In 2022, millions of car accident settlements will be awarded across the United States, totaling billions of dollars in damages and auto insurance claim payouts. One of the important but less understood aspects of a car accident claim is this:
Once a car accident claim has been closed, it is nearly always closed for good.
So, it is critical to make SURE you are satisfied with the settlement or judgment before it is finalized. Trying to reopen a car accident claim once paperwork has been signed and finalized is difficult, if not impossible.
Settling a car accident claim usually means the end of the claim. But there are a few unusual cases where you may be able to reopen a car accident claim. Whether this is an option in your case will depend upon the number of defendants, how many you settled with, and what the terms were. Just know that regarding each defendant that you settle with, you cannot file suit against that same party, most of the time.
Why Reopen a Car Accident Claim?
Typically, the plaintiff will discover the accident injuries are worse than they thought. Perhaps they are missing much more work time than they thought they would need. Or perhaps they need additional surgeries to correct an accident injury. They may need more money to compensate them for financial losses they did not know about when the case closed. This speaks to the importance of reaching MMI (Maximum Medical Improvement) before signing a car accident settlement. But once the settlement offer is signed and finalized, there is very little chance you’ll be able to reopen a car accident claim.
After Release Is Signed, You Can No Longer Reopen a Car Accident Claim
If you settle a car accident claim and sign a release of liability, the case is over, legally speaking at least. Even if you were to reject the car accident settlement money, the case is over. If the case was in the claim phase and you signed a release of liability, the case is over. Remember, you cannot reopen a claim against an at fault driver that you settled with. If you settled with the defendant before you filed suit, you cannot sue him or her.
When you agree to settle, you will have to sign a release. The form says that you have released the defendant from a future claim that is related to the accident. When you sign this form, you are signing away your legal rights to file a car accident lawsuit later, in exchange for a sum of money now. Therefore, it’s imperative to make sure that you are completely satisfied with the money you are getting.
This situation most often comes up when a plaintiff tries to negotiate a car accident settlement without an attorney. In an effort to ‘save money,’ you may be tempted to forgo legal representation, thinking that you can save the contingency fee on the backend if you represent yourself. The problem is, you may end up settling for a lot less money than you could have. Sure, you did not need to pay the legal fee, but you also left a lot of money on the table. Without legal representation, you may not know what all you gave up when you signed that release form and cashed the check.
If you already signed a release, there is virtually zero chance the case can be reopened. But if you are still negotiating with the insurance company and did not sign a waiver – you’re in luck. You still have a chance to reopen the car accident lawsuit.
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Settlement May Be Set Aside
About the only way a car accident lawsuit can be reopened after you have agreed to settle is if you cannot agree with the other side’s attorney or insurance company about settlement terms.
When you reach a personal injury settlement, you need to sign a release before the other side will pay any settlement proceeds. Most car accident releases are straightforward. But sometimes the parties have a disagreement about the terms of the case release. If the dispute is serious, it is possible in a few cases for the plaintiff or the other side to back out. The procedures in this situation depend upon whether you settled the case before or after the auto accident lawsuit was filed.
How to Reopen a Car Accident Lawsuit
If the claim was settled before the car accident lawsuit was filed without an attorney and you do not wish to sign the release, now is when you want to get a lawyer. You will not want to take this case any further by yourself. The insurance adjuster will not change his mind based upon what you say, without an attorney.
But if you do hire a lawyer, the adjuster still may not renegotiate. In this case, you can either sign the release and take the money or file a lawsuit and hope that the judge will let you back out of the case settlement and/or change the release.
*Pro Tip: never wait until the last minute to file a lawsuit. Know what the statute of limitations is for filing a car accident lawsuit in your state. In many personal injury cases, the statute of limitations is two years from the date of injury. In the case of a wrongful death settlement after a car accident, the statute of limitations could be two to four years from the date of death.
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Settle A Claim During a Car Accident Lawsuit
Your attorney and the defense attorney will wrangle over the terms of the release. Most of the time, they resolve differences and devise a release that your attorney will have you sign. If they cannot do so, they will report the dispute to the judge and allow him to make the call. The judge may order you to sign the release, or order that it be changed. He also can say the settlement is canceled and the car accident lawsuit should proceed.
Attorney Gave Bad Advice
Even if your attorney gave you bad advice to settle, you still cannot back out of the settlement or file a new car accident lawsuit against the person that you settled with. The lawsuit is over. The only option is to file a lawsuit against your attorney for mishandling the lawsuit. But this only can work if he or she committed a form of legal malpractice. This is a tough case to prove.
*Tip: Beware of what you sign. You should not sign a form or cash a check from any insurance company without reading it over carefully, and ideally having an attorney review it for you. If you are representing yourself, you could end up surrendering your rights when you sign the waiver document.
Other Potential Defendants
Generally, settling a claim against one defendant does not mean you cannot file a lawsuit against another defendant in the case. An example is when there are several parties or multiple cars involved in a car accident settlement. But you should read the release carefully before you sign it. Releases often say that in return for taking the settlement money, you agree to give up potential claims that you may have against anyone for the injuries noted in the case. Insurers never use this type of language because they want to protect other defendants. They want to be certain that the settlement means that you cannot sue that defendant or that insurer ever again.
It’s incredibly difficult to reopen a car accident claim once it’s been closed, so it’s important to read all the fine print and know exactly what you’re signing before you do so. If you have any questions about what’s included in the car accident settlement, what legal rights you’re waving by accepting the insurance company’s offer, it’s always a good idea to speak with an attorney and have them review your settlement offer.
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A graduate of Trinity Law School in Southern California, Graham Bersche has experience as a paralegal, negotiator, and legal writer. He lives in Los Angeles and is passionate about helping people who’ve been injured in car accidents to understand the laws governing their situations and learn how to maximize their car accident settlements.