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Unlocking the Timeline: How Long Does It Take A Lawsuit to Settle?

If you’re currently involved in a lawsuit you might be wondering, “why is my lawyer taking so long to settle my case”? Or, if you are considering taking legal action, one of the most pressing questions on your mind is likely, “how long does a lawsuit take to settle?” These questions are as common as they are complex, with answers varying widely depending on numerous factors. In this article, we’ll unlock the mysteries of the lawsuit timeline, helping you understand what to expect and when to expect it.

Because the majority of readers are most likely to be concerned with a personal injury settlement, that will be the main focus of this article. However, some of the information applies to other types of civil cases.

What Does it Mean to Settle?

Parties to a lawsuit happy because they negotiated and settled their case.

Before delving into the intricacies of the timeline, it’s important that you grasp what it means to settle a lawsuit. In the realm of law, a settlement is an agreement reached between disputing parties to resolve a case without going to trial. It’s a compromise in which you might not receive everything you were hoping for, but in return, you gain the certainty of an outcome and often, a quicker resolution.

In most cases, it is better to try to settle than to go to trial. This is because trial outcomes are extremely unpredictable. Lawyers often see cases they think are rock-solid lose, and seemingly weak cases win.

It is important to note, however, that a settlement is never guaranteed – it is possible that the opposing party offers nothing and instead chooses to take the case to trial.

Average Duration of Personal Injury Cases

A clock and a calendar representing duration of time for a personal injury case to resolve or settle.

Personal injury cases often settle between six months and three years, though it is not uncommon for some to take longer. Personal injury cases involve claims for damages due to injuries from accidents, negligence, or intentional acts. Among other factors, the time frame can depend on the complexity of the injury and the clarity of fault. Common personal injury cases include:

  • Car accidents
  • Dog bites
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Bicycle accidents
  • Slip and falls
  • Trip and falls
  • Medical malpractice
  • Wrongful death
  • Defective Products
  • Assault/Battery

It is important to note that six months to three years is just what is typical. It is possible for a case to take less or longer.

How Long Does a Personal Injury Case Take to Settle? – The Personal Injury Lawsuit Timeline Explained

A man slumped over at his desk a little frustrated wondering how long before his personal injury case settles.

Settlements can occur at any phase of the process, even before a formal lawsuit is filed. They can also happen on the eve of trial, or sometimes even during the trial itself. It’s a path often chosen to avoid the unpredictability and expense of a trial. While it might sound simple, reaching a settlement is anything but. It requires negotiation, understanding of the legal landscape, and often, strategic patience.

Below, we break down the timeline of a personal injury lawsuit into several phases, each with its own expected duration. The following are estimates based on typical scenarios only.

The Pre-Litigation Phase

Before a lawsuit officially begins, there’s the pre-litigation phase. This is when the groundwork for your case is laid, and it’s an important period that should not be rushed.

A private investigator taking photographs for evidence for a personal injury lawsuit while hiding in bushes.

During this time, you and your attorney will gather evidence, assess the strength of your case, and possibly engage in negotiations with the other party. The goal is to resolve the dispute before filing a lawsuit, which can save time, money, and stress.

During this time, you will also receive medical treatment and your personal injury lawyer will collect medical records and bills. It is important that you reach maximum medical improvement (get as good as you’re going to get) before initiating settlement negotiations. This is to make sure your settlement demand includes compensation for the extent of your injuries and treatment.

An inujured person in a wheelchair receiving medical treatment from a medical provider after an accident.

However, waiting until you reach maximum medical improvement is not always possible or the best option. Sometimes, for example, the defendant or insurance carrier may be notorious for not settling early on, or there may be some time constrains because of the statute of limitations.

Ideally, once you have completed or are nearing completion of your medical treatment, and your lawyer has collected as much evidence as they can, your attorney will prepare and send out a settlement demand. An initial settlement demand typically includes (1) a letter demanding that the defendant (or insurance carrier) pay you a certain amount of money by a certain date, and (2) documents supporting your case, such as the traffic collision report, photographs or video of the incident, medical records, and medical bills.

In response to the demand letter, the opposing party may choose to pay your demand, reject your demand with no counter-offer, or reject your demand but make a counter-offer. If a counter-offer is made, settlement negotiations may take a few days to several months.

The duration of the pre-litigation phase can vary widely. This stage ends with either a settlement or by filing a lawsuit in court. Because most states’ statute of limitations for personal injury cases is two years, this initial stage usually lasts less than that.

The Litigation Phase

The outside of a courthouse.

