendants usually pay the amount owed to the personal injury lawyer’s client trust bank account. The lawyer deducts their contingent fee and any reimbursable expenses from those funds and sends the rest to the client or others the client directs.

Appeals and Post-Trial Proceedings

Sometimes, a party in a personal injury lawsuit will disagree strongly enough with a judge’s or jury’s decision that they’ll file an appeal seeking review in a higher court. Appeals can delay payment of damages until the higher court decides the case unless the parties settle while the appeal is pending.

Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer Today

The steps above illustrate the path a typical personal injury lawsuit can follow. But they’re not set in stone. Every case has unique elements. That’s why, if you suffered a personal injury, it’s critical to entrust your case to an experienced personal injury lawyer with the skills and resources to tackle any challenge you claim throws their way.

Contact a personal injury attorney in New York today for a free case evaluation.

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