Personal injury law, also known as tort law, is designed to protect you if you or your property is injured or harmed because of someone else’s act or failure to act. In a successful tort action, the one who caused the injury or harm compensates the one who suffered the losses.
Personal Injury Claims
Every tort claim, regardless of its basis, whether intentional, negligence, or strict liability, has two basic issues—liability and damages. Was the defendant liable for the damages you sustained, and, if so, what is the nature and extent of your damages? If you can prove liability and damages, our system of justice will award you compensation for your loss.
What is a typical personal injury case?
Automobile accidents, the area in which most personal injury actions arise, provide a good example of how the tort system works. You have a negligence claim in a “fault” state if you are injured by a driver who failed to exercise reasonable care, because drivers have a duty to exercise reasonable care anytime they are on the road. When they breach that duty and your injury results, personal injury law says you can recoup your losses. (Note, though, that the system may be very different in states that have passed no-fault laws.)
Negligence reaches far beyond claims stemming from car accidents. It is the basis for liability in most personal injury lawsuits, including medical malpractice.
Is there any other basis for personal injury besides negligence?
- Strict liability is an important and growing area of tort law. It holds designers and manufacturers strictly liable for injuries from defective products. In these cases, the injured person does not have to establish negligence of the manufacturer. Rather, you need to show that the product was designed or manufactured in a manner that made it unreasonably dangerous when used as intended.
- Intentional wrongs can also be the basis of personal injury claims, though they are rarer. If someone hits you, for example, even as a practical joke, you may be able to win a suit for battery. Or if a store detective wrongly detains you for shoplifting, you may be able to win a suit for false imprisonment. While perpetrators of some of the intentional torts—assault and battery, for example—can be held criminally liable for their actions, a tort case is a civil proceeding in court brought by an individual or entity and remains totally separate from any criminal charges brought by the government.
What happens if I file a lawsuit?
You become the plaintiff in the case and the person who injured you becomes the defendant. Lawyers for each side (and for the insurer) typically begin gathering facts through exchange of documents, written questions (interrogatories) or depositions (questions that are asked in person and answered under oath). This process is called discovery. After discovery, many cases get settled before trial. Only a small percentage of personal injury actions ever go to trial.
What will I get if I win my case?
If you win, a judge or jury awards you money, known as damages, for your injuries. That amount can include compensation for such expenses as medical bills and lost wages, as well as compensation for future wage losses. It also can compensate you for physical pain and suffering. In addition, you may receive damages for any physical disfigurement or disability that resulted from your injury.
What does it mean to settle a case?
Settling a case means that you agree to accept money in return for dropping your action against the person who injured you. You’ll actually sign a release absolving the other side of any further liability. To help you decide whether to accept the settlement offer, your lawyer will be able to provide a realistic assessment of whether a lawsuit based on your claim will be successful. (Settlement also can take place at any point in a lawsuit once it is filed, including before trial or even after a case has been tried but before a jury reaches a verdict.) The decision to accept a settlement offer is yours, not the lawyer’s.
Will the person who caused my injury get punished?
No. Punishment comes from criminal cases, not civil cases. Defendants in civil actions for personal injury do not receive jail terms or stiff fines as punishment. Those are criminal sentences and personal injury cases are civil disputes. (But juries and courts can award what the law calls punitive damages when the defendant’s intentional acts have injured you. These awards are rather rare.)
Does a personal injury lawsuit have to be filed within a certain amount of time?
Every state has certain time limits, called “statutes of limitations,” that govern the period during which you must file a personal injury lawsuit. In some states, for example, you may have as little as one year to file a lawsuit from an automobile accident. If you miss the statutory deadline for filing a case, your case is thrown out of court.
The basis for most personal injury lawsuits, from auto collisions to slips and falls.
If someone causes an accident and I am hurt, on what basis will that person be responsible (liable)?
A person is liable if he or she was negligent in causing the accident. Persons who act negligently never set out (intend) to cause a result like an injury to another person. Rather, their liability stems from careless or thoughtless conduct or a failure to act when a reasonable person would have acted. Conduct becomes “negligent” when it falls below a legally recognized standard of taking reasonable care under the circumstances to protect others from harm.
What’s an example of negligence in a car accident?
A driver has a duty to use reasonable care to avoid injuring anyone he or she meets on the road. If a driver fails to use reasonable care and as a result of that failure injures you, then the driver is responsible (liable) to you for those injuries.
