How to Sue After an Auto Accident

By Si Kingston
A car accident can severely affect your finances. You can sue to recover payment for damage to your vehicle.

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Auto accidents are not only emotionally devastating, but they can also be financially devastating. Many drivers fail to keep proper insurance on their vehicle, which can make it difficult to take care of your damages. In addition, some drivers and insurance companies may deny responsibility for the accident, resulting in your claim for damages being denied. Before suing someone for damages, decide if you need an attorney. Attorneys aren't normally necessary for suits handled in small claims court. If you obtain the services of an attorney, you won't need to put together your own case.

Determine whether the accident occurred within the statute of limitations. The statute varies by state, but many states will allow you to sue within two years from the date the accident occurred. For more information on statutes of limitations, contact your local court clerk or go to the civil court's free help center.

Submit a claim to the defendant's insurance company. If the defendant has insurance, this is your first step. If the other party is uninsured, underinsured or if their insurance company denies the claim, send the defendant a letter by certified mail indicating your desire to resolve the damages. If you get no response from the defendant, then contact the court.

Gather all supporting documents and evidence. This includes items such as the police report, damage estimates, pictures of the damage and accident scene, medical bills, witness statements and the insurance denial letter.

Collect additional evidence. Take photos of the scene of the accident to prove, for example, that the defendant failed to stop at a stop sign and you had the right of way. Also if there are any skid marks, take pictures of those. Take pictures of damage to your vehicle. Take close up, medium and wide shots of the damage. Close shots could provide proof that, for example, the defendant's pink vehicle hit your car and flecks of her paint transferred to your car during the impact.

Determine which court has jurisdiction over the case. The court that is located in the county of your residence is not necessarily the court that has jurisdiction over the case. In many instances, the court located in the county where the accident occurred or where the defendant lives will be the appropriate court. Contact the court clerk and inquire as to whether that court has jurisdiction.

Determine how much you want to sue the defendant for. The amount of damages sought will determine whether the lawsuit is handled in small claims court or a higher court. Each state has a different cap on the amount that can be pursued and granted in small claims court. For example, in California the limit is $7,500 and in Oklahoma the cap is $6,000. The court clerk will indicate in which court you will be allowed to sue for your specified amount.

File a claim at the court clerk's office. Enter your name and address, and the name and address of the defendant on the form. Indicate the basis of the lawsuit and the amount being sought. You'll be required to pay a fee, which varies by county, to file the petition.

Pay someone to serve the defendant. The court will often serve the defendant by certified mail; proof of service will then be returned directly to the court. You can also pay to have the county sheriff or a private process server serve the defendant with a Notice to Appear. Oftentimes, the sheriff will attempt to serve the defendant one or two times at the address you gave him. If you're not sure where the defendant lives or works, you may want to hire a private process server who will spend more time trying to locate the defendant.

File the proof of service. If the court served the defendant, the clerk will have the proof of service returned to him by the postal service. The sheriff or process server will often submit proof of service to you, then you will have to file it with the court clerk.

Appear in court and prove your case. Submit any evidence that provides proof that the defendant was at fault for the accident and caused injury to your person, passengers or vehicle. For example, to sue for lost wages due to injuries sustained in the accident, submit photos of the damage, estimates, medical bills, pay stubs, a statement from your physician and police report. Ask any witness to appear in court. The judge will render judgment immediately after the hearing, or you will receive judgment by mail.

Collect on the judgment. If you win the case, the judge will order the defendant to pay a specified amount. Many courts will then give the defendant 30 days to pay, or to make arrangements to pay. If the defendant fails to pay, contact the court about other options. Usually the court will not pursue the judgment for you, but the court can advise you on how to put a lien on the defendant's bank account or seize personal property to satisfy a judgment. If you elect one of these options, you will need to know where the defendant banks or the exact property that is to be seized. The courts will not investigate this information for you.

About the Author

Si Kingston has been an online content contributor since 2004, with work appearing on websites such as MadeMan. She is a professional screenwriter and young-adult novelist and was awarded the Marion-Hood Boesworth Award for Young Fiction in 2008. Kingston holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mills College.

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