Our Utah personal injury clients always want to know how much their case is worth. Every time, the answer is the same: it depends!
For one thing, it depends on whether the client wants to settle the case without going to trial or if he or she wants a jury to determine the case’s true value. Verdicts at trials generally tend to be larger than pre-trial settlements in Utah, but come with significant risks, including, among others, the risk of losing if a jury finds in favor of the defense.
There are a number of factors that could potentially affect the value of your case if you decide to go to trial. A few of them are outlined below. Every case and jury is unique, so different factors might be more or less relevant in your case, but the list below will give you an idea of how many different factors may affect the value of your personal injury claim at trial.
Read our post on pre-litigation settlement values and timeline to learn more about the settlement value of your case if you settle before going to trial here.
WHO IS THE PLAINTIFF?
In assessing value, the first thing to look at is the plaintiff. Who is he or she as a person?
The plaintiff matters in a trial. A lot. What if you were on a jury and LeBron James was the plaintiff who had been injured in a motor vehicle accident? Suppose he could no longer play sports or do endorsement deals due to his injuries. In your opinion, how valuable would his personal injury claim be compared to an average man his same age?
So let’s discuss some of the factors the jury is likely to consider when assessing the plaintiff as a person.
How likely is it that the jury will like the plaintiff? Will the plaintiff irritate the jury or is he or she likable?
It is important to consider the plaintiff’s age. It can affect the value of the claim if the plaintiff is too old or too young. An ideal plaintiff’s age is between 25 and 65 years old.
A plaintiff’s educational background is important. The more education you have, the better. Generally, plaintiffs with a higher level of education do better in front of a jury and are able to establish more significant damages.
What does the plaintiff do for a living? Does he or she earn a significant income? At trial, that issue could be crucial? Does the plaintiff have a solid employment history? This is very important. It gives the jury a sense of the plaintiff’s reliability and trustworthiness.
The importance of appearance cannot be overstated. It is common for juries to make decisions based on appearance. At trial, a well-prepared plaintiff can make all the difference.
It is also important to consider the plaintiff’s prior health history. A personal injury case is all about how the accident has affected one’s quality of life. Due to this, the parties closely examine the plaintiff’s previous medical records. At trial, the defense may attempt to seize on similar pain complaints the plaintiff had before the accident. Or maybe the plaintiff’s pre-existing medical conditions asymptomatic before the accident, but became symptomatic after the accident? An experienced plaintiff’s lawyer will ensure the jury understands that the plaintiff’s pre-existing conditions became symptomatic as a result of the accident.
The value of a case can also be affected by non-accident-related issues. After the accident, did the plaintiff suffer health problems that contributed to a decline in quality of life? Perhaps the plaintiff’s health has declined since the accident because of factors unrelated to the accident.
Has the plaintiff been involved in any subsequent auto accidents? Having a subsequent accident can complicate a plaintiff’s claim at trial. A defense attorney will do everything in his or her power to convince a jury that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the subsequent accident (not the original accident).
Case value can also be affected by a plaintiff’s criminal history. There may be an issue at trial if the plaintiff has convictions for prior felonies. Are the felonies crimes of dishonesty? At trial, those factors can be important to a jury, especially if the jury is required to determine whether the plaintiff is trustworthy.
WHO IS THE DEFENDANT?
What type of defendant is the defendant? Is it an individual or a company?
If the defendant is an individual, many of the same factors outlined above will apply, including the defendant’s age, appearance, educational background, employment history, and criminal history. These factors aren’t quite as important for the defendant as they are for the plaintiff, but they still can affect the value of a plaintiff’s claim at trial.
Is the defendant a government agency? The jury has historically been wary of claims against government agencies like police departments, but that has changed in recent years.
Perhaps the defendant is an insurance company? Most people (except defense attorneys) dislike insurance companies. Therefore, bringing a claim directly against an insurance company is likely to be well received by a jury.
VENUE, JURISDICTION, JUDGE
Jurisdiction and venue can also be important.
The venue can make a big difference in your case. The value of your claim will certainly be affected if your case is in federal court. Unlike state courts, federal courts in Utah require a unanimous jury verdict. And it draws from a much broader jury pool geographically. As a result, it can be hard to know what type of jury you are going to get in federal court.
