This is the final of a three-part series entitled Car Accidents, Personal Injuries & the Insurance Carrier. In the earlier parts we reviewed the difference between first-party claims and third-party claims for damages and then outlined the general claims process. Here, we look at the process of a lawsuit in cases based on automobile accidents.
Unfortunately, accidents and their subsequent civil actions are a reality in the U.S and severe accidents here in Colorado continue to rise. The National Safety Council reports that traffic fatalities rose by a staggering 30% between 2014 and 2016. Another indicator of the scope is that automobile insurance companies spend roughly $4 billion annually in costs and expenses defending claims. In accidents where a driver is at-fault, their auto insurer will be pursued for compensation. When the accident involves severe injury or property loss, it is critical to obtain qualified legal counsel to handle these civil actions.
Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure
Claims based on vehicle accidents are governed by state law and must generally be brought in the state where the accident happened. Colorado has an established set of guidelines or rules that frame the process of bringing legal action in personal injury cases. Each state has their own rules of procedure, which are typically similar to the rules of procedure established at the federal level. To begin an action in Colorado, the plaintiff files a complaint with the court, which is also served to the defendant(s). This is followed by a formal summons to the defendant to begin the process.
Colorado Tort System
As discussed in Part 1 of this series, Colorado adopted the fault-based (tort-based) system that the majority of U.S. states use in 2003. Prior to this system, they had a “no-fault” system where parties involved in accidents were required to use their own insurance to pay claims regardless of fault. Under a tort system, when injury and damages occur as a result of an auto accident, it is necessary to determine which driver(s) was at fault in the crash. The at-fault driver is then financially liable for the expenses and damages incurred. The statute of limitations for automobile accident claims in Colorado is three years.
Settlement vs Litigation
Once a lawsuit is filed, the process can move in several potential directions. Sometimes defense counsel may challenge the basis for the claim and ask the court to dismiss the suit. The parties may enter into settlements negotiations or try to find a resolution through arbitration. The overwhelming majority of suits are either settled or dismissed, with a small segment that proceed to a trial. Reaching a mutually agreeable settlement has several advantages including the following:
- Compensation: It allows the victim to receive compensation much more quickly.
- Time: To complete a trial, it may take a year or more, with depositions, hearings, motions etc. Potential appeals could extend it further.
- Money: The financial resources necessary for the parties to complete a trial can potentially be significant.
- Resolution: It resolves the case without reliance on the verdict of a jury or judge.
There are situations where an insurer is not willing to make what is viewed as a proper settlement. If the negotiations are unable to lead to sufficient compensation based on the damages sustained, there may be no option but to proceed to trial.
Evidence in Accident Suits
The plaintiff has the burden to prove the defendant's negligent acts caused the accident and injuries and damages that resulted. Proving a claim requires that evidence is presented supporting it. Some of the common evidence in car accident injury claims include:
- Clinical evaluations and reports;
- Bills for medical expenses, vehicle repair, and car rental;
- Accident reports;
- Photos of the scene and property damage;
- Statements from witnesses;
- Income statements and earning capacity evaluations.
Damages Obtainable in Lawsuit
Plaintiffs in Colorado may pursue compensation for many losses (damages) that are often classified as follows:
- Economic: a broad category that includes medical expenses, property damages and lost wages from time off work.
- Noneconomic: may include pain, suffering, emotional distress etc. The maximum obtainable in noneconomic damages is generally $250,000, or $500,000 under specific circumstances.
- Medical expenses: past, present & future.
- Loss of the enjoyment of life, consortium or companionship.
- Disability or disfigurement.
- Future lost income or reducing earning capacity.
- Punitive damages: only apply when the defendant willfully, intentionally or maliciously acted. Awards generally may not exceed the economic damages awarded in the case.
The Effect of Comparative Fault on Lawsuits
Colorado uses a system of modified comparative fault in personal injury actions. This applies in suits resulting in a jury verdict and empowers the jury to determine the proportional (percent) of responsibility of the parties involved. As long as the victim (plaintiff) is found to have been less than 50% at fault, they may be eligible for awards for damages. For example, we assume that the possible recoverable damages are $100,000. The jury then finds that the defendant was 90% responsible for the accident and the plaintiff was 10% responsible; therefore, the maximum recovery the plaintiff may receive is $90,000.