Personal Injury

When Can I Expect a Settlement in My Car Accident Case?

By Carol DiBari, Attorney
Most car accident cases settle before trial, but whether they settle in a matter of weeks, months or years depends on a few key factors.

It may be true that most car accident cases settle, but the only car accident claim you're probably worried about is your own. And some of your biggest injury claim questions likely involve timing: at what stage in the process is a car accident settlement most likely? And when will you receive the actual settlement check?

Factors Affecting a Car Accident Settlement

Let's look at the factors that most often affect the timing of settlement in a car accident claim.

Whether you hire an attorney or handle the claim yourself

Car insurance companies will usually offer a low-ball settlement shortly after receipt of a car insurance claim, in an effort to resolve the matter quickly and (for them) cost-effectively. Once you've hired a car accident attorney, however, the insurance company will likely adjust its approach, knowing the attorney isn't likely to sign off on a quick low-ball deal. Ultimately, this is likely a good thing for your case, since your attorney will likely get you a higher settlement. It just means you may have to wait a little longer. Learn more about how an attorney can make a difference in your injury case.

The facts surrounding the accident

Where fault for the car accident is clear and undisputed, the at-fault driver's insurer will likely be motivated to settle, and could come to the table with a fair offer early on. However, where fault is in dispute, the insurance companies will have to conduct a thorough investigation, which could add weeks or months (not to mention contentiousness) to settlement negotiations.

The nature and extent of your injuries

Settlement amounts are very closely tied to damages suffered. If injuries are minor, the car insurance company will likely look to settle the case quickly. If injuries are more extensive and lengthy medical treatment is necessary, the insurance company will probably request detailed documentation before making a settlement offer. Learn more about damages in a car accident case and common car accident injuries.

The court’s ability to schedule a hearing and trial date

If you've filed a car accident lawsuit, the court’s calendar may also affect the timing of a settlement. If a court’s calendar is backed up, hearing and trial dates might get pushed back by weeks or months, delaying the resolution of the case, and possibly leading to a settlement by someone who has grown tired of waiting.

How a Settlement is Reached

The mechanics of most car accident settlements are very similar, starting with the demand letter, followed by negotiations (possibly mediation), agreement, and the drawing of a check and settlement papers.

The Demand Letter

The car accident demand letter is your first and best opportunity to present your case to the insurance company, including the facts of the accident and details around your medical treatment. The initial amount demanded is usually much higher than the settlement you would be willing to accept, so that you or your attorney have room to negotiate.

Negotiations and Mediation

The insurance company will typically respond to your demand letter with a low-ball offer, which gives them room to negotiate. This is why you should never accept the first offer from the insurance company! You should instead decline the initial offer in writing, reiterating the strengths of your case and making a counter-demand that is lower than your initial demand, but higher than the insurance company’s initial offer. This sort of back-and-forth will continue until both sides can reach an acceptable settlement amount. Get more personal injury settlement tips.

Acceptance and Settlement Papers

When you have finally received an acceptable settlement offer, make sure that you have it in writing, that it will cover any necessary future medical treatment, and that it will leave you with a reasonable amount after deducting your attorney’s fees (as set by the contingency fee agreement you entered).

After you accept the offer, the insurance company will require you to sign a “release” that prohibits you from pursuing any other claims related to the accident. If your case is already active in the court system, when the settlement is reached you will have to discontinue the case. Once you have signed the release and/or discontinued the case, the insurance company will cut the check and send it to you or your attorney in short order, usually within a couple of weeks.

Things to Think About

The most important variable in settling a car accident case is you. If you choose to take a quick settlement, you may end up with some fast cash, but you also might not be getting fair compensation for your injuries. The more serious your injuries, the more seriously you should take the settlement process. After all but the most minor car accidents, it's usually a wise move to discuss the ins and outs of your potential claim with a car accident attorney. Remember, once you accept a settlement, you can't go back and ask for more money, and you can't file a lawsuit, even if it turns out your injuries are worse than you first thought.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2018 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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