By Francis M. Smith
After a serious car accident, it can often feel as though your normal life has come to a screeching halt: you may spend time in the hospital having your injuries diagnosed and treated, and you may not be able to return to work right away even after you are discharged. Even worse, the pain of your injuries can make every moment stretch into weeks of agony, immobility or discomfort. However, there are several ways in which time continues to tick by persistently – bills don’t stop piling up while you’re unable to work, and the administrative deadlines for your injury claim draw closer. Having a clear understanding of the claim resolution process can help you avoid the feeling that the opportunity to be fairly compensated for your injuries is slipping through your fingers.
The absolute most important deadline in your injury case is the statute of limitations. This is the amount of time that the state of New Jersey gives you to pursue a lawsuit, and for personal injury cases, that length of time is two years from the date of the accident. This is a hard deadline, though there are some exceptions. A minor lacks the ability to pursue a claim on his own behalf, so the statute of limitations for cases in which the plaintiff is a child extends until two years after the injured youth turns 18. (Note that this extension does not apply to related claims for compensation put forth by the minor’s parents, such as claims for lost wages or out of pocket medical expense while caring for the injured child.) If the negligent defendant is a government employee or agency, additional deadlines exist: a Notice of Claim must be filed within 90 days in order to pursue compensation from any New Jersey state or municipal body.
Legal deadlines are not the only factor that affects the timeline of your claim. These time limits affect your ability to file a lawsuit, and most injury cases will resolve in a settlement agreement outside of court. However, a willingness to sue shows the insurance company that you are serious about pursuing fair compensation, and going to court is an option you need to preserve in case settlement negotiations fail. (In reality, most insurance companies force you to sue by refusing to offer a fair settlement before the statute of limitations expires.) Your attorney may file the paperwork for your lawsuit simply to preserve your rights before the statute of limitations lapses, while actively working to convince the insurance company to agree to a fair settlement.
Before your lawyer can begin the settlement negotiation process with the insurance company by sending your initial demand for compensation, he needs to know the value of your injury claim, which will not become apparent until you have reached maximum medical improvement – in other words, when you have either healed completely, or you have recovered as fully as you are likely to. Some serious injuries have long-term or permanent effects, including pain, scarring, limited range of motion, or more severe disability. These problems may require further treatment in the future, but usually to provide temporary relief or prevent worsening symptoms, not to effect a permanent improvement. It is only when you have reached this level of recovery that the actual financial cost of your medical care can be established, including the costs of expected future treatment.
Once your attorney has this information, and has collected your medical records and all associated bills, he can proceed to determine the full extent of your medical treatment, and use that information to formulate an initial demand to send to the insurance company on your behalf. This is the opening move in the settlement negotiation process; next, the insurance company will evaluate the claim, examine the evidence that your attorney has sent to document your injuries and losses, factor in their own research, and formulate a response. Most likely, this response will be a much lower counter-offer. Do not be discouraged by this; it is simply a negotiation tactic. The insurance company doesn’t want to pay you any more than it thinks it can get away with – which generally means it won’t risk a lawsuit going to court. The prospect of having your injury compensation put in the hands of a jury to decide is sometimes enough to make insurance companies suddenly become much more reasonable at the negotiating table. In fact, three of the most common points when settlements are successfully reached are when the paperwork to initiate the lawsuit is first filed, when the discovery phase of the lawsuit concludes in a pre-trial conference, and immediately before the trial is about to begin. Remember that you can agree to a settlement at any time before the jury delivers a decision in your case, even once the trial has begun. Filing a lawsuit does not lock you out of settling; it merely preserves your rights and demonstrates to the insurance company that you mean business.