Once your car accident lawsuit has been filed with the court, your case enters the pre-trial stage, which includes the "discovery" process. (For more on what happens during the earlier stages of the lawsuit, see Car Accident Civil Court Suits: Starting the Case.)
The Discovery Process
After the Complaint and Answer have been filed, and the case is "at issue," the two sides exchange information about their cases using procedures designed for this purpose. This is called pretrial discovery.
Interrogatories. The pretrial discovery procedures can be used in any sequence but, normally, discovery starts with each side sending Interrogatories to the other side. Interrogatories are written questions which the receiving party has to answer under oath. As the plaintiff, you may even opt to serve interrogatories on the defendant with initial process. That way, the defendant has to answer questions before you have to answer the defendant's questions. Even though it won't change your honest answers to the defendant's interrogatories, there is an advantage to knowing what the defendant claims before you answer his or her interrogatories.
Production of Documents. It is also normal for each party to send the other party a request for the production of documents -- things like medical records, treatment bills, proof of income, and car repair receipts.
Depositions. Parties on each side of the lawsuit may be asked to submit to depositions, which are face-to-face question and answer sessions where the lawyer who scheduled the deposition questions the "deponent" under oath. Depositions are the most effective way to learn what someone knows about the case. Expect the defense lawyer to schedule your deposition. Your lawyer will probably depose the defendant, too, especially if the cause of the accident is disputed. There may also be other depositions, such as of witnesses who saw the accident or medical experts who treated you.
Independent Medical Examination (IME). The defense will also probably schedule an Independent Medical Exam, or "IME." If there are medical questions at issue in your case -- including the nature and extent of your injuries and whether your injuries were caused by this accident -- the defense can request an IME. You must submit to a medical examination by a medical expert who will almost always reach conclusions that help the side that hired them, the defense. Of course, before the jury, your lawyer will point out that there was nothing "independent" about this examination, that the defense expert was hired and paid by the defense and is contradicted by your health care providers who were responsible for actually treating you and making you better. This exchange of information is usually governed by an order from the court that establishes deadlines for completing various procedures, and there are serious penalties if you miss the deadlines. So be sure to always act promptly when your lawyer asks you to help with these pretrial procedures.
Pre-Trial Settlement Possibilities
With all this discussion about formal court-based procedures and the discovery process, you may be wondering, if you file your case in court, can you still reach a settlement? Yes, you can.
However, once the case is filed in court, settlement possibilities are usually slim until you get close to the time that you will go to court. There are exceptions, but this is the way it usually works. Sometimes, before trial, the court will ask you to try once more to settle your case by going to mediation or participating in some other type of Alternative Dispute Resolution, or ADR. Almost all courts have some system for ADR in car accident cases. In addition to these formal procedures, your lawyer will probably be talking directly to the defense about settlement.
But, let's assume that settlement negotiations are ultimately fruitless, and your car accident case goes to trial in civil court. To get a sense of what to expect, check out Civil Court Trials in Car Accident Cases.