Once a lawsuit is filed, the litigation phase begins and the clock starts ticking in a more formal and structured manner. This phase encompasses several steps, each with its own timeline. The litigation phase from start to finish (with finish being trial) typically lasts one to three years, although in some cases it could be longer. A settlement, however, could occur at anytime.

After filing the lawsuit papers, the defendant must be served, which can take from a few days to a few months, depending on how easily they can be located. Once served, the defendant has a set amount of time to respond. In California, it is 30 days.

The discovery process is the next major step, where both parties exchange information and evidence, as well as take depositions. This phase is time-consuming and will last almost the entire duration of litigation.

A lawyer holding a magnifying glass over some documents during the investigation of a personal injury lawsuit.

Trial

If your case is not dismissed, either by your own choice or because the defense convinces the judge to, litigation will end either by settlement or trial. Trial can last a few days for simple cases to several weeks or months for more complex ones. After a trial, there may be post-trial motions and potentially an appeal process, each adding additional months or years to the timeline.

A scene of a trial including the litigants, attorneys, judge, court reporter, and jury for a personal injury trial.

Factors Influencing How Long Your Personal Injury Lawsuit Takes

Hand holding a stopwatch signifying time that a personal injury lawsuit takes.

The length of time it takes to settle a personal injury claim is influenced by many factors. The following are the eight most common (in no particular order).

Number 1: Severity of Injuries

Doctor or nurse putting a cervical collar around an injured woman's neck after an accident.

Personal injury claims involving a serious injury typically take longer to settle. This is due to many reasons.

First, serious injuries typically require more extensive medical treatment, and it is usually best to wait until you complete all or most of your treatment before attempting to settle. This is so that you and your lawyer have a clearer picture as to the extent of your damages, including medical bills. This is often referred to as waiting until you have reached “maximum medical improvement.”

For example, a sprained neck due to whiplash after a car accident, typically only requires an urgent care visit, x-ray, and two to three months’ worth of chiropractic or physical therapy visits. Catastrophic injuries, on the other hand, may require multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation therapy over the course of a year or more.

Second, serious injuries typically increase the amount of damages suffered. As you will see below, cases with larger damages can take longer to settle.

Number 2: Amount of Damages

A calculator and money for damages caused by an accident.

In most personal injury cases, the injured party is entitled to seek compensation for their damages. Damages usually include things like medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Larger damages can take longer to recover. It is usually easier for an insurance company, or anyone for that matter, to part with $15,000 than $15,000,000 for a larger claim.

Number 3: Fault or Liability

Two parties on the phone with their insurace company after a t-bone accident.

In most personal injury cases, the injured person must prove that the accused party is liable or at fault for the incident or accident.

If liability is disputed, it complicates the case, thereby increasing the time it will take to settle, if the accused party even wants to settle at all.

Number 4: Strength of Evidence

The time it will take to settle your case, along with how much your injury claim is worth, depends mostly on how much leverage you have over the opposing party. One of the most powerful things creating leverage is the strength of your evidence.

The more photographs, videos, witness statements, or documents you have to prove your case, the more valuable your case is likely to be and the quicker it is likely to settle. Quality of evidence also counts and in some cases may even trump quantity of evidence.

Number 5: Insurance Company or Defendant’s Willingness to Settle

Some insurance companies (and defendants) are notorious for being slower to settle than others. While some are known for not being willing to settle at all.

The outcome of your case also largely depends on the insurance adjuster. Insurance adjusters that are aggressive or lazy usually take longer to settle personal injury lawsuits.

The opposing part’s policy limits is also another factor, although, only in relation to the amount of damages. The closer your damages are to the policy limit of the accused party, the quicker your personal injury case is likely to settle. For example, if (a) liability is clearly in your favor, and (b) the damages in your personal injury claim are close to the opposing party’s policy limit, there is a good chance your case will settle quickly.

Number 6: Jurisdiction Where the Lawsuit is Filed

A crowded group of people representing a jurisdiction with many cases.

Some courts have heavier caseloads than others. If your personal injury lawsuit is filed in a court with a heavy caseload, hearing dates, including trial, will usually take longer.

During the course of litigation there will often be disagreements between the parties that need to be resolved by way of a formal hearing. In courts with heavy caseloads, these hearings may not be able to take place for several months.

Additionally, every personal injury lawsuit filed with the court will be assigned a trial date. While having a trial date doesn’t necessarily mean that your case will actually go to trial (most personal injury cases settle), it usually adds pressure on the defendant (or their insurance company) to settle.

In jurisdictions with heavy caseloads, however, your personal injury case isn’t likely to be assigned a trial date for several months, or even a year, after your lawsuit is filed. And even when you finally receive your trial date, it will usually be a year or more into the future.

