A personal injury lawsuit can become extremely complex with disputes over evidence and the credibility of witnesses. However, the actual personal injury law basics are very concise, as these 4 principles illustrate.
1. Private matter
There can often be overlap between personal injury cases and criminal cases—for example, in a case involving wrongful death. However, there is one clear, bright line that always distinguishes a personal injury lawsuit: both parties are private citizens.
In a criminal case, the prosecutor is always the government, as the district attorney’s office decides which cases to pursue and what charges to file. Civil cases, highlighted by personal injury disputes, are brought by a private citizen.
This means that criminal penalties—prison time, etc.—are never at stake in a personal injury lawsuit. Although, the plaintiff does have the right to determine how much recompense they will ask for, while criminal charges usually have pre-defined sentencing guidelines.
2. Duty of care (negligence)
It’s the basic principle that every personal injury case is ultimately fought over: whether someone did or didn’t exercise the legally required duty of care. Was the driver going too fast for conditions? That’s a duty of care question. Should someone’s steps have been shoveled or cleared of ice? That’s a duty of care question.
Duty of care is a concept that is not always easy to pin down. To begin with, it can only be legally defined as “what a reasonable and prudent person would do.” That creates an intangible playing field for courts to operate in, but the reality is that different people will still define this a little bit differently. In cases where a jury is involved, at least 6 different people (depending on jury size) will have their own theories.
There is also a legal difference in duty of care owed to different people. A retail shopping store has a different duty of care for its parking lot than a private citizen does for their driveway. In a snowstorm, the duty of care you owe to shovel the walk is different at 1 p.m. than it might have been at 5 a.m. You owe a different duty of care to someone who was invited to your home vis-à-vis someone who dropped by unexpectedly.
All of which makes for very interesting court deliberations, but the wide range of factors all come back to the single principle of duty of care.
3. Statute of limitations
Even if your case is airtight—the defendant was clearly negligent and all your evidence and witnesses are in order—you still can’t wait forever to file a lawsuit. There will be a legally defined statute of limitations and if you don’t get the suit filed in time, you will be out of luck.
The statute of limitations will vary depending on the nature of your injury and the laws of your particular state. Your personal injury attorney will know what the deadline is.
Finally, there’s the recompense you seek for your injuries. Your damages will fall into 2 categories.
The first is compensatory damages. Economic losses can be precisely determined. It’s the cost of your medical bills, the lost time at work and anything else that can be easily established. Non-economic damages are less easily calculated because they represent intangible losses like pain and suffering, emotional distress and other damages.
The second is punitive damages. These are the damages that are sought to “send a message,” as it were, about what the defendant’s negligence did to you. These are commonly sought in lawsuits against large corporations, as a way of hopefully deterring them from ever falling short on the job again.