How Many Car Accident Cases Go to Trial?

Posted on October 19, 2023 by Eric Richman, Esq.

Woman on the phone after getting in a car accident

How many car accident cases go to trial? Estimates put the number under 1%, but statistics are just that—a number. Usually, when a client asks me that question, it’s because they want to know how likely it is that their case will go to trial. That’s a bit like asking how long a piece of string is; There’s no real answer. It depends on what you need it for. Your case is the same way. Its timeline will be affected by what’s needed to make sure justice prevails. 

How Many Car Accidents Go to Trial (and Why They Go) 

Most estimates put the percentage of car accidents that go to trial in the single digits, with most resolved pre-trial via settlement. These accidents are grouped together with similar torts, so it’s hard to give a specific estimate related to motor vehicles.  

You may have the term “tort” before—and the dessert joke that always seems to come with it. Simply stated, a tort is a civil wrong for which you can sue another person (or usually insurance company). A torte, on the other hand, is a cake with an inflated ego. The only thing they have in common is they both come from recipes. 

In a tort, that recipe is a combination of three things; a duty owed, causation, and damages. Personal injury lawsuits arising from car accidents are among the most common types of torts that go to trial. The elements that make them up are easy for an insurance company to fight. 

The Elements of a Tort (Civil Wrong)
A duty owed
(and breached) 
(compensatory or non-compensatory)
A duty means that someone has a responsibility to act in a certain way. Car accident lawsuits deal with the duties of two entities. 

Driver’s duty: Operate vehicles safely and follow the law.

Insurer’s duty: Cover losses caused by their insured.
The other party directly or indirectly caused the injury. 

New York’s law: Pure comparative negligence.

Fault: Percentage-based.
Damages are all the tangible and intangible losses you suffer in an accident. 

Tangible: Broken bones, loss of income, property damage, etc. 

Intangible: Pain and suffering, permanent impairment, etc.

If the insurance company disputes any of the above, that can really draw out how long it takes a case to settle. The more severe the accident, the more extensive the damages, the less likely the insurance company will be to give in on any of those elements. 

A Duty to Follow the Rules of the Road (and Pay When You Don’t)

The first element of a tort is straightforward. If you operate a vehicle, you owe a duty to everyone else on the road to drive safely. An accident is pretty convincing evidence that duty was breached. 

There’s also the duty the insurance company has to handle the case of the at-fault driver. Sometimes, it’s simple. The driver is the listed policyholder, and the insurance company accepts responsibility for defending them. 

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the at-fault driver wasn’t covered by the insurance, or the insurance company disputes the policy’s validity. Fights over this can drag out case resolution for months or even years. It also increases the likelihood that your car accident case will go to trial. 

NYC’s Tricky Negligence Law

New York law is a bit unusual. You don’t have to be innocent of any blame to sue in an accident. In fact, you can be primarily at fault and still win some damages. That’s because New York follows what’s called “pure comparative negligence.” This means fault can be a percentage. 

Here’s a common scenario where we see pure comparative negligence used:

While changing lanes, Driver 1 sideswipes Driver 2, who was turning onto the road from a side street. Driver 2 suffers a compound fracture of their arm, requiring surgery. 

Driver 2 is determined to be 90% at fault. However, as it’s a NY case, they sue Driver 1 for 10% of their damages based on that law. 

Pure comparative negligence cases can involve accident reconstructions, expert testimony, and a lot of other complex tests and investigations. When causation isn’t clear, and the stakes are high, your chances of going to trial increase. 

How Your Damages Affect the Case’s Timeline  

Disputes over damages, or the amount you’ll receive for your injuries, are more likely to end up in the courtroom than any other part of your case. When the insurance company can’t fight you on duty or causation, they know they can always try to cut your losses. 

This amount is made up of three types of damages: 

  • Special: These are damages that you can provide a paper trail for, like medical expenses, property damage, lost wages, and other out-of-pocket costs caused by the injury. 
  • General: These are made up of non-monetary losses such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship, and loss of quality of life.
  • Punitive: These damages are assessed to penalize the defendant for particularly egregious behavior. 

Most of the settlement’s worth comes from special and general damages. Insurance companies often contest these, arguing that medical costs were too high or the conditions aren’t related. They might also underplay the amount of pain and suffering or other general damages you suffer. 

Punitive damages are rarely granted in car accident cases. People are usually surprised to hear that they’re not even typical in drunk or reckless driving accidents. Even though those drivers were reckless, they aren’t who punitive damages are designed to punish. 

These damages are used to set an example. They’re only awarded when what someone did was so bad that the court decides a financial deterrent is needed to dissuade similar behavior. 

We typically see these in cases where the car accident was caused by some material defect that the car manufacturer knew about but failed to correct. That type of behavior is considered egregious and has cost companies money before. Some famous examples include the Ford Pinto fuel tank defect cases in 1994, the General Motors ignition switch recall cases during the early 2000’s, and Toyota’s $1.2 billion loss from a defect that caused sudden unintended acceleration. 

A situation like this is very likely to end up in a long court battle. The person suing needs to show that the company either knew or should have known that a problem with their product could cause death or serious harm, and they didn’t try to fix it. These cases can drag on for many years and even go to trial more than once.

The Law Offices of Eric Richman Can Help You Understand Your Case

Determining how many car accident cases go to trial isn’t a simple matter. The percentage of cases that make it through litigation is usually pretty low, but that doesn’t apply to all situations. Depending on what happened, your chances of going to trial could be higher than statistics would lead you to believe. 

At the Law Offices of Eric Richman, we understand that serious injury cases can be complex. While you may want to settle quickly, many details can affect when and how much compensation you receive. We specialize in handling challenging cases and have a history of success. You can trust us to guide you through the legal system and strive for the best possible outcome on your behalf.

If you’re looking for insight into how likely your case is to go to trial, know that no lawyer can give you a definitive answer. But with an expert, detailed assessment, you can understand the process. To learn more, contact us for a free consultation or call us at (800) 801-9655.

The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Viewing or interacting with this content does not establish an attorney-client relationship with Eric Richman, and any communications through this platform do not constitute confidential or privileged information. For personalized legal guidance on your specific personal injury case, please contact our firm to schedule a consultation.

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The Law Office of Eric Richman embraces this individualized approach. Your initial contact connects you directly with Eric, who will provide a fair, impartial case assessment. If you’re unable to travel, he’ll come to you.

In the face of life-changing injuries due to negligence, a legal team well-versed in complex personal injury cases is crucial. Reach out to the Law Office of Eric Richman to find out if we can assist.

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