Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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The likelihood of going to court over a car accident depends on whether you and the defendant can come to an agreement about the value of your case. In determining the value of a car accident case, there are several factors that come into play, inluding: special damages, general damages, trial costs, and the risk of having a jury decide for you.

No-Fault States

While most states allow lawsuits for any car accident, there are a few states, called no-fault states that only allow a car accident lawsuit in serious cases. In these states, if your accident is not considered serious enough, you may collect lost wages and medical expenses only to the limits of your insurance policy. In the majority of states, however, you can file a lawsuit even with relatively minor damages.

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Determining Case Value

Many factors determine case value. Because unquantifiable injuries are among these factors, the two sides will often disagree on an exact value. But quantifiable damages, or special damages, are easier to determine. Such damages as medical expenses (hospital care, physician follow-ups, ER services, etc), lost income for missing work due to injuries, or damaged property, can be monetarily valued and proved much easier than pain and suffering.

Less-quantifiable damages can include permanent disfigurement or disability, loss of ability to do household chores, loss of educational or recreational activities, or emotional injuries like pain and suffering or depression. Loss of sexual enjoyment, or loss of consortium, can also be considered. These are among the type of damages known as general damages.

Special vs. General Damages

To determine the value of emotional injuries, or general damages, the defendant’s insurance company will usually calculate what they believe the case to be worth by using a specific formula. This includes adding up all of the special damages, which are the medical expenses of the case, and multiplying that total by a number from one to five, but sometimes as high as ten. If the plaintiff’s injuries are relatively minor, the insurance company will use a low number, and in extreme cases where death or severe disability resulted, they will use a higher number. It is here, when negotiating the value of your case, that your attorney comes into play.

It is important to remember that some states have a cap on general damages. This means that even in extreme cases, you will not be able to recover past what the state statute allows.

Comparative vs. Contributory Fault

Another important factor in determining case value is the percentage that each party is at fault. This factor will vary depending on whether your state uses a comparative fault, or a contributory fault system. If your state is among the majority that use a comparative fault system, your percentage of fault will be factored into the total damage formula number. For example, if the value of your case is set at $100,000, but you are also determined to be 60% at fault (based on facts and witnesses), you will only recover $40,000. This may seem harsh, but if you were in the above situation in a contributory fault state, you would not be able to recover anything. Contributory fault states generally bar plaintiff recovery if the plaintiff is more than 50% at fault.

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To Settle or Not to Settle

In addition to the above factors that go into setting a value on your case, your attorney must also weigh the risk of bringing your case to trial. Settling a case out of court can save money, and your attorney will take this into consideration during negotiations with the defendant’s insurance company. For example, if your attorney believes your case is worth $60,000, but the other side is willing to settle for $45,000, this may be a number worth agreeing to if it means avoiding time and money in trial. In addition to the expense, there is also the risk that a jury will have a different and lower case value in mind than your attorney. A good way to get a neutral perspective on the case is through mediation. In mediation, a neutral third party who knows the law will give you their opinion on what the case is worth. This will give both parties a better idea of what they could face at trial.

As you can see, there is a lot to take into consideration when determining accident case values. An experienced personal injury attorney can help guide through the entire process and ensure you get the most for your damages.

For related information about auto accident lawsuits, see:
Getting the Best Car Accident Settlement
Do You Need an Attorney to Help File Your Car Accident Claim?