Navigating a car accident can overwhelm you, especially when considering the additional complexities of pursuing a claim in a no-fault insurance state like New York or New Jersey.
In these states, an individual can’t sue another driver for damages from a collision. Instead, they must turn to their insurance provider for coverage through a personal injury protection (PIP) policy.
However, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be able to pursue legal action if your injuries were severe enough to cause significant damages, such as costly medical treatments or an extended period without being able to work.
This blog post will discuss the various considerations when pursuing a car accident lawsuit in a no-fault insurance state. Though there are limitations when trying to sue another driver for negligently causing your injuries, understanding all the legal options available will provide the best chance of recovering fair compensation. An experienced car accident lawyer will be able to help you weigh your options and take the best course of action.
Understanding How to Pursue a Car Accident Lawsuit in a No-Fault State
In no-fault insurance states like New York and New Jersey, all drivers must carry PIP insurance to cover their damages from an accident, regardless of who was at fault. This system is beneficial for quickly getting reimbursement for the damages from a minor accident. Still, it’s usually not enough to cover the wide-ranging costs of being in a more severe crash.
These policies are typically only designed for basic financial losses. They won’t cover any non-economic costs, like pain and suffering, which are often the most significant aspect of being in a car accident. Therefore victims who have exhausted their PIP coverage must find another way to pursue compensation.
One option is going outside the no-fault system by filing a personal injury lawsuit in civil court against the at-fault driver and other responsible parties. However, victims have to meet what’s known as the “serious injury threshold” to seek more compensation than what’s already available through their insurance plan.
Serious bodily harm is an exception to no-fault insurance because the courts understand that the costs associated with these injuries will far exceed the limits of most policies. The legal standard of “severe” is defined as causing a permanent disability or a major limitation of a body part or function for an extended period.
Some examples are:
- Death, which would entitle close family members to bring a wrongful death lawsuit
- The loss of a limb or another body part
- Significant disfigurement
- A bone that fractures in more than one place
- Loss of a fetus for a pregnant woman that loses her baby as a result of the accident
- Permanent loss of a body function or system, such as someone who suffers a spinal cord injury and is permanently paralyzed from the waist down
- A significant, temporary limitation, such as a victim that suffers a concussion and has difficulty thinking clearly for some time
- Any injury that prevented the victim from performing their usual activities for at least 90 days within a the180 period right after the accident
If you suffered severe injuries in a car accident, a lawyer can explain the legal options available outside the no-fault system and help you make informed decisions about your rights as a crash victim.
Ultimately, you must demonstrate that your injuries meet the serious injury threshold.
Seek advice from an experienced car accident lawyer early in the process to build a persuasive case and take all the necessary steps to file a lawsuit.
Steps to Take When Filing a Car Accident Lawsuit
Filing a car accident lawsuit is more complex than submitting some paperwork and waiting for a resolution. It’s a multifaceted process that requires careful preparation, an understanding of the legal system, and the right support. The steps you need to take to file a successful car accident lawsuit include:
Consult a Lawyer
If you’ve been injured in a serious accident and are thinking about taking formal legal action, you’re better off talking to a lawyer sooner rather than later. An attorney specializing in car accidents can evaluate your case, determine whether it has enough merit to move forward, and help you navigate the next steps.
Look for someone with experience handling cases similar to yours and who can demonstrate a track record of success in assisting clients in maximizing the compensation available. You also want to find an attorney who’s responsive to your questions and concerns, can talk to you about the legal process using plain language, and generally inspires confidence.
To pursue a claim outside the no-fault system, solid evidence is essential to prove the at-fault driver’s negligence for the underlying factors that caused the accident. While you can gather some proof on your own, such as taking photos at the accident scene, working with an experienced car accident lawyer can significantly increase your chances of building a solid case.
Here are some of the specific ways a lawyer can help you investigate the accident and prove liability:
- Obtain and review the police report, which includes essential information about the crash, such as any traffic citations that can indicate who was at fault, photos of skid marks and any other physical evidence, and a diagram of how the cars were positioned at the scene
- Identify and interview any potential witnesses who can provide valuable testimony about what happened leading up to the accident.
- Hire expert witnesses to reconstruct the collision and substantiate how the at-fault driver’s negligence contributed to its causes
You must substantiate damages when filing a car accident lawsuit in a no-fault state. The court system actively filters out claims not substantiated well enough to reach the severe injury threshold. An attorney can help ensure the case can proceed by presenting evidence of the victim’s medical treatments, including medical reports from their attending physicians.
