Important Steps for Defendants in Automobile Accident Lawsuits
Car accidents happen in South Carolina every day. In fact, according to the most recent South Carolina Department of Public Safety Traffic Collision Fact Book, one collision occurs in this state every 3.7 minutes. It can happen to anyone at any time, and even a vigilant driver can make a mistake. If you find yourself in this situation, you may be asking yourself, what happens now? What do I do?
Some accidents are simple and do not involve any injuries or property damage to the vehicles. This is always the hope. However, and unfortunately, there are many instances in which injuries do occur and vehicles are damaged. In such instances, lawsuits are often initiated against the drivers, the owners of the vehicles, and others involved in the accident. Being served with a lawsuit can be a frightening and confusing event. Knowing how to proceed after a lawsuit is commenced against you not only gives you some peace of mind – it is vital to protecting your legal rights.
What should I do if I am served with a Summons and Complaint regarding a motor vehicle accident?
In a lawsuit filed in civil court, the party bringing the lawsuit is referred to as the plaintiff, while the party being sued is called the defendant. If you or someone close to you is served with a Summons and Complaint naming you as a defendant, the first thing you should do is contact your insurance company. In most cases in which the automobile is determined to be a covered vehicle, your insurance company will assign a local, experienced attorney or law firm to serve as your defense counsel. It is vital that this process be completed quickly, as your attorney will need to file an Answer with the court in response to the plaintiff’s Complaint within thirty days of the date you were served.
What happens if I ignore a Summons and Complaint or fail to notify my insurance company in a timely manner?
If you do not contact your insurance company after being served with suit papers or if the suit papers go unanswered for other reasons, the plaintiff may move the court for an Order of Default once the thirty-day deadline passes. If the court grants the plaintiff’s motion and enters an Order of Default Judgment, the court has essentially determined that the defaulting party (the defendant) is deemed to have admitted the truth of the plaintiff’s allegations and to have conceded liability for the accident. The plaintiff will then have the ability to present the court with medical bills, repair bills, and other amounts they feel they are entitled to recover, and the court may enter a judgment for the plaintiff granting them recovery from you for the amounts presented and, in some instances, for costs in bringing the lawsuit. In many cases, this leaves defendants with the inability to contest the evidence presented to the court by the plaintiff and to present their evidence attacking the plaintiff’s allegations. In some instances, courts refrain from entering or set aside an Order of Default if the defendant can present good cause for the delay in filing an Answer, but relief from the Order of Default should be pursued sooner rather than later.
The accident happened so long ago. How is it possible that I am being sued years later?
A statute of limitations limits the time period in which a person is allowed to initiate a lawsuit following an event. In South Carolina, the statute of limitations for most car accident personal injuries cases is three years. This means that with some exceptions, a person involved in an accident in South Carolina must file the Summons and Complaint with a South Carolina court within three years of the date of the accident; otherwise, they risk losing the ability to file suit. With this time limitation in mind, many plaintiffs hold off on filing the suit papers until most or all of their medical treatment is completed, which in turn results in defendants being served with papers long after the date of the accident. One of the things your attorney will analyze is whether the plaintiff initiated the lawsuit within the appropriate statute of limitations.
What happens after I notify my insurance company that I have been served with a Summons and Complaint?
If you notify your insurer of the lawsuit and work with your carrier throughout the defense of the suit, your insurance policy will serve as the plaintiff’s first avenue of recovery in either a settlement agreed upon by the parties or in a verdict determined by a jury at trial. The amount of protection that you have is detailed in your automobile insurance policy. The minimum coverage required by South Carolina law for bodily injury is $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident (i.e., an individual plaintiff may receive up to $25,000 out of your insurance policy, but the maximum amount to be paid for a single accident is $50,000 – this means that in a claim involving two or more plaintiffs, the total amount of recovery may need to be distributed amongst the plaintiffs in a pro rata split). Besides bodily injury coverage, South Carolina law also requires a minimum of $25,000 in coverage for property damage.
If you have automobile insurance, you can be certain that you have at least $25,000 per person/$50,000 per accident in coverage for bodily injury and $25,000 in coverage for property damage that may be paid by your insurance company. However, it is important to realize that for many people, particularly those involved in accidents in the Myrtle Beach and Grand Strand areas, minimum limits may not be an adequate amount of coverage due to factors such as higher costs for medical treatment, a greater prevalence of higher-end vehicles with expensive repair costs, and more. If the amount to be recovered by the plaintiff exceeds your coverage limits, you may be exposed to personal liability for the remaining amount, which puts your assets at risk. You will not be able to increase your insurance coverage for the lawsuit after the accident occurs. Therefore, it is important to proactively and carefully assess what level of coverage you feel comfortable maintaining. In the event that the attorney defending you through your insurance company determines that you may have inadequate coverage in relation to the plaintiff’s claimed medical expenses or property damage, they may recommend to you that you seek private counsel to discuss how to best protect your assets and financial well-being. Whether you are working proactively or are re-evaluating your coverage after an accident has occurred, your insurance agent will be able to walk you through the levels of liability coverage available for your policy and may give you information on additional layers of protection, such as additional “umbrella” or excess insurance policies.
The attorneys at The Pearce Law Group, P.C. are experienced both in defending personal injury suits stemming from motor vehicle accidents and in assisting those involved in accidents in commencing suits against the at-fault parties. If you or a loved one have been involved in an automobile accident, please call us at 843-839-3210 or contact us online for a free one-hour consultation with one of our attorneys today.