Car Accident Settlement Process for California

There are few states where it is more important to know the facts about car accident settlements and their timelines than California. With over 35 million registered motor vehicles (not including nearly a million motorcycles), 90% of households owning at least one car, and the resulting traffic density California is famous for, traffic collisions are bound to happen. With numbers such as over 250,000 people injured during around 180,000 accidents in recent years, it is clear that, despite our state’s excellent safety measures and traffic laws, injurious collisions are still relatively common. If the unthinkable does happen and one is a victim of such a collision, it is important to be aware of your rights regarding compensation for necessary medical care, lost wages and other such considerations.

Do I Need to Report an Accident to Receive Compensation?

Most definitely! In fact, even if you are not planning on seeking compensation, California law requires you to report vehicular accidents in which someone is injured. This also applies if either party has suffered property damage of $1,000 or more. The report must be made within 10 days of the accident, either by yourself or through your lawyer, insurance agent or broker using the Traffic Accident Report Form (Form SR-1). Failure to do so can result in liability for a misdemeanor or even felony hit-and-run charges (the latter if an injury has occurred).

When Am I Entitled to Compensation?

If you are injured in an accident, and it is shown to be another person’s fault due to an unlawful act, an intentional act, or negligence on their part, you are most likely entitled to some manner of compensation. For example, if a person was speeding and unable to stop before hitting your car, ran a red light or other such traffic violation, you can certainly claim compensation. In cases of road rage or aggressive driving, their intentional actions will be cited as reasons for damages (the amount of compensation deemed fair). Further, a person may not have broken a specific law or have hit you purposefully, but if they have clearly been negligent (not paying attention, driving a car with faulty brakes, etc.) this will also likely result in a successful compensation claim.

An important point to note is that the person at fault does not have to be the driver of another car. If you are the passenger in a car, and the driver of that same car causes you to be injured in an accident through the same guidelines as above, you can also claim compensation in this case.

Do I Have to Go to Court to Get a Settlement?

No – in fact, parties are generally encouraged to reach a settlement to avoid lengthy court cases. After an accident in which you suffered injury or property damage, you and your insurance company will attempt to receive fair compensation from the party at fault and their respective insurance company. Of course, the insurance companies will try to pay as little money as possible. Occasionally, negotiations will result in an agreement that is pleasing to both parties. However, especially in situations where the fair amount is a considerable sum, the party at fault and their insurer often refuse to pay anywhere close this amount. At this point, you may choose to file a lawsuit. A full legal proceeding, however, is long and expensive both for the parties involved and the state – that is why you are actually required in California to participate in a settlement conference before proceeding to trial. Even if a case does proceed to trial, at any point in the proceedings, a settlement can be reached. The majority of such cases are in fact resolved through settlement. How Long Will It Take for My Settlement to Be Completed?

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to this question. At the very least, it will take a number of months – the worst-case scenario, however, is several years. One thing you can be sure of is it will not be immediate. This is largely because the costs that are being reimbursed must be fully calculated before a settlement is reached. If then, the issue is solely property damage, the process is much quicker. Repairs are unlikely to take more than a couple months and an estimate can often be used before they are complete. However, when injuries are involved, the immediate medical treatment must be completed before a settlement can be reached. This is the treatment that addresses the injuries sustained, up until where any further treatment will not specifically improve or treat these injuries. This, depending on the severity of said injuries, can take a considerable amount of time.

Remember, in cases where the compensation requested is a larger amount, the insurance company of the liable party is unlikely to immediately agree to the sum. When an insurance company’s final offer is truly unreasonable, it is often necessary to begin legal proceedings, extending the period of time before a settlement is finally reached. The worst case scenario is certainly one where no settlement occurs and an entire court case ensues – this, more often than not, can last in excess of a year.

How Can I Pay My Medical Costs Before a Settlement Is Reached?

