Within the last few years, Utah's Rules of Civil Procedure have undergone a major face lift. The main idea behind the changes was to provide some "proportionality" in the way cases are litigated. So, the amount of discovery and time spent on a case should be commensurate with the value of the case. If a case is valued at $300,000 or more, then more time, resources, and discovery should be devoted to that case. On the other hand, if a case is worth $50,000 or less, we should move that case through the courts and litigation process more quickly. As a plaintiff's lawyer I litigate against insurance companies that have unlimited resources. If an insurance company wants to spend $20,000 on defense costs, on a case that is only worth $10,000, they can do that. However, the new Rules of Civil Procedure, and Utah's third-party motor vehicle accident arbitration statue in particular, make it worthwhile to litigate car accident injury claims that have a value of $50,000 or less.
As long as a client's motor vehicle injury case is worth less than $50,000, I nearly always recommend that we arbitrate the case. I believe that with arbitration, we can get quicker and more cost effective results. In addition, I believe we get more consistent and predictable results than we may get with a jury. I'm certainly a proponent of the jury system, but for soft tissue injury cases, I think arbitration is the way to go. In Utah, we're lucky to have very qualified pool of arbitrators to choose from. These arbitrators have extensive experience in this area of law and are adept at getting to the heart of the issue.
Utah Code Ann. 31A-22-321 governs the arbitration process of these claims. The statute allows the plaintiff to elect to submit her claim to arbitration within 14 days after the complaint has been answered. The statute requires that discovery be completed within 150 days. This means all written discovery, including interrogatories, requests for admission, and requests for production of documents, and all depositions and expert discovery must be completed within this relatively short period of time. The effect is that for the most part only necessary discovery is conducted and discovery abuses are greatly diminished. Pursuant to the statute, the parties will agree on a single arbitrator to resolve their claims. If a single arbitrator cannot be agreed upon, then the parties may select a panel of three arbitrators.
Following the decision by the arbitrator, either party may "appeal" the award by requesting a trial de novo in the district court. In order to discourage abuse of the trial de novo, the statute imposes some risk on the moving party. For example, if the defendant is the one who requests a trial de novo and if he does not obtain a verdict that is at least 30% less than the arbitration award, then the defendant is responsible for the the plaintiff's costs (capped at $6,000).
Obviously this is only a brief overview of the third party motor vehicle accident arbitration statute. In general, I've found this arbitration statute to provide an efficient way of resolving smaller car accident injury claims. On behalf of my clients I've taken advantage of the statue dozens of times. If an insurance company is not offering you a fair settlement, you should consider arbitrating your claim. There are many factors to consider when making this decision, so you should consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer. If you would like to talk about your case, please call us at Handy & Handy for a free consultation.