In addition, in federal court, there is no right to voir dire, which can significantly limit the value of your case at trial.
How about the judge? Is voir dire limited by your particular judge? How does he or she handle opening and closing evidence? Is he or she biased in favor of the defense?
LIABILITY AND CAUSATION
A case’s value at trial has a great affected by liability and causation disputes.
Is the defense disputing liability? If so, do you have strong witnesses? If liability is hotly disputed by the defense and you have strong witnesses, the case can be even more valuable at trial. When liability is disputed, juries tend to return larger verdicts-assuming you can prevail on that issue, of course.
If you don’t have any witnesses in a hotly disputed liability case, you might have a hard time in front of the jury.
Maybe there were witnesses, but they are unfavorable? What does that mean for your case? It is usually possible for attorneys to deal with one unfavorable witness. Two is much more challenging. Having more than two unfavorable witnesses at trial becomes very challenging.
It is common for defense attorneys to argue over causation. In order to establish causality, a plaintiff must prove that the accident caused their injuries.
The first thing defense attorneys look for when defending a plaintiff’s causation claim is when the plaintiff’s symptoms began?
At the scene of the accident, did the plaintiff tell the police officer that he or she was fine or that no one was injured? Did the police report mention plaintiff’s injuries or symptoms?
Did the plaintiff immediately seek medical attention or go to the emergency room? If so, do the emergency records support the plaintiff’s version of the accident and/or his or her associated injuries?
If the plaintiff’s injuries appear in the early case records (such as the police report or ER records), this can greatly increase the value of the plaintiff’s case at trial, especially if plaintiff’s diagnosis remains consistent throughout his or her medical records. Click here to see what steps to take after an accident.
In disputed liability cases, the quality and quantity of expert witnesses is crucial. How good are plaintiff’s experts compared to the defendant’s experts? Do plaintiff’s experts hold up on cross examination? Will the jury like them better than the defense experts?
Maybe one of the experts did not do reliable work and, as a result, maybe your attorney can move to prohibit him or her from testifying at trial.
Or you might be able to prove one of the experts is nothing more than a hired gun. Maybe the defendant’s attorneys have a long history of working with that expert because he or she will say what the attorneys want him or her to say. You might be able to score big points at trial on this issue.
A good case can be destroyed by comparative fault. Comparative fault assesses whether the plaintiff also bears some fault for the accident.
If the plaintiff has too much fault, it can ruin hir or her case. Generally, juries do not like to award plaintiffs large sums of money if they played a significant role in the accident.
In Utah, however, a plaintiff only needs to prove fifty-one percent liability for damages to recover. So a plaintiff’s comparative fault can affect the overall value of his or claim, but it does not prohibit the plaintiff from recovering an award at trial so long as the jury determines that the defendant(s) are at least fifty-one percent liable.
The amount of money a jury awards at trial can be greatly affected by aggravating factors. Does your case have any?
For instance, was the other driver cited for distracted driving? Maybe using his or her phone or texting? At trial, juries dislike distracted drivers and will increase the plaintiff’s award accordingly.
Was the defendant under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident? Accidents involving drunk drivers are of course especially sensitive to juries. In cases where the defendant was impaired at the time of the accident, you can expect the jury to punish him or her severely.
You can dramatically increase your personal injury claim’s value at trial by as much as 20%, 30%, or even 50% if any of these factors are present (distracted, texting, impaired).
The jury may also consider a few miscellaneous factors.
How much medical treatment did the plaintiff receive for his or her injury? Was it too much? Or maybe not enough?
Did the plaintiff procure his or her treatment independently or did an attorney refer him or her out? The defense loves to make a big deal out of this one, accusing the plaintiff’s attorney of orchestrating unnecessary care. This is not true, but defense attorneys will try to make it an issue at trial.
Is there a crossover claim involving workers’ compensation? That can be a negative factor at trial, which could potentially affect case value.
Do the plaintiff’s claims involve psychological issues? Anxiety, PTSD, depression, negligent infliction of emotional distress? Those claims can be very difficult at trial and can be hard to prove.