Timeline & Overview of a Utah Personal Injury Case
This overview is meant to provide you with a broad understanding of what to expect in your Utah personal injury case. The timeline for personal injury cases differs widely depending on many different factors, but this graph below (which correlates with the subjects in bold on this page) should give you a general idea of what to expect.
Meetings with your Attorney
You will have several meetings with your attorney before you proceed with your case. You and your attorney will be working very closely together for the next while, so it’s important that you trust your personal injury attorney and feel confident in his or her abilities. Your attorney will be talking with you extensively about the “evidence” in your case, and the two of you will work together to gather all of the evidence needed for trial and develop a strategy for winning your case. CLICK HERE to see what evidence you will need to gather before trial.
In Utah, personal injury lawsuits officially begin when a Complaint is filed by the plaintiff (the individual suing). The Complaint is a document that is given to the defendant and filed with the court; it briefly informs the court why it should grant relief to the suing party, and what kind of relief the party is seeking (e.g. $100,000 in money damages). Click here to see a sample complaint.
After a Complaint has been given to the defendant, the defendant usually has 20 days to file an “Answer.” An Answer will either admit or deny the allegations in the Complaint, and it will assert any defenses the defendant has to those allegations. Click here to see a sample answer.
Discovery is a time period in a lawsuit which provides both sides of the case the opportunity to uncover evidence that can be used to either prove or disprove your case. The opposing side will want to find out as much about you as possible—any previous personal injury, your lifestyle, your occupation, how much money you make, etc. Your attorney will want to know about all evidence regardless of whether it is beneficial to your position. Keeping evidence from your attorney because you want your case to appear stronger than it really is is like keeping symptoms from your doctor because you want to appear more healthy—neither the doctor nor the attorney can attack the real problem if they don’t know exactly what the problem is. Below you will find a breakdown of the discovery process as well as real examples of each type of discovery.
The discovery process can include:
- Interrogatories. Interrogatories are a list of questions that enable attorneys to uncover both general and specific information from the opposing party. Click here to see sample interrogatories. In a Utah personal injury case, each party can present 20 interrogatories to the other party if the suit is for $300,000 or more, and 10 interrogatories if the suit is for $50,000 – $300,000. The opposing party has 28 days to respond. Click here to see Utah law regarding interrogatories in a Utah personal injury case.
- Requests for Production of Documents. The court allows each party to see documents and other evidence for the purposes of inspecting it, copying it, testing it, etc. These requests could be for evidence in the other party’s possession, including: witness statements, drawings, photographs, graphs, recorded material, digital material, physical evidence such as pieces of a car, etc. You can see sample requests for production here.
- Depositions. A deposition is where either side’s attorney interviews an individual (a witness to the case, the plaintiff or defendant, etc.) and that interview is taken under oath and is recorded. It is similar to what someone would experience if they were on the witness stand in the courtroom, except depositions usually take place inside a law office. The attorney will ask questions about the accident, injuries, medical treatment, etc. and all questions and answers will be recorded by an individual then present. The transcript from the deposition will later be used in trial. Click here to see an excerpt from a deposition.
- Use of Experts. Attorneys often use an expert (one with specialized skill or knowledge) to help them understand all the key issues in the case, and to testify at trial in a way that helps the jury understand key points of evidence that aren’t readily discernible. For example, in a car accident case where the point of impact is in debate, your attorney may hire an accident reconstruction expert to reconstruct the accident in order to determine at what point impact actually occurred. The expert will then write a report and testify at trial as to his findings. In a medical malpractice case where the doctor is arguing he didn’t do anything wrong, your attorney may hire a medical expert to testify as to proper protocol that should’ve been followed and whether, in his opinion, your doctor followed that protocol.
- Medical Evaluations. A party—usually the defendant—can seek an independent medical evaluation of the opposing party. This is used to assess injuries, disabilities, and conditions of the injured person. Law regarding physical and mental examinations of a party in a Utah personal injury lawsuit can be found here.
- Requests for Admission. These are used to force the opposing party to admit certain facts related to your case. Click here to see example requests for admission.
Pre-Trial Settlement Conference
The court will usually direct both parties to have pre-trial conferences. This is an opportunity for the judge to hear what the case is about, what the issues are, and if there are certain issues that need to be resolved before trial. These conferences also provide attorneys the opportunity to discuss discovery, hammer out a timeline for the remainder of the lawsuit, and to try and settle the case before trial.
