Many people have a basic understanding of the legal system based on what they see on television. If you were involved in a motor vehicle collision and have decided to bring a lawsuit, however, there are a multitude of steps before your day in court and a significant amount of time that passes.
GENERAL OVERVIEW OF THE LAW
In New York, in order for a plaintiff to be successful in a motor vehicle case, he or she must prove liability, which encompasses the negligence of the other driver and/or owner of the other vehicle and that the plaintiff has incurred basic economic loss exceeding $50,000 or meets the serious injury threshold, and then establish the impact of those injuries, otherwise known as damages.
A plaintiff meets the serious injury threshold if he or she sustains an injury as defined by Insurance Law § 5102, which includes: death; dismemberment; significant disfigurement; fracture; loss of a fetus; permanent loss of use of a body organ, member, function or system; permanent consequential limitation of a body organ or member; significant limitation of use of a body function or system; and a medically determined injury or impairment of a non-permanent nature which prevents the injured person from performing substantially all of the material acts which constitute such person's unusual and customary daily activities for not less than 90 days during the 180 days immediately following the occurrence of the injury or impairment. (Insurance law § 5102(d)).
Even when a plaintiff proves negligence and meets the serious injury threshold, he or she must establish damages. Damages are subjective and can vary depending upon the people that sit on the plaintiff's jury.
A motor vehicle case typically begins by filing a pleading. This pleading is most often a complaint accompanied by a summons. Under New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) § 3013, a complaint must allege "statements sufficiently particular to give the court and parties notice of the transaction, occurrences, or series of transactions or occurrences, intended to be proved and the material elements of each cause of action . . . ." A summons is a document that requires the opposing party to answer the complaint within a certain amount of time.
Depending on the county where the action will be commenced, filing the initiating documents may be required to be done electronically. For instance, Monroe County has a mandatory e-filing program for motor vehicle cases. Once the documents commencing the lawsuit have been filed, they will be served on the opposing party who has an opportunity to answer the allegations in the complaint. A party answering the complaint shall deny those statements known or believed to be untrue and specify those statements as to the truth which the party lacks knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief. (CPLR § 3018(a)). Any statements that are not denied or specified in lacking in knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief are deemed admitted. (Id.). In addition, an answer must include any affirmative defenses to the causes of action in the complaint or those defenses may be waived, and it can allege counterclaims and cross-claims, where applicable.
After the case has been filed and the opposing party has answered, the next phase is called discovery or disclosure. In New York, the scope of the disclosure is broad. Specifically, CPLR § 3101(a), provides for "full disclosure of all matter material and necessary in the prosecution or defense of an action, regardless of the burden of proof." Attorneys have different methods of obtaining disclosure. These methods include depositions upon oral questions (CPLR § 3107), interrogatories (CPLR § 3130), discovery and inspection of documents or property (CPLR§ 3120), physical and mental examinations of persons (CPLR § 3121), and requests for admission (CPLR § 3123).
Throughout the discovery phase, the parties will gather and collect medical records of the plaintiff to better understand and examine the injuries involved. In any case, a party can require any other party to give a bill of particulars of such party's claim, or a copy of the items of the account alleged in a pleading. (CPLR § 3041). CPLR § 3043 sets forth the specified particulars in personal injury actions, of which a motor vehicle collision would be considered. These specified particulars include the date and approximate time of the occurrence; the approximate location; general statement of the acts and omissions constituting the negligence claimed; where notice of a condition is a prerequisite, whether actual or constructive notice is claimed; if actual notice is claimed, a statement of when and to whom it was given; statement of the injuries and description of those claimed to be permanent and how the plaintiff in a motor vehicle collision sustained a serious injury or economic loss greater than basic economic loss; the length of time confined to a bed and to the house; length of time incapacitated from employment; and total amount claimed as special damages, loss of earnings, hospital expenses, and nurses' services.
Depositions will likely be taken of the plaintiff or plaintiffs and the defendant or defendants. In addition, parties may take the depositions of other non-party witnesses which they believe would be helpful in the prosecution or defense of the action at trial. In a motor vehicle collision case, depositions will be taken of the drivers for the respective vehicles and potentially any passengers or eye-witnesses to the collision. It is also common for a plaintiff to be subjected to a physical and mental examination by the opposing party's doctor.
Once discovery is completed, two documents: a note of issue, certifying that all discovery has been completed, and a certificate of readiness, are filed. It is common at this juncture to have a pre-trial conference, if one has not been done already with the judge assigned to the case, to get a date for trial.
Parties may also make summary judgment motions, which is a motion made by a party to have the judge determine an issue in a case or an entire case as a matter of law without a jury trial. In essence, the party arguing for summary judgment is saying there is an issue in the case or the entire case that no reasonable jurors could disagree about and so the judge should determine that issue or the case in favor of one party and not the other. Depending on the circumstances of the motor vehicle collision, either side can move for summary judgment. In New York, if a plaintiff can prove liability as a matter of law, interest starts to run on any award of damages at trial. It is not always the case that summary judgment motions are made after discovery is completed and the note of issue and certificate of readiness is filed, but this tends to be the normal procedure.
Once a trial date is set, and the issues for the trial have been determined, the judge will set deadlines for the parties to make their pre-trial submissions. These pre-trial submissions include, among other things: a jury verdict sheet, requests to charge, witness list, deposition designations, video-recorded testimony, technology requests, and jury questionnaires. Prior to trial, parties will also submit motions in limine and trial memoranda. Based on the issues left in the case, the plaintiff or plaintiffs will have a trial on those issues to be decided by a jury of six (6) people and two (2) alternates. There is no right to a speedy trial in civil law, so a case could take years before it is ready to be tried.
Every motor vehicle collision case is unique and there are many factors that can make a case simple or complex. Although most of the cases will follow the above progression to trial, settlement can be reached during each phase of a case up until the jury returns a verdict.