What does it mean to “go to court”? The truth is, people are often confused about the difference between filing a lawsuit and going to trial. Most people think that “going to court” means going to trial.
However, when a lawsuit is filed, the case is in “litigation”; i.e. in court. However, simply because a lawsuit is filed does not mean that you will ever step a foot inside a court room or go to trial.
First, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of car accident cases are settled long before a lawsuit is filed. However, if the insurance company does not make a fair settlement offer, delays the case, or refuses to provide necessary information and evidence needed to settle the case, a lawsuit may need to be filed.
Insurance companies often like to delay, deny, and drag out the legal process. The longer the claim takes to resolve, the more money the insurance company makes from the money it invests in interest bearing “reserve” accounts. By filing a lawsuit, a victim of a car accident obtains the legal power to subpoena records, take depositions, and conduct what is called “discovery”. Filing a lawsuit places the victim’s claim into the Court system and allows a judge to “referee” the dispute.
The judge will make sure that each side is complying with the law. Filing a lawsuit also places the case on the court’s docket, and applies pressure on the insurance company to act. After a lawsuit is filed, the insurance company knows that the case is now on the path toward a trial if they do not do the right thing.
However, in most cases where a lawsuit is filed, the cases still usually get settle before trial. The threat of a trial is the only thing that takes the power away from the insurance company and places it in the hands of a judge and jury. The right to a civil jury trial is so important, it is enshrined in the 7th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3% of personal injury claims go to trial. This figure includes car accidents – However, car accident claims are less likely to go to trial than other types of cases included in the 3% figure, especially medical malpractice claims. Most claims are disposed of through settlement.
(Bureau of Justice Statistics Clearinghouse, Tort Cases in Large Counties)
Knowing that only a small percent of car accident claims go to end up in litigation, let alone a trial, you may wonder what makes a case go to court. Each case is resolved on its own merits, based on the unique set of facts in that case. However, there are some factors that make a car accident claim more likely to go to court than other cases.
10 Factors that May Make Your Car Accident “Go to Court”
Here are 10 reasons that your car accident claim may go to court:
1. Serious injuries or fatalities
In any case where there are serious injuries or a fatality occurs, the case is more likely to need a lawsuit to get settled. This is especially true when there is a lot of insurance coverage available to compensate the victim. The larger the harm, the higher the stakes. The defense is more likely to do everything possible to avoid paying a large amount of compensation.
2. Complex determination of fault
A car accident victim may name multiple defendants in their case. A party may be named as a defendant in the case even if they were not personally driving a vehicle (an employer or a government department of transportation, for example). Fault may be shared partially by the plaintiff.
Any situation where the determination of fault is complex, or there is room for reasonable minds to differ, the case may be more likely to require a lawsuit or trial. However, disputed liability cases get settled everyday and both sides must evaluate the risks.
See Dorrell v. South Carolina Dept. of Transp., 361 S.C. 312, 605 S.E.2d 12 (S.C. 2004) (The case proceeded to trial to resolve the issue of whether a SCDOT subcontractor owed a duty to the motorist which could give rise to legal fault.)
3. Questions of causation – such as intervening causes or whether negligence caused the injury
Legal causation is the question of whether the defendant’s actions were the cause of the victim’s harm such that they are responsible for damages. If there are questions of causation, such as intervening causes or questions of whether the defendant’s negligence was the source of the injury, it may require litigation.
See Trivelas v. SCDOT & E.H. Sistrunk Trucking, Inc., 348 S.C. 125, 558 S.E.2d. 271 (S.C. Ct. App. 2001) (for a discussion of proving causation in South Carolina car accident claims.)
4. Medical issues – such as delayed medical treatment, gaps in medical treatment, pre-existing conditions, and future damages
The issues above are common insurance company talking points raised in car accident cases. Even if they do not have any merit or evidence to support the same, insurance companies try to cast doubt on injury claims. Complex issues regarding injuries, medical treatment and the cost of treatment may cause the need for a lawsuit to be filed.
Delayed medical treatment may create questions of whether the injuries are the result of the accident. Pre-existing conditions may cloud the question of damages. Future damages may be claimed, but their uncertain nature may make the case head to court. By filing a lawsuit, the parties are able to demonstrate the merit, or lack of merit, to the insurance company’s talking points.
To receive future damages, a victim must prove that they are “reasonably certain” to occur. The standard for admissibility is any evidence tending to establish the nature, character, and extent of injuries which are the natural and proximate consequences of the defendant’s acts. Even if future expenses are small or difficult to estimate, the plaintiff may still request them and present evidence under allowable standards. Pearson v. Bridges, 544 S.E.2d 617 (S.C. 2001)
5. Lack of evidence
If evidence is poorly documented, the insurance company may be more likely to dispute their responsibility to pay a settlement. A lack of witnesses, photographs and or evidence that may be hard to document, like pain and suffering, may be reality – and they may make the case more likely to require litigation.
6. Contradictory evidence
When the evidence is contradictory, each party will try and construe it in their favor. Conflicting eyewitness statements and contradictory statements may make an insurance company want to make a law settlement offer, forcing the case into a lawsuit and/or trial.
Under South Carolina Rules of Evidence Rule 613(a), a witness may be questioned about a prior statement. Rule 613(b) states procedure to allow a party to admit extrinsic evidence of a prior inconsistent statement.
7. Punitive damages
South Carolina Code § 15-32-510 et. seq. allows a victim to claim punitive damages based on a clear and convincing evidence standard. Insurance companies often fail to acknowledge that they will be forced to pay punitive damages. If the case is litigated and tried to a jury, the jury may award them if compensatory or nominal damages are awarded in trial.
Punitive damages are often awarded for large amounts. It’s likely that the insurance company will do everything they can to minimize or avoid paying a punitive damages award.
8. When the defense doesn’t want to settle
Sometimes, an insurance simply doesn’t want to admit that their insured was at fault for an accident. If there are lawyers for an insurance company involved in the claim, the lawyers are often paid by the hour and want to bill the insurance company to make money, or they may not want to get a reputation for settling cases.
The car accident victim may have a great case, but it may be necessary to force a case into litigation simply because the defense wants their day in court.
9. Legal disputes
Disputes about the admissibility of evidence or the application of law may create large disagreements about the value of a case. Legal disputes increase the likelihood that the case will be resolved at trial.
See Elam v. South Carolina Department of Transportation, 361 S.C. 9, 602 S.E.2d 772 (S.C. 2004) (The victim of a single-car accident sued SCDOT under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act alleging poor highway maintenance which allowed rainwater accumulation. The defense made a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on various legal grounds it disputed with the plaintiff.)
10. When the plaintiff chooses to go to file a lawsuit and/or go to trial
Just like a defendant may choose to take their case to trial, a plaintiff may elect to resolve their case at trial. A plaintiff does not have to accept a settlement offer. If the defendant does not agree to pay the claim in full, the plaintiff may choose to file a lawsuit and and go to trial.
Consultation to Know If Your Car Accident Case Will Go to Trial
Our experienced car accident lawyers can evaluate your case and give you a personalized consultation about the likelihood that your case will get settled, litigation, or even go to trial. We can customize our representation in your case to your unique goals. Contact us today at Bringardner Injury Law Firm to talk about your case.