And no, in most cases, you can’t shop around to find a courthouse with a lighter caseload.

Number 7: Number of Parties Involved

Usually, a personal injury case with several plaintiffs (people suing) or multiple defendants (people being sued) takes longer to settle. This is because the more people are involved, the more complicated things become in terms of information gathering and sharing, communications, negotiations, etc.

Number 8: Lawyer Skill and Attention to the Case

The skill and attention your and the opposing party’s lawyer assert on your case can influence how long it takes to settle your personal injury lawsuit.

If your personal injury attorney is skilled and puts attention on your case, your case is likely to settle faster (and for more money).

However, the skill and interest of the opposing lawyer also plays a factor no matter how skilled or attentive your own lawyer is.

The opposing lawyer’s job is to get the best result for the defendant and their insurance company. This means finding ways to ensure that their clients pay you as little as possible. The more skilled a defense attorney is, the better the strategies and tactics they will use to weaken your case.

One tactic often used by insurance companies and defense lawyers is stalling or delaying your case. They often do this in hope that you will die, have another accident they can then blame for your injuries, or become worn down and give in to a lesser settlement amount.

On the other hand, a bad or lazy defense attorney can also affect the time it takes to settle your personal injury claim. A lazy or incompetent defense attorney may let the case languish on their desk and put no effort into trying to resolve it.

Other Factors

Other factors include the availability of legal counsel and even the personal schedules of everyone involved. External events, such as judge changes, changes in the law, or newly discovered evidence, can also alter the lawsuit’s timeline.

How to Speed Up Your Settlement

While the legal process can be slow, there are some things you can do to speed up and maximize your settlement.

Number 1: Collect Evidence and Document Everything

One of the most important things you can do to get the most money from your case and make it move faster is to collect as much evidence as you can and document everything, even before you have hired a lawyer.

Call the police and ask for a traffic collision report, even if you think the collision is relatively minor; take pictures; gather witness information; seek prompt medical attention; if involved in a slip and fall, ask the store manager to prepare an incident report and preserve all videos; obtain all your medical records and bills; keep a journal or diary documenting your pain, symptoms, and the effect your injury is having on your life; document time off from work due to your injury or treatment; maintain wage records to show the wages you have lost.

Number 2: Ensure that all Documentation and Evidence are Organized and Readily Available from the Start

A client at his lawyer's office handing his lawyer evidence and information he collected for his personal injury claim.

The more efficiently you can provide necessary information and documents to your attorney, the less time will be wasted during all phases of your case.

Number 3: Keep Your Lawyer Informed

Good communication with your legal team is also key. Keep them informed of any new developments, including doctor appointments, and be responsive to their requests. Delays often occur when attorneys are waiting on information from their clients.

Number 4: Be an Active Participant in Your Medical Treatment

Don’t delay seeking medical attention and attend all your appointments as scheduled. If you’re feeling symptoms or pain, speak up – tell your doctor and lawyer. Also, be sure to follow all of your doctors’ recommendations. The faster you reach maximum medical improvement, the faster your case can resolve.

If you don’t have medical insurance, it’s not a problem. Your personal injury attorney can find medical providers to treat you regardless.

Number 5: Check in Regularly with Your Lawyer and Ask Them for Status on Your Case

A single personal injury lawyer typically handles 25 to 45 cases at a time. Unfortunately, cases sometimes fall by the wayside no matter how good or experienced your attorney is. By checking in with your lawyer every month or so, you’ll put yourself at the front of their mind.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Settlement Check After You Settle?

A woman receiving a lot of money in her wallet for her personal injury settlement.

From the point your case settles, it usually takes two to four months to get your check. First, your lawyer and the defense attorney (or insurance company if the case settles in pre-litigation) will spend about one to three weeks negotiating the terms of the settlement agreement. An experienced personal injury attorney will require that the defense send the settlement check to their office within a certain time period after the settlement agreement is signed – usually 30 days.

Once you sign the settlement agreement, your attorney will begin negotiating any liens by medical providers or your health insurance carrier. This is done in order to maximize the money that goes into your pocket. However, this process can take several months.

Once all the liens have been negotiated down as much as possible, your lawyer will send you your check.

Conclusion

A racetrack with a finish line representing the end of a personal injury lawsuit.

The question, “How long does a lawsuit take to settle?” or “why is my lawyer taking so long to settle my case?” has no single answer. Numerous variables play a role in the timeline of a lawsuit. Understanding the process, being prepared, hiring an experienced personal injury attorney and checking in with them regularly can help speed up your case.

Disclaimer: This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice. Consult with an attorney for your specific situation.