When you decide to file a claim against an impaired driver who has injured you or your loved ones you likely will have many questions. This section will give you a brief overview of the insurance claims process, the legal claims process, and how a case proceeds if there is a concurrent criminal case pending.
The Insurance Claims Process
Insurance companies are often involved pretty quickly after a car accident occurs. Both parties will contact their respective insurers in order to file claims for injuries and the damage done to their vehicles. It is important to remember that the other party's insurance company will be seeking to minimize the liability of its driver and reduce the amount of compensation it will have to pay out.
You can contact an attorney right after your accident. A competent and experienced personal injury attorney can help you to deal with the insurance companies and help you throughout the claims process. If you and the other party are able to come to a satisfactory agreement that properly compensates you for your injuries then you may never have to file a lawsuit and enter into the legal system. However, if an agreement could not be reached, then that is where a lawsuit may be commenced.
The Legal Claims Process
In a civil lawsuit, the two parties are termed the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff is the party who starts the case as they are seeking redress from the defendant. A civil lawsuit is begun by filing the complaint in the appropriate court of law. A knowledgeable attorney will know the proper court to file the case in. A complaint is “[t]he initial pleading that starts a civil action and states the basis for the court's jurisdiction, the basis for the plaintiff's claim, and the demand for relief.” Black's Law Dictionary 323 (9th ed. 2009). Once the complaint is filed, the defendant has a specific amount of time to answer the allegations in the complaint by filing an answer. An answer is “[a] defendant's first pleading that addresses the merits of the case, usually by denying the plaintiff's allegations.” Id. at 107.
After the initial pleadings are filed, the case enters the discovery phase. During this part of the litigation process, both the plaintiff and defense builds their case by gathering evidence that supports their position. Four of the common things that parties use to get evidence from the other party are interrogatories, depositions, requests for production of documents, and requests for admission. Parties also hire expert witnesses. An expert witness is “[a] witness qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education to provide a scientific, technical, or other specialized opinion about the evidence or a fact issue.” Id. at 1740. Expert witnesses are often used to help the jury at trial understand complicated issues. For example, if a plaintiff suffered a traumatic brain injury a doctor may be tapped as an expert witness for the plaintiff to explain the extent and cause of the injury.
Once the discovery phase has ended, the trial phase begins.
Trial begins with jury selection. The judge or the attorneys question the prospective jurors until they have found enough qualified people to hear the case. In Colorado, civil juries usually have six people on them, instead of the traditional twelve.
After the jury is selected and empaneled, each side is given the opportunity to make an opening statement. During opening statements, the parties outline what it is they plan to prove during the trial. After opening, the presentation of the evidence begins. The plaintiffs go first and put on evidence that tends to show that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff's injuries. After the plaintiff has presented his or her evidence the defense goes, putting on evidence that tends to show the defendant is not liable. Once each side has finished their presentation of the evidence then the judge instructs the jury on the applicable law in the case. The jury then takes the case and deliberates. Once it has reached a decision, the verdict will be announced to the parties and a judgment entered.
Settlement Or Trial
Something that most people may not be aware of is that the vast majority of civil cases will be ended through a settlement instead of by a jury verdict. Prior to a case being filed the plaintiff and the defendant is often already negotiating back and forth in an attempt to reach a settlement agreement. The advantage of settling instead of the using the court system is that the parties have complete control over the outcome of the case. The settlement produced is something that both parties agreed to, as opposed to a jury verdict where one side wins and one side loses. Parties can negotiate through the litigation process, even during trial.
Another method that parties can use to reach a settlement agreement is mediation. Mediation is [a] method of nonbinding dispute resolution involving a neutral third party who tries to help the disputing parties reach a mutually agreeable solution.” Black's Law Dictionary 1070 (9th ed. 2009). Mediations often begin with the parties all together in one room and each side gets to explain its point of view. Then the parties move into separate rooms and the mediator goes back and forth between them trying to help them come to an agreement. Mediation can be helpful even if the parties cannot reach a settlement. Mediation can also be used to help narrow the issue to be litigated at trial.
Concurrent Criminal Trials
If you have been injured because of a drunk driver then there will likely be a criminal case filed against that drunk driver. The criminal case is run by the state and is conducted separately than any civil proceedings. A criminal case can affect a civil case in several ways. For example, it is possible that a criminal case could end up postponing a civil case until the criminal case has reached its conclusion. In addition, the evidence presented at a prior criminal trial could be used as evidence in the subsequent civil case. It is often favorable to avoid filing a DUI related personal injury case while the DUI criminal case is pending. However, every case is different and I cannot decide the proper timing of a civil action until I review the specific facts of your case.
Contact An Attorney
If you or a loved one has been injured by an impaired driver, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Jeremy Rosenthal. Jeremy has been practicing personal injury law in Colorado for over decade. Let his experience and knowledge work for you.