Personal injury lawyers like to spit out legal terms. "We sent the defense a 998 offer to compromise." "I warned the Plaintiff's attorneys that I will have to file a MSJ." "Before the CMC, I need to run down to central to file an Oppo." I know. It can get confusing.
Some terms like "settlement" are widely recognized, but the mechanics of a settlement in a personal injury context is not well known. This blog post will go over a "settlement" in greater detail.
A settlement can occur prior to, during, or after a lawsuit is filed. Most motor vehicle accidents, for example, involve automobile insurance. When a person is injured as the result of another motorist, he or she will make a claim with the automobile insurance of the other motorist.
Once the insurance is involved, a claim could be "settled" before a lawsuit is filed. A civil lawsuit can be filed when there exists a "cause of action" against another individual, or entity. "Negligence" is the cause of action most utilized in automobile accidents. The other driver may have ran a red light, and thus been negligent. The negligence resulted in injuries to the plaintiff, who filed the lawsuit against the driver who ran the red light -- and the bad driver then becomes the defendant in the lawsuit.
But again, it might not be necessary to file a lawsuit. The negligent driver's insurance will contact the injured person to try to "settle" the claim. A number of factors go into the decision of when it is appropriate to settle a claim. Experienced attorneys can advise on when a settlement would be prudent.
As an illustration, let's say that it makes sense for the claimant to settle a claim. The other driver has no assets; he also has a low policy limit, $15,000 in bodily injury liability. So far, the claimant has over $8,000 in medical damages, and continues to experience excruciating pain. The insurance company, recognizing that the claim likely exceeds $15,000, offers to "settle" the claim for the policy limit of $15,000. Claimant accepts. What happens?
Well, the claimant must execute a release of all claims against the negligent driver, in exchange for a sum of money, which was in this hypothetical $15,000. A release prevents the claimant from filing a lawsuit against the negligent driver. No lawsuit was filed, but a "settlement" was reached.
After a lawsuit has been filed, "settlements" get a little more complicated. Automobile insurance will always provides liability coverage for a negligent driver. Insurance also pays for the cost of litigation, meaning that: if the negligent driver is sued, the insurer will pay an attorney to defend the negligent driver in the lawsuit.
Therefore, a settlement will involve a new party once a lawsuit has been filed: the defense attorney. The defense attorney represents the negligent driver, but answers to the insurance company. Once a defense attorney reaches an agreement with the plaintiff's attorney (and is authorized by the client), a few things must be done before settlement.
The defense attorney, or plaintiff's attorney, must file a "Notice of Settlement" with the court. This ensures that future court dates are vacated. Then, a release is executed, which, as explained above, will be a payment in exchange for the plaintiff to forfeit his cause of action against the negligent driver. Once payment has been satisfied, the plaintiff will file a "Request for Dismissal with Prejudice." Once a dismissal has been filed, the case is closed forever.
Settlements will always involve consideration, something in exchange for something else. Predominantly it is a sum of money in exchange for the injured party to forego pursuing money from the negligent party. It can occur at different stages of a claim, and will require different steps, but it will always result in the conclusion of a case.
Before you, a friend, or loved one settles a claim, it is important to contact an attorney to seek advice. One should not be quick to rush to a decision.