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Your San Francisco Personal Injury Case: The Basics

Last updated: October 9, 2013

In San Francisco, it can happen fast. One moment you're having a good time at Bay to Breakers. The next moment, an intoxicated cyclist hits you because he's no longer coordinated enough to stop his fixie. A MUNI driver might become distracted by the circus that just boarded her bus and not see you jay walking under the shade of the Panhandle. Perhaps you slipped in a totally fabulous night club, but nobody heard your plea for help over the dub step. And we all know the inherent dangers of the Folsom Street Fair.

The city is a progressive place and encourages people to have a good time. But with fun comes risks, and S.F. General receives a large number of unlucky people every day. Thankfully, getting legal help in a personal injury case doesn't have to be as difficult as a trip to SF General. Review this guide to personal injury cases in San Francisco. Hopefully it'll help you recover from your mishaps in time for Pride, Love Fest, the World Series, Fleet Week, or whatever totally acceptable excuse you have for taking risks.

What Are the Characteristics of a Personal Injury Case?

A personal injury is a physical harm that you may suffer. In a personal injury case, one party claims that someone else was negligent or intentionally committed a bad act, and that was the cause of the party's injury. If you are the injured party, and you have sued or plan to sue someone else over the cause, you are a "plaintiff." If someone is accusing you of causing their harm, you are a "defendant."

Time Limits for a Lawsuit

California law places limits on how long a plaintiff can wait to file a claim after he/she has been injured. These time restrictions are known as statutes of limitations. As a general rule, plaintiffs have two years to sue in a personal injury case. Some additional key facts may alter that time limit. For example, if your injury may have been caused by a negligent physician, you have three years. The statutes of limitations may change over time, and important facts may not be immediately obvious to you. For these reasons, it is best to contact an attorney as soon as possible after an injury. For defendants, it is equally advisable that you contact an attorney before paying a settlement.

Filing and Defending a Claim

Personal injury matters in San Francisco are typically handled in the Superior Court. If you're an individual plaintiff, file your suit with the Small Claims division if you are seeking $10,000 or less. Otherwise, file your claim with the Civil Division.

In any event, you will have to pay a fee to file papers for a case whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant. For cases with more than $25,000 at issue, the initial filing fee is $470. The court charges lesser amounts when plaintiffs seek less money. Check the court's fee schedule for a good idea of what you will have to pay. Plaintiffs and defendants alike will submit their papers at the Civic Center courthouse. See FindLaw's informational page for San Francisco courthouses.

Finding a Lawyer

Many people find it helpful to hire an attorney that specializes in personal injuries. Some attorneys even dedicate their practices to particular types of injuries (medical malpractice, car accidents, workplace injuries, etc.). Here are some tips for finding an attorney appropriate for your case.

Plaintiff's Attorneys

Some lawyers only represent plaintiffs. Whether you find this specialization helpful is up to you, but plaintiffs' lawyers often tailor their practice to plaintiffs needs. Injured people often lack the money to pay large costs, so plaintiffs' attorneys sometimes work on a contingency basis. This means that you pay nothing (or very little) up front, and the lawyer collects his/her fees from case winnings or a settlement. In California, a lawyer must give you a copy of the agreement which clearly states: (1) the billing rate; (2) possible matters not covered by the agreement, and (3) other key items. Check the California Business and Professions Code for the laws on fee agreements. Also, review the State Bar's "Sample Written Fee Agreement Forms" so that you'll know what to expect.

Defense Attorneys

Just as some attorneys specialize in representing plaintiffs, others focus on serving defendants. In most cases, your insurance provider is the first stop in finding a defense lawyer. Homeowners' insurance covers accidents on your property and may cover your legal bills if a visitor sues you. Your car insurance would similarly cover your liability in a a collision. Check with your provider for restrictions on which lawyer(s) you can retain.