Car Accident Lawsuit Guide (2024)

Jocelyn Mackie


Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.


Read in 9 mins

Car crashes cause inconvenience and stress. This becomes more true when the other driver’s insurance company fails to offer a fair settlement for injuries and property damage. In these situations, a car accident lawsuit may be necessary to ensure fair and complete compensation. This guide will explain these civil cases and the victim’s rights, responsibilities, and timelines.

Is a Car Accident Lawsuit Necessary?

Car accident lawsuits become necessary when the parties fail to settle their claims. Insurance companies often offer injured victims lowball settlements and never budge upwards to an adequate amount. Victims may then need to hire a personal injury attorney to help them successfully navigate their claims.

Fortunately, many insurance adjusters start taking claims more seriously once an attorney is involved. They may be more willing to examine the evidence and offer higher settlements. Sometimes, these offers are fair and compensate the victim appropriately.

Unfortunately, there may never be a meeting of the minds on a settlement, leaving the victim no choice but to pursue a lawsuit. Common reasons a case may require a lawsuit include:

  • Long negotiations up to the statute of limitations
  • Disputes about fault in the accident
  • Aggressive or noncommunicative insurance adjusters
  • Victims with pre-existing conditions
  • Accidents involving multiple parties
  • A belief that a victim is exaggerating their symptoms (even when supported by medical evidence)

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Damages Arising From Auto Accidents

An auto accident case is a civil matter, meaning the plaintiff (suing party) seeks damages from the defendant. The case ends with a money judgment rather than a criminal prosecution and jail time.

Damages are monetary compensation intended to make a party whole. There are two types of damages: economic and non-economic.

Economic damages refer to objective expenses related to a car crash. These damages are easy to document as the plaintiff can prove them with statements, receipts or bank account charges. Examples of economic damages include:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Diminished earning capacity
  • Property damage
  • Needed services during injury recovery, e.g., housekeeping and childcare
  • Mental health treatment
  • Rehabilitation costs (in accidents causing disability)

Noneconomic damages focus more on how the car crash affected a plaintiff’s life and mind. This category is subjective, as car accidents affect individuals differently. It also depends on the severity of the accident and injuries.

These damages include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Less enjoyment of activities due to new limitations
  • Loss of companionship (wrongful death accidents)

Economic and noneconomic damages combine to create a final settlement. Generally, the most severe accidents and injuries command higher settlements, while minor injuries end with smaller dollar amounts.

Laws Affecting a Car Accident Lawsuit

State laws govern the process of car accident lawsuits. These statutes mainly focus on assessing liability and setting reasonable time limits.

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a time limit placed on filing lawsuits. After it expires, a plaintiff can no longer file a lawsuit successfully. If they attempt to do so, the defendant will likely move to dismiss the suit, and the court will grant that request.

The statute of limitations varies from two to four years, depending on the state. It starts counting down from the accident date. For example, if an accident occurs on April 2, 2023, in a state with a two-year limitation, the last day to file a lawsuit is April 2, 2025.

Fault vs. No-Fault Insurance

States offer fault or no-fault insurance systems. Each system offers different ways for plaintiffs to pursue and receive damages.

Twelve states use a no-fault insurance system. They include:

  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah

Under a no-fault system, each driver’s insurance coverage pays for needed medical expenses using personal injury protection, also called PIP. The driver who is at fault then pays for any property damages. These laws only allow an injured party to pursue noneconomic damages if the law classifies an injury as severe. They may do this by listing specific injuries subject to noneconomic damages or a medical expense threshold.

The remaining states use a fault system, where the wronged party can pursue the responsible party for damages. These damages include economic and non-economic damages, and these claims have no medical severity threshold.

Negligence Theories

State laws address how negligence plays into receiving compensation for a car accident. These laws won’t affect a plaintiff if they are blameless in the accident. However, if a plaintiff shares in the fault, these laws may reduce or eliminate recovery.

All car accident lawsuits arise from negligence theory. Generally, negligence is the failure to act with the same care as a reasonable person in the same situation. Drivers, for example, should obey traffic signs. But if a driver runs a stop sign and t-bones another driver, they are likely negligent.

However, if a plaintiff is even slightly at fault, some states will not allow them to receive damages—even if their fault percentage is as low as 1%. These are called contributory negligence states and do not allow any recovery for any plaintiff who contributed to their injuries. Only five states take this approach:

  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia
  • District of Columbia

Most states follow comparative negligence. Under these laws, a plaintiff’s fault will reduce, not eliminate, their recovery. For example, if the court determines a plaintiff was 25% at fault for their accident, their award decreases by 25%. So, a $100,000 award decreases to $75,000.

However, many states require the plaintiff's fault to be below 50% to recover. These are called modified comparative negligence states. So, a plaintiff who is 49% at fault will receive compensation, while a plaintiff determined to be 51% at fault is no longer entitled to an award.

