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Are Car Accident Settlements in the Public Record?

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Reaching a settlement will help a car accident victim get his or her life back to normal. But some people would prefer to keep a large monetary settlement secret. The reason doesn’t have to be something far-fetched like being wanted by the police or in the witness protection program. They may simply not want prying family or nosy neighbors to know about their finances or other personal details.

If you have been hurt in a car accident, you may wonder if the details of your car accident settlement will be public record. If your personal injury claim is settled out of court, everything about the case remains confidential. If, on the other hand, you file a lawsuit that goes to trial, the court will file documents about the case in public record databases for anyone to find.

There are many reasons why an injured party might not want information about the trial and its outcome to be made public. In some cases, maintaining one’s privacy might play a part in choosing to settle out of court.

Settling a Personal Injury Claim Out of Court

About 95% of all personal injury claims are settled before they go to trial. Most of the time, an agreement is reached out of court between the injured party and the person who caused the accident. Car accident lawyers like Hipskind & McAninch negotiate on behalf of their injured clients with the liable party’s insurance company or attorneys to negotiate a fair settlement.

A reasonable settlement amount is one that compensates their client for the injuries they’ve suffered. This could include payment for medical bills and damaged property, lost wages, pain and suffering, and even punitive damages, which are added as a punishment for the defendant’s negligence.

Seasoned attorneys know when it’s right to settle personal injury cases and when it makes sense to move forward with a lawsuit. When they can reach an agreement, the settlement is paid to the plaintiff and nothing is made public.

A plaintiff may be tempted to make the facts of the case public, even though a settlement keeps them from being part of a formal public record. It is common for the defendant’s attorney to ask for a confidentiality agreement in order to avoid damaging the reputation or public embarrassment of their client. A confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement ensures that neither side will talk about the case once it is settled.

What Information is Made Public After a Trial

woman looking through public records of car accidents

A personal injury trial is like any other court trial. Attorneys for both sides call witnesses and present evidence about the case before a judge and jury. The judge or jury decides the guilt or innocence of the defendant. They also calculate the sum of money that will be awarded to the plaintiff.

At the end of a trial, the courts send all of the files related to the case to public databases. Anyone can access any or all of the bits of information in this public record either in person (usually at the courthouse or other municipal offices) or online. Some municipalities may require a form to be completed or a small fee, but they are available for anyone who wants to see them.

For car accident trials, every detail of the case is stored in the public record, such as:

  • Names, addresses, birthdates, and other personal information about both parties
  • Detailed accounts and police records of the incident
  • Detailed descriptions of the plaintiff’s personal injuries and medical treatment
  • Witness testimonies
  • Court transcripts including arguments used by both sides
  • The verdict, including findings of guilt
  • The dollar amount awarded to the plaintiff

Keeping Things Confidential

It’s not surprising that individuals who receive a car accident settlement might prefer to keep the details confidential. The defendant most likely feels the same way. Much of the information that goes into the public record is personal. People may not want to discuss the situation with friends and family, let alone strangers. If the case goes to trial, a certain level of privacy is lost on both sides of the lawsuit.

Both the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s names, ages, and home addresses will be out there for any interested party to find. If the nature of their injuries and medical treatment is sensitive or intimate, that will be out there too.

The details and results of a car accident trial can be problematic too. Records might show where the parties were, who they were with, how fast they were going, if they were impaired, etc. It can damage the personal and professional reputation of the defendant if they are found negligent.

For the plaintiff, a settlement awarded in court can make life complicated. They may be unable to keep their finances private. A large compensation package that is made public can open them up to people trying to cash in on their windfall. They may be the target of everything from loan requests, to sales pitches, to illegal scams.

The lack of confidentiality might not be enough to keep a plaintiff from going ahead with a lawsuit. If a trial is their only chance at getting justice, it shouldn’t deter them. But the fact that it might become public record could act as an incentive to both parties to settle the matter.

More Reasons to Settle Out of Court

In a car accident settlement, the first amount requested by a plaintiff’s attorney is rarely, if ever, agreed to by the insurance company or defendant’s legal team. Even so, the two sides are usually able to come up with a fair, satisfactory amount. If the case ends up going to trial, this may not be the case.

In many ways, trials are a gamble. It is up to the judge or jury to decide, and the outcome will depend on how well each side presents their case. A plaintiff might get a surprisingly large award. Then again, they could get very little. Or the case could be thrown out and they might get nothing. If the two sides can settle, they do not have to wait anxiously for a verdict. Once an offer is accepted, the exact dollar amount of the settlement is known.

And even though it might take quite a while to negotiate a settlement in a car accident case, the process is much quicker than a trial. After the attorneys try everything to work out a settlement (which can take several months), a court trial can take as long as 20 months to complete. The payout comes quicker too. If the defendant in a lawsuit decides to appeal the verdict, it could be a long time before any money changes hands.

The biggest reason that people injured in car accidents usually prefer to settle rather than go to court is stress. The anxiety caused by having to testify and the uncertainty of the outcome—all while dealing with the injuries suffered in the crash make negotiating appealing.

Making the Facts Public

When a car accident settlement is reached out of court, the defendant is not typically required to admit negligence or guilt. This may be frustrating and unsatisfying to a victim who has been badly hurt in the incident. Plaintiffs who feel that this adds insult to injury may want to make an example of the defendant are sometimes happy to take their chances with the judge and jury in a trial.

A car accident trial means that the injured party will need to sacrifice their privacy in order to forces the facts of the case out into the light of day and into the public record.

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