Motions are requests made by either side asking the court to approve a certain action, or to prevent a certain action. For example, motions can be made to: prevent the opposing party from providing certain evidence at trial (such as financial records, or certain documents kept by your attorney), force the other side to provide certain evidence that they are keeping from you, prevent certain witnesses from testifying, allow inspection of a piece of property, etc. There is a laundry list of motions that can be filed with the court—essentially a motion can be any request the attorneys can think up and put down on paper. There are also more common, traditional motions such as a “motion to dismiss,” which is a motion asking the court to throw out the entire case because certain legal requirements were not met when the lawsuit was first filed; or a “motion for default judgment,” which is a motion asking the court to rule in favor, usually of the suing party, because the defendant failed to show up to court or respond to the lawsuit. Click here to see a motion to exclude certain evidence in a Utah personal injury case.
Sometimes your case may be referred to mediation (sometimes called “alternative dispute resolution,” or ADR) by the court, and sometimes mediation takes place because both parties agree to it. Too often attorneys put forth little effort towards mediation when, in fact, mediation can be a very effective way to resolve a case. Mediation is when both parties and their attorneys discuss the terms by which they’d be willing to resolve the case in the presence of a mediator (e.g. the plaintiff offers to drop the lawsuit if defendant pays the plaintiff $250,000). A mediator is usually an attorney or former judge that is familiar with your type of lawsuit, and facilitates a discussion between parties that is much more relaxed than in a courtroom setting. If an agreement is reached in mediation, that agreement generally must be written and signed by both parties before it is official and enforceable. Click here to read more about mediating a Utah personal injury lawsuit.
Settlement offers (e.g. defendant offers you $500,000 to drop the case) can be offered by either party and can come at any time during a lawsuit, but almost always occur before a trial begins. Many defendants (especially insurance companies) will attempt to settle a possible lawsuit before the injured person ever hires an attorney; this is generally because the defendant assumes the suing party doesn’t know how much their injury is actually worth and wants to settle the case at a fraction of the cost of the injured person’s actual damages (pain, suffering, medical expenses, loss of enjoyment of life, lost wages are all things considered when determining the value of a lawsuit. Click here to read about how much your lawsuit is worth).
Factors to Consider Before Making or Accepting Settlement Offers. Before making or accepting a settlement offer there are a number of factors to consider. For example, consider the financial resources of the defendant. If the defendant is an individual that doesn’t have a lot of money, it may be wise to settle your lawsuit early on because as the lawsuit continues the financial resources of the defendant will continue to dwindle. You should also consider the strength of your admissible evidence. Everything a plaintiff knows about their lawsuit isn’t necessarily going to be admissible at trial; there may be certain documents, witnesses, or testimony that the judge will not allow the jury to hear.
Have a Bottom Line. It’s a good idea to have a few goals in mind early in the lawsuit to help guide your expectations down the road. Ask yourself questions such as: What is the reason I’m filing this lawsuit? What’s the best case scenario, here? How much money would I be happy walking away with, even if it’s not ideal? These kinds of questions will help you keep the right perspective when entering settlement negotiations, which can often be emotionally charged. Click here to see a sample settlement offer.
If there is no settlement agreement, then a trial will ensue. Injury cases are usually presented to a jury. In a Utah personal injury case the jury will decide if the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injuries and, if so, how much money the plaintiff should receive. A jury trial has the following aspects:
- Jury Selection. This is where both sides determine which individuals will make up the jury. Both plaintiff and defendant can exclude jurors from the jury based on either a preemptory challenge, or a challenge for cause. A preemptory challenge is basically a freebee—it allows either side to exclude a juror for any reason they see fit. Removing a juror “for cause” is to exclude an individual from the jury based on a showing by that individual that they are unable to perform their civic duties as a juror (for example, their inability to decide a case fairly, or a prior relationship with one of the parties). At Red Law, your Utah personal injury attorney will always undergo research in order to profile jurors most likely to decide a case in your favor and then work to fill a jury fitting those parameters. Click here for sample questions that were asked in a jury trial.
- Opening Statements. After a jury is selected, the attorney on each side will present an overview of their version of the case to the jury, and forecast what they believe the evidence will show.
