Personal Injury Judgment
If you won a personal injury case and the judge awarded you a monetary judgment,
you may want to just sit back and wait for the money to be delivered to you. In many cases,
this will occur. Your personal injury attorney should work with the opposing counsel to
get the settlement funds. Your attorney will deposit those funds in his or her client
trust account, and give you a check for your portion of the settlement (after the attorney
takes out fees and costs pursuant to your retainer agreement.)
There are instances, however, in which the defendant will not voluntarily pay on a
judgment in your favor. This is especially common in small claims cases.
It is important to note that the Court has no responsibility
to enforce your judgment for you; however, the Court can grant you permission to
undertake collection activities against the defendant. These collection activities
are available whether you were represented by a personal injury attorney or you
represented yourself. Generally, you can collect on a monetary judgment by garnishing
the defendant's wages and bank accounts, or executing against the defendant's property.
A garnishment occurs when a third party holding the defendant’s property (like an
employer holding wages owed, or a bank account) is required by court order to give
part of that property to the plaintiff instead of the defendant. Each state has its
own law as to the amount of wages which can be garnished; a plaintiff will not be allowed
to take the defendant’s whole paycheck to satisfy the judgment since that would not leave
the defendant with any money to meet necessary living expenses. The garnishment can
continue until the judgment is paid in full.
A successful personal injury plaintiff can also request the court's permission to execute
against other property of the defendant, such as a house or car. You must specifically
describe the property you want seized to the court, so you will need to do some research
first into the defendant's property interests. A record search at the county assessor's office
and the local DMV should reveal whether the defendant owns a house or car. If there is a
lien on the property you want to seize, that lien will have to be paid first. A mortgage
holder will receive the amount of the mortgage owed before you receive any money on your judgment.
Some courts will have standard forms they want you to use to start collection proceedings;
you should check with the court clerk to see if there are such forms. You will need to serve
the defendant and the third party with the court's order allowing the collection activity,
and the defendant may have the right to request a court hearing to dispute your attempted
collection (for example, that you are trying to take too much of the defendant's wages or
property that the defendant claims is exempt from your judgment.)
The defendant may have no property for you to garnish or execute against. This is known as
being "judgment proof," because there is simply no way for you to get your money from the defendant.
Exemption laws vary from state to state; consult an attorney if the defendant in your case
claims to be completely exempt from collection. There are attorneys who specialize in
collecting debt. You should consult with such an attorney to determine if there are any other
steps you can take to get your judgment paid.