Unfortunately, this situation is like many where there is a dispute. Even if you almost certainly will be receiving compensation, you are going to have to provide the payment for your initial medical treatment up front and be reimbursed after the settlement is reached. This is a perfect example of  why, in order to avoid paying out of pocket, individuals are always encouraged to have robust and up-to-date auto insurance and medical overage. If you do, there are a few options:

  • Health Insurance – This is, in most cases, the method that will be the most efficient and cause the least ‘headaches.’ Be it your own chosen health coverage or that through an employer, your health insurance will generally cover all treatment by accredited professionals (‘alternative’ treatments may not qualify, however). After a successful settlement, these costs will be recouped.
  • No Fault Coverage/”Med Pay” – As an optional part of your policy, this type of coverage will pay your medical bills up to a certain amount, even if you are the party found liable in the accident. However, these policies usually offer relatively low payouts ($5000 is common), and realistically are supplemental rather than a way to cover all of your medical expenses prior to a settlement.
  • Medicare – In general, using Medicare here is recommended as a last resort or a supplementary source of funding. This is because Medicare is considered a secondary payer to no-fault and liability insurance or employer group health plans (under the MSP provisions). In short, this means that if you have these other methods of payment, you must approach them before applying for Medicare coverage. If you do not have either of these, Medicare will cover many costs – however, with often large deductibles and co-insurance amounts, you may end up still having to pay a fair amount out of pocket. Also, Medicare is known to be quite aggressive and inflexible when seeking repayment, whether you have won a settlement or not.
  • Doctor’s Lien – Many people are unaware that, as in other financial situations, some doctors will treat you on a lien – that is, deferred payment until your settlement payment is received. While this can be a godsend, you should never sign a lien without having a lawyer look over the agreement. Further, like Medicare, whether you win a settlement that covers all your costs, one that covers only part, or none at all, you will still be liable for all medical costs incurred at the end of your treatment and the case.

Should none of these methods be available to you, you may have no choice but to pay out of pocket. It is recommended you pursue one of these other methods, as the strain of paying out of your pocket puts the other party in a very advantageous position where they can force you to take far less than you deserve. A knowledgeable accident lawyer can help you choose the best option for you prior to securing your rights to a fair settlement.

How Much Can I Expect to Receive in a Settlement

Like the time it takes for your settlement to be completed, this can vary wildly. As a starting point, California Civil Code states that the damages received must be “reasonable.” This means that the amount paid to the injured party must be in line with the injuries and property damage sustained. No matter how clearly the other party is at fault, if you demand $5 million dollars and you suffered a broken taillight and a sprained ankle, you can be sure you will not receive that amount.

There are some very rough basic guidelines, however. If your injury is not a ‘major’ one but considerable enough that the healing process requires a doctor’s attention and weeks or a couple months of healing (e.g. whiplash, a broken arm, etc) you can expect so see anything from a couple thousand to an amount in the tens of thousands. Higher up on the scale is any sort of spinal injury. As these are notoriously difficult to treat and very regularly result in prolonged issues, $50,000+ is quite common. Things begin to get even more serious when considering Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). Considering the fact that the victim’s lifestyle is irreversibly changed, and the detrimental effect it can have on entire families, hundreds of thousands or even upwards of a million dollars (should the injury be severe) is not uncommon. Similar amounts are often awarded in cases where the victim suffers partial or complete paralysis.

How Much Time Do I Have to Make a Claim for Compensation?

Like many legal issues, there is a statute of limitations concerning how long you can wait before filing a claim. The general answer is quite simple: two years. However, you should always start the process immediately after an accident. Following the first steps of seeking immediate medical attention and reporting the accident within 10 days, you should quickly retain legal representation. Your lawyer not only knows the best course of action for you to take regarding up-front payment of your medical bills and what sort of settlement you should seek, he or she is also experienced in keeping track of the timelines involved – not just the two-year limit but the timelines of the different stages therein. A crafty insurance company that knows it will be on the hook for thousands or more will drag their feet and ‘play games’ by keeping you waiting in hopes of a fair payout – then before you know it, the time to file suit will have passed and their offer will drop dramatically. A skilled accident lawyer will see the signs far before the statute of limitations expires, and take the necessary steps to protect your rights.

California’s Premiere Car Accident Settlement Lawyers

With offices in Los Angeles and San Diego (in addition to a thriving Las Vegas practice), Quirk Law Group is one of Southern California’s most successful and experienced law firms. Despite this success, Quirk Law retains a hands-on and personal approach to all of their cases. We understand the stress and confusion that comes with an accident – and as a result, expertly assist you through the entire process. Immediately after the accident, we are there to help you take all the right steps in order to stay on the right side of the law, as well as collect all the information that may be needed later on. We help you deal with both insurance companies and then figure out the best way to cover your medical costs while awaiting settlement. Finally, we will work with you to come up with a fair settlement amount until you are compensated. If you have been in an accident, contact us today and let us help you get the compensation you deserve!