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Personal injury law covers many different situations and provides the opportunity for an injured person to sue another person at fault for those injuries. Personal injury law is often also referred to as tort law and cases are handled in civil, rather than criminal, court. A person may face both civil and criminal charges for the same action, but the key differences include a lesser burden of proof in civil cases and the fact that civil penalties usually take the form of money damages paid to the injured party.
Types of Personal Injury Cases
There are many different types of personal injury cases. Just a few examples include medical malpractice claims, car accident claims, defamation or libel claims, intentional tort claims, dog bite claims, slip and fall or premises liability claims and toxic tort cases. All of these different cases seem as if they have little in common, but they do: the common thread is that there was a legal duty breached and that the breach caused harm.
Proving a Personal Injury Claim
When a plaintiff wishes to prove a personal injury claim, he will need evidence specific to that type of claim. For instance, a medical malpractice tort requires the testimony of an expert witness explaining how the doctor provided care at a standard below that which a physician with his experience and background should have provided. A car accident claim, on the other hand, may involve presenting witnesses to the accident or the testimony of an accident reconstruction expert to show how the actions of the driver fell short of what a hypothetical reasonable driver would do.
However, while there are significant differences in exactly how things are proven. In general, every personal injury claim requires a plaintiff to prove that more likely than not (i.e., by a preponderance of the evidence) that:
- A legal duty existed. A legal duty means that the person has a legal obligation to act with a certain level of care and caution. Everyone has a duty to act with reasonable care anytime they act in a way that might foreseeably harm another person. For example, all drivers have a duty to other drivers to behave reasonably careful when operating their vehicles.
- The legal duty was breached. This element is typically proven by comparing the defendant's behavior to reasonable person. If the defendant didn’t use as much caution as a reasonable person would generally have used, the defendant probably breached the duty of care. In other cases, like product liability claims or medical malpractice claims, different standards are used.
- The breach was a direct/proximate cause of harm. In other words, whatever the defendant did either directly caused the injury to the plaintiff, or was a factor in whatever caused the injury. For example, if the defendant drove his car into a sign which later fell due to instability resulting from the impact, hitting the plaintiff, the defendant is said to have proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
- There was harm. This involves proving damages, which may include medical costs, lost income, and damages for pain and suffering, among other types of damages.
A defendant doesn't have to disprove these things to win his case, although he certainly can. Simply asserting that the plaintiff didn't prove these elements may be enough to allow the defendant to win.
A plaintiff who is successful at making a personal injury claim is generally entitled to past and future medical costs, lost income, pain and suffering and emotional distress compensation. Many personal injury claims settle out of court with the plaintiff receiving a set amount to compensate for all of those things. When an out of court settlement does not occur, the personal injury case may make it to a judge or jury who will decide first on fault and then on damages.
For a better understanding of personal injury law, explore the Personal Injury Law topics in the links on this page.