One of the most frequently asked questions from our personal injury clients is, “How long is this going to take?"
Sadly, there is no guaranteed timeline because the process depends on a number of factors. The best way to answer this question is to explain the stages of a claim that must happen before that claim can be resolved.
Stages of a Claim
There are several parts or stages of a personal injury claim leading to its conclusion. The first stage depends on the length of a client's recovery from their injuries. The end of this stage is reached either when the client has recovered and is discharged from medical treatment, or when the client has reached the point where, in the opinion of their doctor, the client has reached their maximum recovery and whatever residual problems the client still has are essentially permanent. Doctors call this the point of "maximum medical improvement" or MMI.
When a client is expected to make a complete recovery, we prefer to start negotiations after our client has been discharged from medical care and the client is satisfied that they have recovered from their injuries. We do this for the protection of the client, because once there has been a settlement agreement, the case is considered concluded. If we and our client agree on a settlement with the insurance carrier and then later our client's injuries cause further problems, it is too late to make a further recovery for those additional problems.
Preparing a Submittal Package
In a typical personal injury case, after our client has been discharged from medical care, the next stage is preparing the case for submission to the insurance company. Once the client notifies us they have been discharged, often it takes about 30 to 60 days for us to secure the final bills and records from the medical providers and to confirm in writing from the client's employer any missed time from work. The legal assistant working on the case will then prepare a package that consists of documents supporting and explaining the client's financial damages and other losses. This collection of documents is often called the "submittal package". At this time our attorneys usually review the case and the submittal package to determine a "value" of the claim within a range.
After attorneys review the submittal package, the next stage is negotiation. It often takes 4 to 8 weeks for the insurance adjuster to review the submittal package, complete any investigation or medical review, and obtain authority to negotiate from their supervisor or claims manager. Normally we follow up with the insurance carrier about 30 days after the submittal package was delivered to find out how the review is progressing or if it has been completed. Once the insurance company makes their initial offer, we then make a counter offer and the process goes from there. The negotiation process can take one week to several months, depending on the complexity of the case. Each offer is discussed with the client, and their permission to reject any offer is communicated to the insurance company. Most of the time, an acceptable offer can be obtained from the insurance company.
However, occasionally an acceptable offer cannot be obtained by negotiations alone. The insurance adjuster may not see the value of the claim as we do, or the adjuster's supervisor thinks we will settle for less than the value. For whatever reason, there are instances in which the insurance company will not make an acceptable offer by negotiations alone. When that happens, we may have to progress to the next stage, which is litigation. Sometimes litigation is the result of recovery taking an unusually long time.
If litigation is started and a lawsuit is filed, it does not mean the case will definitely go to trial. Of the cases that our attorneys file, approximately 90% are still settled before trial. Litigation is usually just a step in negotiations. We don't want to file suit if we can settle the claim without litigation, but if the insurance company won't offer fair compensation, then filing suit is our only option.
Because of the variables in the stages of resolving a personal injury claim, there is no fixed answer as to how long a case can take to conclude. The most influential variables are the time it takes our client to complete their recovery from the injuries and the amount of time before the insurance company will make an acceptable settlement offer. Because any settlement is final, and you want to be sure you know the full health effects of your injuries, you should never rush a settlement before the case is ready to be properly submitted.
 As part of a settlement, you must sign a "release" which is the written document stating that you are giving up all your legal rights against the person who caused your injuries or their insurance company. The release is what you give the insurance company in exchange for the money they are offering in settlement. The release normally states that you understand this is the end of your claim forever if you accept the settlement money and sign the release.
 Sometimes a client is discharged from medical care when they still have some minor symptoms and their recovery is not complete, but the doctor thinks the client will go on to make a full recovery without any further medical treatment. While we are obtaining the documents to make the submittal, and while we are negotiating, hopefully the client will go on to complete their recovery. If they don't fully recover, or if they have a relapse, then we can suspend negotiations until any additional treatment is concluded.
 Determining the correct value or value range for a particular case is perhaps one of the most difficult activities an attorney performs on your case. Although only a small percentage of cases actually go to trial, the results in those cases determine the "value" of similar cases. From a careful analysis of the important factors in your case that would affect a jury, our skilled and experienced trial attorneys can determine what an appropriate settlement in your case would be. Then we attempt to obtain that amount or more in artful negotiations.
 If a claim can be resolved without litigation, then the maximum period is usually two years. The reason for this is because in Virginia there is a two year statute of limitations that applies to most personal injury cases. This means that most of the time a personal injury case has to either be settled or a Complaint has to be filed (which is the way litigation is initiated) within two years of the date of the incident. Most claims are settled long before that time.