Miscellaneous Factors Affecting Case Value
Determining the value of a case is not a rote exercise accomplished by merely plugging numbers into a formula. If it was, there would be little need for the drama of an automobile accident lawsuit.
There are a number of elastic factors which play a significant role in case value. These factors are the reason why it can be so difficult for non-lawyers to understand why their case has a different value than a similar case that they know about. It is nearly impossible to compare cases in different states, for example, because different laws and jury pools make a comparison little help.
Here are the factors that an experienced lawyer will understand and will be able to use to determine the true value of your automobile accident case:
District Versus Circuit Court
The majority of Maryland automobile accident lawsuits are filed in Maryland state courts. There are a few that wind up in the federal system, in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, which has courthouses in Greenbelt and Baltimore City and typically deals with cases over $75,000.00.
For Maryland state courts, there are four levels:
- $5,000 or less (District Court): Known as “small claims” cases, these are lawsuits filed for $5,000 or less in the District courts. They are designed so that people can file lawsuits without the assistance of a lawyer, and because they are capped at a low dollar amount, many rules of evidence do not apply. The framework of the trial is typically more relaxed. These are always bench trials, decided by a judge.
- $5,000.01 to $15,000 (District Court): The next level is in the District courts from $5,000.01 to $15,000. The importance of this level of court is that the plaintiff (accident victim) who files here can keep the case in District court—it cannot be forcibly moved by the defendant to the Circuit court. The rules of evidence do apply, as do the standard formalities of court. These are also bench trials, decided by a judge.
- $15,000.01 to $30,000 (District Court or Circuit Court): Auto accident victims can opt to file their lawsuit in the District court for a maximum of $30,000, but the defendant will then have the right to move the case to the Circuit court and demand a jury trial. Circuit court cases do not move as quickly as District court cases, and they tend to be more expensive for litigants because of deposition and expert costs. Auto accident victims also have the right to file cases for $30,000 directly in the Circuit Court, where they can request a bench (judge) trial or a jury trial.
- $30,000.01 + (Circuit Court): Cases filed for more than $30,000 must be filed in the Circuit courts. They can be filed as bench trials, but the defendant will have the right to request that it be evaluated by a jury.
The choice of court is a matter of high strategic significance. It is very clear where some cases belong—if the medical expenses and lost wages are extremely high, the case must be filed in the Circuit court. If they are lower, the victim and his/her lawyer must choose whether to file for $15,000 or less, guaranteeing a quicker trial and less expensive case, or file for $30,000, risking a forced move to the Circuit court.
The possible locations for a trial have some bearing on the settlement and trial values of a case. Plaintiffs’ lawyers track verdicts in the District and Circuit courts, and have a good idea of what judges and juries tend to do in most situations. Some juries are typically good for plaintiffs, while juries in other counties tend to be more conservative when deciding medical expenses and noneconomic damages.
The choice of where to file a lawsuit is therefore an important one. In most automobile accident cases, a lawsuit can be filed in the county where the accident occurred, or in the county where the defendant resides or (in the case of a corporation) does business. Some insurance adjusters are aware of the reputations of various county judges and juries, while others must be educated by the lawyer during settlement negotiations.
One of the most important limiting factors to the value of an auto settlement or lawsuit is the amount of insurance available. Sadly, many Maryland drivers carry the minimum limits of insurance ($30,000 per person/$60,000 per accident). If a victim’s medical expenses and other damages exceed the available insurance, the only choice is attempt to go after the negligent driver’s assets. This is usually fruitless, because most people do not have the assets available to pay significant judgments, and because many people will claim bankruptcy to avoid these types of judgments.
For added protection, drivers can take out a policy of uninsured/underinsured (UM/UIM) automobile insurance. In case of an accident with an uninsured driver or a driver with low insurance limits, a victim can seek recovery from their own insurance company.
Every person in a case or lawsuit has an impact on the verdict. The most important people, the plaintiff, defendant, plaintiff’s lawyer and defense lawyer, will be in the best position to influence the judge or jury.
The plaintiff’s case is largely dependent on his testimony. This isn’t to say that the plaintiff must have an ironclad recollection of everything that happened, and the exact dates of his medical treatment. It is important for the plaintiff to hit the major points to prove his case, be credible, and be likeable. Plaintiffs do the most damage to their cases when they are caught at trial in a lie, or when the judge or jury perceives that they might be lying. One frequent trap is prior medical and accident history—it is extremely important during discovery that the plaintiff fully disclose that history to his lawyer. If he does not, or if he forgets, it can come back at trial and the decisionmaker might believe him to be lying.
The same is true of the defendant, though to a lesser extent. The defendant typically spends less time on the witness stand, because he will only testify about liability. But, if the defendant comes across as arrogant or unlikeable, a judge or jury may give the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiff.
Finally, the same holds true for the lawyers. Lawyers must be civil, professional, and must live up to their promises in court. Failure to do so will have an impact on their clients’ cases. A jury that likes a lawyer may overlook minor deficiencies in the client’s testimony. Likewise, a jury that does not like a lawyer will give the benefit of the doubt to the other side, and may even render a higher damages verdict than they would ordinarily provide.
Liability is the determination of whether a defendant was negligent, and whether that negligence caused the damages. Sometimes liability is clear, and sometimes it is up for debate. Cases with clear liability, where the defendant admits negligence, or where the defendant is unlikely to escape liability, have a higher value for the plaintiff. Cases where liability is seriously in dispute, however, will have a lower settlement value—the defendant can argue during settlement discussions that he may win on liability, and would therefore not pay anything.