How to File a Civil Suit for a Car Accident

Civil lawsuits are never easy, so most plaintiffs seek to settle rather than endure court procedures. But sometimes, a civil suit is impossible to avoid, especially if there are disputed facts or stonewalling parties. Here is a general overview of how to file a lawsuit after a car crash.

Consult a Personal Injury Lawyer

There should be attorney involvement whenever a lawsuit is possible. For car accidents, personal injury lawyers represent plaintiffs and pursue compensation on their clients’ behalf.

Although the profession tends to attract a questionable reputation, personal injury attorneys specializing in car accidents quickly prove their value. They offer skills, knowledge, and experience that non-lawyers often lack.

By hiring a personal injury attorney, a plaintiff gains specific services, including:

  • Consultation and advice: A car accident is often a jarring experience, especially if it is traumatic. An attorney is often a reassuring voice of reason and a helpful guide when the process overwhelms. Also, many people appreciate having someone available to answer questions.
  • Investigation: Car accidents require evidence, including traffic cam videos, police reports, medical records, witness statements, and expert analysis. A personal injury lawyer can secure this information and find experts when needed.
  • Case management: This aspect is often the most challenging part of a civil matter. Filing a claim and knowing the deadlines is often another full-time job that keeps a case moving forward. An attorney and their skilled staff are more than qualified for these tasks.

The best time to consult an attorney is as soon as possible after an accident. Many attorneys have demanding schedules and heavy caseloads and cannot always take a case with a statute of limitations expiring within a week. Also, getting an attorney involved sooner starts the settlement process and makes it more likely to succeed.

Negotiate with Insurance Company

Many states require potential plaintiffs to try settling a matter first. Therefore, settlement negotiations with the other driver’s insurance company start when the plaintiff mostly recovers from their injuries. Starting there allows the most time to reach a reasonable and fair settlement.

Settlement is often the best course of action. Attorney fees increase as a case proceeds closer to the civil court system and trial. Also, once litigation is involved, a plaintiff will likely not receive their proceeds for nine months to two years. So, settlement can be in the best interest of the plaintiff.

Negotiations start with an attorney sending a demand package to the insurance adjuster. The package includes a persuasive letter backed up by medical records, receipts, bills, and evidence of lost income. Once the adjuster reviews the package, they make an offer, and the back-and-forth continues until agreement is reached.

File the Lawsuit

Lawsuits don’t always arise from failed settlement negotiations. Sometimes, negotiations are going well, but the matter is close to its statute of limitations. So, the attorney files the lawsuit to preserve the plaintiff’s right to take the matter to court.

But there are dire situations where agreement is impossible. Some insurance companies aggressively avoid paying claims, even when a plaintiff has an attorney. They may refuse to budge upwards on a settlement amount until a lawsuit arises.

Also, complex cases with many parties, disputed negligence, and complex damages may require court intervention. The multiple factors and moving parts in these cases often make settlement difficult.


Once the plaintiff files the lawsuit, all parties start discovery, exchanging information during a court case. Each party will use this time to collect documents and evidence from the other. This evidence may strengthen that party’s case or steer them to a quick resolution.

Discovery often involves:

  • Depositions: A deposition is the process of taking verbal testimony under oath and transcribing it into a final document. All statements made during a deposition are subject to an oath of honesty, and witnesses who make untrue statements may be penalized for perjury.
  • Interrogatories: These are written questions that parties respond to in writing. Once completed, they submit the answers to the party who served the interrogatories. Like depositions, this is also sworn testimony.
  • Document Requests: Defendants may also request documents like medical records, therapy notes, pay statements, or injury diaries to obtain more information on a plaintiff’s condition. Likewise, plaintiffs may ask for insurance policies, claims manuals, or defendant statements to help build their case.

Either party can object to a discovery request and not provide the requested information or documents. These objects often arise when requests are overly broad or irrelevant.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 3% of injury cases go to trial. Most settle before reaching that step.

During the trial, both sides present witness testimony and documentation to support their side. Once they finish their arguments, a judge or jury determines liability in the car accident. If the fault lies with the defendant, they assess the damages and finalize them in a judgment.

The defendant can either pay the judgment or appeal it. If they pay, the plaintiff’s attorney uses the proceeds to pay any outstanding medical bills, court expenses, and fees and issues the remaining balance to the client.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • No. Insurance companies require parties to sign a release of liability after settling a car accident claim. This agreement indicates that the settlement amount covers all claims and no further claims against the defendant. The only exception to this rule is if a party settled because a defendant or insurance company acted fraudulently.

  • In 2022, the average car accident settlement was $35,500. Property damage-only claims tend to be lower than claims involving injuries.

  • Personal injury attorneys receive fees on contingency. They do not receive pay unless their client secures a settlement or verdict. The fee is a percentage of the recovery, usually 30 to 40% of the proceeds. That percentage depends on the stage of the case at settlement. For example, an attorney may only charge 30% of the settlement if they settle with the insurance company, with fees increasing to 40% if a case goes to trial.

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