Who decides whether someone is liable because of negligence?
After being presented evidence by the lawyers, a judge or jury will decide what an “ordinary” or “reasonable person” would have done in similar circumstances. In the example of an automobile accident, a judge or jury is likely to find a driver negligent if his or her conduct departed from what an ordinary reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances. An example would be failing to stop at a stoplight or stop sign.
I was in a car accident, but I think I can prove it was not completely my fault. Will this make a difference with regard to what damages ultimately are awarded?
In the past the rule was that if you could prove the other driver contributed in any way to the accident, he or she could be totally barred from recovering anything from you. But now most states have rejected such harsh results and instead look at the comparative fault of the drivers. If a jury finds that you were negligent and that your negligence, proportionally, contributed 25 percent to cause the injury and that the defendant was 75 percent at fault, the defendant would only be responsible for 75 percent of your damages, or $75,000 if your damages totaled $100,000. In some states, a plaintiff may recover even if he or she were more negligent than the defendant, that is, negligent in the amount of 51 percent or more.
I was injured when my automobile collided with a truck driven by a delivery person. Can I recover damages from the driver or the employer?
You may be able to recover from both. You probably can recover from the delivery person’s employer because under the law employers may be held liable to third persons for acts committed by employees within the scope of their job. Although the employer was not negligent, it becomes indirectly liable for the negligence of its employee. Was the employee making a delivery when the accident occurred? If so, the employer is liable, since deliveries clearly is part of the driver’s job. But if the employee first stopped at a restaurant for drinks and dinner with friends, the employer may be able to escape liability.
Medical malpractice is negligence committed by a professional health care provider—a doctor, nurse, dentist, technician, hospital or hospital worker—whose performance of duties departs from a standard of practice of those with similar training and experience, resulting in harm to a patient or patients.
What do I do if I think I have a medical malpractice claim?
Talk to a lawyer who specializes in such work. Tell the attorney exactly what happened to you, from the first time you visited your doctor through your last contact with him or her. What were the circumstances surrounding your illness or injury? How did your doctor treat it? What did your doctor tell you about your treatment? Did you follow your doctor’s instructions? What happened to you? Answers to these and other relevant questions become important if you think your doctor may have committed malpractice. Like other personal injury claims, the case will either be settled or go to trial, usually before a jury.
How does a jury determine if a doctor’s actions were within the standards of good medical practice?
A jury will consider testimony by experts—usually other doctors, who will testify whether they believe your physician’s actions followed standard medical practice or fell below the accepted standard of care. In deciding whether your heart surgeon was negligent, for example, a jury will be told to rely on expert testimony to determine what a competent heart surgeon would have done under the same or similar circumstances. A specialist, like a heart surgeon, is held to a higher standard of care—that of a specialist—than would be expected of a nonspecialist.
What if I’m just not satisfied with the results of my surgery? Do I have a malpractice case?
In general, there are no guarantees of medical results. You would have to show an injury or damages that resulted from the doctor’s deviation from the appropriate standard of care for your condition.
Strict product liability, now the law in nearly every state, allows an action against a manufacturer that sells any defective product resulting in injury to a buyer or anyone who uses it. If you are injured by a defective product, you do not need to prove that a manufacturer was negligent, but only that the product was defective. A strict liability action can be brought against the parties that designed, manufactured, sold or furnished the product.
What is a typical product liability case?
Let’s say a brand-new power mower backfired and injured you. You can try to recover damages by proving that the manufacturer of the lawn mower made a defective product. Most courts today hold companies responsible for a defective product strictly liable to consumers and users for injuries caused by the defect. The product may have had a design flaw or a manufacturing defect. Another possibility may be that the producer or assembler failed to provide adequate warning of a risk or hazard or failed to provide adequate directions for a product’s use.
What should you do if you are injured by a product?
Keep the evidence. If a heating fixture ruptures and injures someone in your family, keep as may pieces of the equipment as you can find and disturb the site as little as you can. Make note of the name of the manufacturer, model and serial number. Keep any packaging or instructions. Keep any receipts showing when and where the product was purchased. Take pictures of the site and of the injury. Make a record of exactly when the incident occurred and under what circumstances. Be sure you have accurate names and addresses for all doctors and hospitals treating the injured victim.