At some point or another you have undoubtedly heard about an astronomically high jury award for a personal injury case. Maybe it was the McDonald’s hot coffee case where the jury initially awarded the plaintiff $160,000 in actual damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages (the award was later reduced and the parties eventually came to a secret settlement amount that has never been disclosed to avoid further appeals). Just this month a Humboldt County, California jury handed over a $677 million award for the death of a nursing home patient. The award was actually intended to compensate 32,000 current and former nursing home patients that filed suit as a class action. Stories such as these are common place in the news. As a rule, however, the full story behind them is not reported. Understandably, a victim in a personal injury case hears the big verdict headline and starts wondering why she would settle her personal injury case when she could be awarded a huge verdict at trial. A trial is, occasionally, the best option for a personal injury accident victim but the majority of the time a trial is simply to risky, time consuming and unpredictable.
One of the biggest reasons that taking a personal injury accident case to trial is such a gamble is that you have no idea who will be deciding your case. In most jurisdictions 12 people from the community will be deciding whether you are awarded anything at all and if so how much you will be awarded. While your attorney will be entitled to question the jurors that are called in for jury duty, he will have nothing to say about who is called in. Your attorney and the defendant’s attorney will be able to excuse a certain number of jurors from the case in most cases, but after they have used there allotment of challenges the people that remain will be the jury – for better or worse. Juries are unpredictable and can make decisions based on things the attorneys may never have considered to be important. The judge will advise the jury of the law, but to some degree they can base their decision on any piece of evidence-or lack thereof- that they deem important. For this reason, taking a case to a jury trial can be a roll of the dice even when you have an excellent case and an excellent attorney representing you.
On top of the jury themselves being unpredictable, when you decide to take a case to a jury trial in some ways it is like starting from scratch. In most jurisdictions settlement negotiations are not admissible in court. What this means for the plaintiff is that in many cases the defendant was willing to admit negligence for the purpose of reaching a settlement. Once the decision has been made to go to trial, the defendant has every right to deny that he was negligent to the jury forcing the plaintiff to prove negligence. If the plaintiff fails to convince the jury that the defendant was negligent then the plaintiff will receive nothing in the way of compensation.
Finally, a plaintiff must consider the time involved in a trial. While many personal injury accident cases can be settled in a matter of months, a personal injury trial may not actually go to trial for two to three years. Even if the plaintiff wins at trial, she may still have to wait for her money. The defendant will likely appeal the verdict-especially if it was a large award. The initial award could ultimately be substantially reduced or at a bare minimum will take years to be finalized. Then there is the problem of collecting from the defendant if the plaintiff wins a large award. Many settlement offers are based, in part, on the defendant’s ability to pay. Winning a large jury award doesn’t do the plaintiff much good if she is never able to collect any of the money.
Your attorney will analyze the downside risk versus the upside potential. If your attorney has been retained on a contingency fee the firm will have a huge incentive to maximize your recovery and should give you a detailed explanations of ALL your potential options.
For additional information, please contact the California personal injury law firm of Ledger & Associates at 1-800-300-0001 or visit their website at www.ledgerlaw.com.