10 terms you need to know to understand personal injury cases

Published 2:30 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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10 terms you need to know to understand personal injury cases

Every day, Americans face the risk of personal injury, ranging from car accidents, dog bites, medical malpractice, falls and slips, harm caused by defective products, and workplace accidents.

An estimated 24.8 million people on average visit physicians for consultations related to unintentional injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 224,935 people on average, CDC data shows, succumb to such injuries, of which an estimated 44,686 people die due to unintentional falls and slips.

Fortunately, federal and state laws in all 50 states provide some form of protection against and compensation for personal injury incidents. Personal injury lawsuits help victims of personal injury obtain justice when property owners and businesses prioritize cost-cutting over their obligations to others’ safety.

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According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, as cited by Forbes Advisor, just 4-5% of personal injury cases proceed to trial, while a great many more are settled before they reach trial. Among the cases that reached a verdict, plaintiffs had a success rate of 50% as of 2005, with automobile accident cases seeing a success rate of approximately 61%, the highest success rate among personal injury cases.

To file a successful personal injury claim in court, plaintiffs must be thoroughly aware of the key concepts of such cases. Using information from legal articles, legal information databases, and encyclopedia entries, Webb Patel has compiled a list of the 10 most useful terms one should know for understanding personal injury cases.

Construction worker with injured leg in a house.

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Accidental injuries

One of the key requirements for personal injury cases is that the injury incurred is accidental and unintentional in nature. Intent differentiates accidental injuries from assault, which is a deliberate act. An injury can be categorized as “accidental” on the condition that it is a form of “unintentional” bodily harm resulting from “external” forces, and goes against the “normal course of events,” according to U.S. Legal’s legal definition database. An accidental injury can result from human sources such as negligence and human error, or environmental sources such as lightning strikes, hurricanes, and floods.

According to the International Labour Organization’s Encyclopedia of Occupational Health & Safety, different causation theories are used to determine who or what is responsible for accidental injuries, ranging from theories placing accidental injuries strictly within the purview of pure chance (notably, the “pure chance theory”) and those which argue that multiple factors and sub-causes result in accidental injuries (notably, the “multiple causation theory”).

Outdoor broken tile stairs near a building.

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Strict liability claim

A strict liability claim is a legal claim a plaintiff makes accusing the defendant of absolute responsibility for causing a personal injury. Under the legal doctrine of “strict liability,” the intent of the defendant does not matter, according to Forbes Advisor. Whether the injury resulted from the accused individual or organization’s deliberate or negligent actions, they are held responsible for the result.

That said, the applicability and scope of strict liability varies by jurisdiction. Some common situations where this doctrine is applied are in cases involving product liability where a manufacturer fails to take into account end-user safety in an attempt to cut costs, dangerous conditions such as unrepaired staircases, and animal bites, according to Forbes Advisor.

Woman is helping her colleague after accident in factory.

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Intentional torts

In personal injury cases, the term “intentional tort” refers to a situation where the defendant deliberately chose to act or refused to act in a way that resulted in harm to the victim. There are two types of intentional torts: negligence and strict liability torts. Negligence torts refer to cases where defendants are liable for harm suffered by the victim even if they possessed no intent to cause harm. Such situations are considered “negligent torts” when the defendant had an obligation to have a “certain level of care” in dealing with the victim.

Strict liability torts, on the other hand, are cases where the accused is liable even though it was not their intent to harm the victim and they had demonstrated no negligence in dealing with them. Tort laws determine when a victim can bring a lawsuit to secure damages for alleged harm suffered. Recently, tort laws have been the subject of calls for reform to prevent them from being abused by overly litigious plaintiffs for financial gain.

Wet floor caution sign.

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Negligence in personal injury cases is a concept to describe instances where the defendant has behaved in a negligent or “careless” way to the extent that such negligence resulted in injury to the victim or their property. Hypothetical examples of negligence include if a store manager fails to get their employees to erect a wet floor warning sign when mopping a floor or if a homeowner fails to repair a staircase in their home and a guest slips and falls while climbing the stairs.

