How Fast Will My Case Settle?
By Chuck Geerhart
One of the questions most often asked by clients is “How long will it take to get my case settled?” Good question! Most people who have been injured want to get their claim settled and move on with their lives. The answer varies depending on the severity of injury, whether liability is clear, and whether there is an insurance carrier or company with adequate assets to pay for the damage caused.
When you are injured through the fault of another, you first go through the claims stage. If you can get your case resolved in the claims stage, you’re fortunate, because that’s not the norm in major injury cases. Most insurance carriers want to drag things out so they can hold on to their money longer. Also, they rarely want to pay fair (i.e., full) value right off the bat. They have found that dragging claims out tends to help them settle more cheaply. This is especially true for people without lawyers. Carriers know they can settle those cases far more cheaply, because a lay person has no idea how to value a claim.
In building a claim, it is my job to obtain all your medical records and bills. This can take a few months, since health care providers (especially SF General Hospital) do not make us their priority. It can also take months to get records of Medi-Cal and Medicare payments.
I have settled many cases in the claims stage, but it usually takes at least three to four months.
A major exception to the rule that cases rarely settle quickly in the claims stage is where there are low insurance policy limits, such as a $15,000 state minimum policy in an auto accident case. It does not take much of an injury to max out a $15K policy. But even major injury cases can settle quickly if there is the right policy limit. Example: a broken tibia with surgery, and the driver has a $100K policy. That claim should settle quickly for the policy limit, unless the driver has lots of monetary assets. (In general, chasing after the negligent person’s personal assets is a waste of time, because he doesn’t want to pay, and he can declare bankruptcy if you get an above limits judgment.)
If you have been seriously injured and had surgery, you will take many months to recover. Your level of recovery dictates when the case is ready to settle. You never want to settle prematurely, because when you do settle, you will sign a release of all claims forever and for all time. So if there is any possibility you might need more surgery, you cannot settle until you know your prognosis accurately.
If your case cannot settle at the claims stage, either because of liability issues or the carrier is being cheap, the only way to get justice is to move on to litigation. Then you truly have a case, i.e., a filed lawsuit. In most California counties, it will take about a year and a half to actually commence a jury trial. Fortunately for you, 97% of all civil cases settle, some early, some on the eve of trial. It is not uncommon for a filed lawsuit to settle within about six months after the carrier realizes you’re serious.
The takeaway: if you want to maximize your settlement, you need to be patient and prepared to have your claim take several months to a year or more to resolve.