Personal injury attorneys specialize in a field of law known at common law as torts. A tort is a civil claim involving a wrong or harm caused by a person or entity (such as a business) other than the person harmed. The most common type of personal injury lawsuit is a car accident. A typical personal injury attorney does many of these cases each year. Most attorneys take cases that they will likely win in court or settle on a contingency basis, which means that they do not earn a fee unless they prevail, and the attorney fee is taken from a final settlement or judgment.
The first thing that a personal injury attorney does is any case is to assess liability, typically first by getting the police report and reading it to see if a determination was made at the scene of the accident. In some cases, liability is clear, such as in most rear-end car collisions, while other cases are not so clear. Some attorneys will go to the site of the accident to see if anything can be observed that was not included in the report that could help the case or to explain the details better to a jury. In especially complex cases, the attorney might hire expert witnesses to analyze the accident, to help convince a jury that their client was not the one at fault.
Before a lawsuit is filed, a personal injury or his or her assistant spends time gathering and analyzing medical records. The attorney must become familiar and comfortable with medical terminology, and in complex cases, the attorney will likely consult medical experts (such as doctors who treated the accident victim) and medical literature to better understand the injuries so that these can be explained to a jury.
If a lawsuit is filed, the attorney will do pretrial work, such as taking depositions, interviewing witnesses, and gathering documentary evidence. The person who is claiming to be harmed through no fault of their own is known as the plaintiff, and the attorney files all pleadings in that person’s name. The evidence-gathering stage of the case is known as discovery. A deposition is like an interview conducted by the attorney with an opportunity for the at-fault party’s attorney to cross-examine the witness. Depositions are made into transcripts. The purpose of a deposition is to gather information and to have a record that can be used later at trial for cross-examination.
If the parties cannot reach a settlement agreement (an amount of money paid to the plaintiff to not proceed with a jury trial), then the case will go to trial. Most cases settle prior to trial, but a good personal injury attorney must demonstrate that he or she is a good trial lawyer. Trials can last a day or less or many weeks. Cases in which the plaintiff was seriously injured or in which liability is at issue are likely to take longer, as many experts will need to testify about the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries or how the accident was caused. Financial experts may testify about economic losses (loss of the plaintiff’s ability to work). One of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in a trial attorney’s career is winning jury verdicts in a client’s favor.