Medical specialists can also be hired to provide testimony on the nature and extent of the victim’s injuries, including limitations placed on their daily activities, the cost of their past and future medical care, and their general prognosis for making a recovery. Substantiating damages will also include evidence of the economic expenses the victim suffered due to the at-fault driver’s negligence, such as medical bills and lost income due to having to miss work.
Non-economic damages are more subjective because they relate to intangible factors like physical pain, emotional distress, and mental anguish. The evidence for non-economic damages can include testimony from healthcare providers who treated or diagnosed any mental health challenges related to the victim’s trauma from the crash and statements from friends and family detailing how their quality of life was affected by suffering serious injuries.
Filing a Complaint
Initiating a formal lawsuit begins by filing a complaint with the appropriate court. This is a document drafted by your attorney outlining the accident’s circumstances, the injuries suffered by the plaintiff, and the legal basis for the claim. It’s essential to be as thorough as possible when drafting the complaint because it sets the stage for the rest of the lawsuit and can affect your chances of a successful outcome.
The complaint must include:
- A clear and concise summary of the events leading up to and including the car accident
- Evidence that the defendant failed to “exercise reasonable care” in their driving and caused the accident
- Evidence of the plaintiff’s economic and non-economic damages
- Any relevant legal theories to support the plaintiff’s claim, such as an argument for the at-fault driver’s negligence
After the filing, a lawyer will ensure the appropriate parties are notified or “served” with a copy of the complaint.
In some ways, filing the complaint is only the beginning of the process because the claim will now advance to the settlement negotiations, either directly with the at-fault party or with their liability insurer. While exceptions exist, most car accident lawsuits will settle out of court.
Why Most Car Accident Cases Settle
There are several reasons that most car accidents are resolved, with the plaintiff accepting a settlement. Insurance companies offer settlement deals because they want to avoid the costly legal fees associated with a court trial. They’re also motivated to avoid the risks of losing the case and having to pay a larger judgment awarded by a sympathetic jury. However, they’re not the only side that prefers to negotiate. In most cases, accepting a settlement is the more practical and beneficial decision for car accident victims.
Settlements Provide Faster Compensation
Crash victims often face significant financial challenges due to an accident and are eager to receive compensation as soon as possible. Negotiating a settlement takes some time, but it’s still faster than going to court. Trials can take months or even years to complete, especially if the case goes through an appeal process.
Accepting a Settlement Creates Less Stress
The prospect of being examined and cross-examined on the witness stand is very intimidating for most people. Preparing for a trial can also be very time-consuming and expensive because it involves gathering additional evidence to support the victim’s case, which can also become a source of stress. All these factors can affect the victim’s mental and emotional well-being.
Accepting a Settlement Offers More Security
Even after winning a judgment award in court, there’s the risk of an appeal that prolongs the process. In the worst-case scenario, the defendant may not have enough assets to pay the full judgment award if it’s more than the coverage limits of their insurance policy.
If litigating the trial costs too much, accident victims could receive less through a trial than they would have recovered by accepting an offer.
After negotiating a settlement, the victim knows what they’re getting and can move on with their lives.
What to Expect if Your Car Accident Goes to Trial?
While both sides are incentivized to settle out of court, some scenarios will make it much more likely for cases to advance to a trial. For example, car accident victims with catastrophic injuries, such as traumatic brain injury, will face astronomical damages due to the lifelong burden of their medical care. These cases are more likely to advance to trial, especially if the defendant is a business, such as the owner of a long-haul trucking fleet.
If your case does escalate to a court trial, here’s what to expect:
- Discovery: This is a formal process where both parties exchange information, including document and witness statements
- Jury selection: If your case is not a “bench trial,” which is only presided over by the judge, attorneys from both sides will choose a group of individuals to decide the outcome
- Opening statements: Both parties summarize their arguments about what happened during the accident
- Presenting the case: The bulk of the trial will consist of presenting arguments about who should be held liable, including examining witnesses and a wide range of evidence.
- Closing arguments: The last opportunity for each side to explain why they should win the case.
- Jury deliberation: After both sides have presented their closing arguments, it’s time for the jury to deliberate and come up with a verdict per applicable laws
- Verdict announcement: Once the jury reaches its verdict on liability and damages awarded, they will announce it. If either party is unhappy with the verdict, they can appeal the decision to a higher court.
Even if a case goes to trial, the parties may reach a settlement. Settlement negotiations may continue until the jury reaches a verdict. Having a skilled car accident attorney by your side protects your legal rights during every stage of the process.
Mr. Finkelstein is the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, LLP. He has become a noted consumer activist through his representation of injured individuals against corporate wrongdoers and irresponsible parties.
An accomplished litigator, Mr. Finkelstein has represented Plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has successfully handled dozens of multi-million dollar cases.