- Plaintiff’s Case in Chief. After opening statements, the plaintiff will present all of its evidence in an attempt to convince the jury that the defendant is liable for their injuries. This includes a showing that the defendant is liable under the applicable law for the plaintiff’s injuries and an accurate account of the plaintiff’s damages, or the amount of money the plaintiff should be awarded. The plaintiff shows all of this through the use of witness testimony, documents, video recordings, audio recordings, records—or in short, all the “evidence.” While the plaintiff is presenting their case in chief, the defendant will have the chance to cross examine witnesses (ask questions to the plaintiff’s witnesses in court), object (e.g. object to the plaintiff showing a certain document to the jury), and make motions. Click here to learn more about motions.
- Defendant’s Case in Chief. After the Plaintiff has presented its case in chief, the defense will now put on all if its evidence in order to convince the jury that the defendant is not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, or alternatively, the defendant is only liable for some of the costs associated with plaintiff’s injuries. There are several common defenses used in a Utah personal injury case, such as: plaintiff was being negligent when they were injured, and therefore the defendant should not have to bear the full cost of plaintiff’s injuries; plaintiff was aware of the risks involved in the activity which caused their injury and nevertheless proceeded with that activity, and therefore defendant shouldn’t have to pay any of the costs associated with plaintiff’s injuries; while defendant’s (often a doctor or nurse) actions did injure plaintiff, the injury was not foreseeable and the defendant didn’t act in an unacceptable manner. The same rights the defendant had during the plaintiff’s case in chief are now afforded to the plaintiff during the defense’s case in chief (e.g. to cross examine witnesses and object). Click here for a list of common objections to evidence.
- Closing Arguments. These arguments are calculated to point out to the jury in very plain terms why the specific evidence presented should be viewed in favor of the plaintiff or defendant.
- Jury Instructions. After closing arguments the judge will instruct the jury as to the law that should be applied. This law, along with other jury instructions, is put into a packet and given to the jury for reference. The jury’s charge is to think about all of the evidence presented to them, apply that evidence to the law, and decide if the defendant is or is not liable for the Plaintiff’s injuries in full or in part.
- Jury Deliberations & Verdict. After the jury has been instructed, they are removed from the courtroom to discuss the case and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the defendant is liable for plaintiff’s injuries, and how much the defendant will have to pay. In a Utah personal injury case, a jury’s decision must be made by at least three-fourths majority of the jurors (unlike a criminal trial, where a unanimous verdict is required).
After a settlement agreement has been signed, or after you win your jury trial, the losing party is legally obligated to pay you the damages agreed upon or awarded by the jury. Payment is usually made in the form of a check and given to your Utah personal injury attorney who will deduct expenses (usually attorney’s fees and possibly other case specific expenses) and then give you the remaining amount. Occasionally a defendant refuses to pay the plaintiff the money owed and the plaintiff must take additional steps to secure payment. Your attorney can help you take proper action to:
- Levy the defendant’s accounts. If a defendant has money available to them (e.g. in a bank account) a plaintiff can force payment out of those accounts.
- Garnish wages of an individual. If an individual defendant (not a business) does not have a large sum of money that will satisfy a plaintiff’s entire judgment, but has wages coming in from their employment, a plaintiff can take a certain amount of those wages every month to satisfy the judgment.
- Put judgment liens on property. If a plaintiff puts a lien on the property of a defendant, the plaintiff usually has the right to either take possession of defendant’s property equal to the amount of the judgment, or to receive the proceeds from the sale of defendant’s property (e.g. plaintiff places a lien on the defendant’s house, when the house is sold, proceeds from the sale go directly to the plaintiff).
Click here for more on collecting money from someone who owes you money.
Bench Trial (Trial before a Judge not a Jury)
A plaintiff can waive their right to a jury trial and can opt to have their trial before a judge. If a plaintiff does this, all of the information discussed in the subjects above still applies, but it all happens before a judge instead of a jury. Choosing to have a bench trial instead of a jury trial may be advisable when the defendant was obviously liable for plaintiff’s injuries. Most attorneys agree that juries are fickle things and can occasionally render very surprising decisions. If the defendant is clearly liable, but the law or the facts are complex and difficult to understand, it may be a safer bet to try the case in front of a judge who is more likely to understand the case and render a decision in compliance with the law.