Negligence is often difficult to prove because for a plaintiff to successfully accuse the defendant of being “negligent,” four criteria must be met: the plaintiff must prove that the defendant “has a legal duty” towards them; that the duty in question was not fulfilled; that the duty’s unfulfillment resulted in injury or “damages” to the victim; and that the failure to fulfill the duty was the primary reason for the damage.

A person filling in medical forms after an injury.

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Proximate cause

A major part of personal injury cases is finding the proximate cause responsible for the injuries suffered by the victim. According to Legal Dictionary, the concept of proximate cause is premised on the idea that “not everyone nor everything that causes an injury can be held legally liable.”

As such, determining that an act was a proximate cause means that the act in question is the “proximate” or nearest reason behind the victim’s injuries, regardless of whether it was committed deliberately or by negligence. The probability of an act being the proximate cause “increases as the cause becomes more direct and more necessary for the injury to occur,” according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.

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Assumption of risk

Assumption of risk is a concept that safeguards some defendants from personal injury lawsuits and limits a plaintiff’s ability to sue and seek compensation. Assumption of risk is premised on the idea that some activities inherently carry risks of injury due to their nature, such as playing sports or rock climbing.

Assumption of risk can be express or implicit. Express assumption of risk occurs when participants in an activity explicitly sign a contract that specifies a risk of injury associated with the activity and agrees to absolve the activity’s organizer of responsibility for injuries related to the activity. Tacit or implicit assumption of risk, on the other hand, occurs when a plaintiff gets into a risky activity knowing they are voluntarily subjecting themselves to the risk of injury. By proving assumption of risk, a defendant can stop a plaintiff from claiming compensation.

Caution Wet Floor sign with people walking in the background.

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Comparative negligence

Not all cases are those where a defendant’s negligence is solely responsible for the injury incurred by the plaintiff. In some cases, both the defendant and plaintiff share negligence. The principle of comparative negligence helps adjudicate compensations in such cases, according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.

By this principle, the amount of damages a plaintiff can secure in compensation from the defendant is dependent on the degree of negligence the defendant contributed towards causing the injury. For example, if the court determines that the defendant was only 70% negligent, then the plaintiff could hypothetically only claim 70% of the damages related to the injury.

Cropped view of businessman giving paper to worker with broken arm in office.

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Workers’ compensation

Workers who suffer injuries or sickness related to their jobs are entitled to compensation by law. Such workers’ compensation essentially serves the purpose of a “disability insurance program” for workers, entailing affected employees receiving “cash benefits, health care benefits, or both.”

To secure workers’ compensation for injuries incurred in the fulfillment of work duties, employees must inform the employer as soon as possible so that they can file a claim with their insurer. Once the employer secures the necessary compensation funds, the worker has the option of either accepting the payments or working towards a negotiated settlement with the employer and insurer. Sometimes, workers’ compensation claims might be the better option to pursue than personal injury claims when the injuries were incurred on the job.

Bicycle in front of a blurred accident scene.

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Should personal injury cases go all the way to the verdict stage and the plaintiff win, they could be awarded damages for the injuries suffered. Damages could be either compensatory or punitive, according to All Law. Compensatory damages are given with the goal of helping the victim make up for their losses. This could be through compensation for lost income, medical expenses, and noneconomic damages like pain, suffering, and harm to reputation. On the other hand, punitive damages are given with the intent to “punish” the defendant. These are given for cases involving what are considered to be acts of gross negligence.

Lawyer pointing client to the line for signature on a document.

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A settlement in personal injury cases occurs when both the plaintiff and defendant agree not to take the dispute between them to court. Such agreements are often made with the defendant offering the plaintiff a certain sum of money, which the plaintiff then accepts for the settlement to be complete. A majority of personal injury legal disputes are settled outside the court, with only 4-5% of cases making their way to the trial stage.

Settling is a preferred option for defendants who want to avoid legal expenses incurred by the case going to court or the uncertainty of a court’s decision in terms of damages. By choosing to settle, the plaintiff absolves the defendant of “any further liability” related to the suffered injuries, according to the American Bar Association.

This story originally appeared on Webb Patel and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.