A Complete Guide to Personal Injury Lawsuits
Injured in an Accident? Here’s What You Need to Know About Personal Injury Law Suits
Personal injury lawsuits are extremely useful to those in need, but like most areas of law, they can be difficult for laymen to understand. To help you learn what personal injury lawsuits are and how they work, our law firm has put together a comprehensive guide covering this area of the law.
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What is a Personal Injury Lawsuit?
A personal injury lawsuit is a type of lawsuit wherein a person sues either another individual or an institution (such as a school or governing body) for damages resulting from injury. Such suits are only possible when the injury in question has resulted from the other person or institution’s carelessness or willful negligence. You cannot, for example, sue a shop owner if you slip on a wet floor in his shop after he erected a “wet floor” sign. In that case, the fault would lie with you for ignoring the warning on the sign and walking on the wet floor despite it. If, on the other hand, there was no sign erected and you sustained a serious injury after slipping on the wet floor, you would be entitled to sue for damages. The term “damages” refers to financial losses and hardships you suffered as a result of your accident, including your medical bills and any time you had to take off work. If your suit is successful, you will be awarded a cash amount that equals the losses you suffered owing to your injury. Common personal injuries cases include:
- Lawsuits related to motor vehicle accidents. The driver who is at fault in a vehicle accident must pay the other driver for damages in the event of a successful lawsuit. Note that many states recognize “partial fault” and this can affect car accident cases. If a driver is rear-ended while talking on his or her cell phone, for instance, he or she may be deemed 10-20% at fault for the accident (because he or she was breaking the law and distracted). If you are found to be partially at fault in a car accident case, you will receive a smaller settlement. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to always obey the rules of the road.
- Lawsuits related to medical malpractice. These suits cover misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, improper treatment, and other issues to do with faulty healthcare. They also apply to substandard nursing home care, such as elder neglect (e.g., when an older person sustains a fall in a nursing home due to poor supervision) and elder abuse.
- Lawsuits related to dog attacks. If someone else’s dog bites or attacks you, the dog’s owner is liable for any damages caused by his or her pet. This rule applies whether you are attacked in a public space or on the dog owner’s property.
- Lawsuits related to property hazards. If you are injured on another person or business’s property by a hazard you were not suitably warned about, such as falling ice, a wet floor, or an obstruction, then you can sue for damages.
- Lawsuits related to faulty products. If a product is designed or manufactured in such a way that it is unsafe (e.g., it shocks you or starts a fire), then you can sue the manufacturer for damages.
Not all of these cases wind up in court, of course. Many are settled via informal settlements outside of court. These are arranged by the personal injury attorneys representing both parties, in conjunction with insurers and the individuals involved in the case.
Note that in order for there to be a personal injury claim, someone must be at fault for the injury (that is, a person or institution’s negligence directly contributed to the injury). You cannot, for example, sue for personal injury if you fall while walking on an abandoned lot or if you drive your vehicle into a tree.
Negligence can be challenging to define, but generally if someone has a duty to another (to drive safely, maintain a safe property, administer medical care, etc.) and they fail to live up to that duty, they will be seen as negligent in the eyes of the law.
The Statute of Limitations in Personal Injury Law Suits
Another rule that applies to the vast majority of personal injury cases is something called a “statute of limitations.” A statute of limitations is a defined window of time after an accident wherein the victim is allowed to file a suit. Generally, you will have two years (starting on the date of your injury) to file a suit after you have been injured. However, you may have more or less time than this depending on the type of injury you sustained and the state you live in. You can research your state’s statute of limitations using this resource.
The best way to avoid problems related to the statute of limitations is to 1. Call a legal professional as soon as you are in an accident and seek advice on how to proceed, and 2. Visit a doctor immediately after you have an accident, even if your injuries seem minor. Sometimes complications related to injuries take a while to become evident to the victim, but a skilled doctor should be able to assess the full extent of your injuries.
What are the Laws that Govern Personal Injury Cases?
Personal injury cases are not governed by an established code in the way that, for example, criminal cases are guided by the penal code. Instead, there are a number of treatises that outline personal injury law. These are covered in comprehensive legal texts like Anatomy of a Personal Injury Lawsuit, which are generally only available to lawyers. There are, however, a couple of books on personal injury geared towards the general public, such as How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews, and Auto Accident Personal Injury Insurance Claim: (How To Evaluate and Settle Your Loss), by Dan Baldyga.
What to Expect: A Personal Injury Case Timeline
After you see a doctor and contact an attorney, the following steps will be taken:
- Your claim and medical records will be investigated by your attorney (usually via an Intake Specialist). This will help your attorney gauge how large a settlement you are entitled to.
- You will have to file an insurance claim or demand a settlement. Once the details of your case have been established, it will be time to either contact the defendant’s insurance company (in the case of a car accident) with a claim or settle either inside or outside of court. Your attorney will negotiate on your behalf if the initial settlement offer is not sufficient, creating what is known as a counter-offer. If the counteroffer is not accepted, you will have to either accept the lower initial offer or file a lawsuit.
- If you cannot agree on a settlement amount, you will have to file a personal injury lawsuit. If you decide to file a suit, you should do it as soon as possible in order to avoid passing the statute of limitations date. To initiate a suit, you will have to file a Complaint in the Circuit Court in the County where your accident occurred. Meanwhile, your attorney will request a Summons.
- Both parties will engage in what is known as “discovery.” During discovery, both the defendant and the prosecutor’s legal teams will analyze each other’s legal claims and defenses. Supporting documentation will often be requested during this process.
- Mediation and/or Arbitration will begin. During this stage of the legal process, both legal teams will once again try to reach a satisfactory settlement. This step is taken as a last attempt to avoid escalating the case to court. It’s important to note that while mediation is not legally binding, arbitration is. During arbitration, the arbitrator acts rather like a judge—as in, whatever ruling he or she makes on the case after hearing both sides is final.
- Finally, if a settlement cannot be reached, the case will go to trial. At the trial, evidence supporting both parties’ claims will be set forth before a judge and jury. The jury will rule on who is most at fault in the case and the settlement will be determined accordingly.
As you can no doubt ascertain, how skilled your attorney is will factor in heavily where the success of your case is concerned, whether you settle inside or outside of court. A lawyer’s ability to negotiate with the defendant’s legal team or convey your case to a jury is paramount to earning you the settlement you’re owed. Never settle for “second best” when choosing a lawyer, or base your decision purely on his or her fees. Give yourself security and peace of mind by picking the best personal injury lawyer you can find.
Timothy C. Moynahan is the CEO and owner of Moynahan Partners, which offers business development consultancy, identifying strategic business partnerships and funding sources. He founded and heads the Moynahan Law Firm, Waterbury, Connecticut, and is “of counsel” to the Jin Law Group at 200 Park Avenue in New York. He is a sought-after and successful trial lawyer, earning the Super Lawyer of New England and Connecticut awards from 2009 to 2012 and Best Criminal Defense Attorney accolade in 2013.