Understand the personal injury claim process in the Cotton State
You might be able to file a personal injury lawsuit if someone caused you harm. There are 3 grounds on which personal injury claims can be brought:
- Negligence. The basis for a negligence lawsuit is that the defendant failed to act with the level of care required by law (usually that of a “reasonable person”). For example, if another person caused your car accident because they were texting and driving, a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence may be appropriate.
- Strict liability. Strict liability is a legal theory that holds a defendant liable even if the defendant didn’t act with negligence. The most common lawsuits based on strict liability are product liability lawsuits.
- Intentional wrongs. A defendant can be held legally responsible for their intentional acts. Common intentional acts that result in personal injury lawsuits include battery, assault, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In Alabama, specific steps are required when filing a personal injury lawsuit. Let’s take a look at each one of those steps.
To file a personal injury lawsuit in Alabama (or any other state for that matter), you need to have legal standing.
To establish legal standing, you must prove that:
- You have the legal capacity to file a lawsuit. If you’re under the age of 18 or you’re mentally incompetent, you cannot file a lawsuit. However, someone may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit on your behalf.
- You suffered actual harm. You cannot file a lawsuit because you fear someone may hurt you in the future. Rather, you must be able to prove the defendant caused you actual harm.
- The injury can be reasonably traced to the defendant. To file a lawsuit, you must show a causal connection between your injury and the defendant's action (or inaction). In other words, you can’t sue a random person in New Jersey if you were injured by your neighbor’s dog.
- The court must be able to provide relief. The court must be capable of providing some relief that would remedy the harm you suffered.
Standing is typically established in the complaint (i.e., the pleading you’ll file to get your lawsuit started). We’ll talk more about the complaint later in this article.
Determine where to file your lawsuit
The 1st step to filing your personal injury lawsuit is knowing where to file your personal injury lawsuit.
The vast majority of personal injury lawsuits will be filed in 1 of 3 courts systems:
- Alabama small claims court
- Alabama district court
- Alabama circuit court
Alabama small claims courts handle disputes in which the amount in controversy (i.e., the amount of damages you’re demanding the defendant pay) is less than $6,000.
Alabama district courts handle disputes in which the amount in controversy is more than $6,000 but less than $20,000.
Finally, Alabama circuit courts can handle disputes in which the amount in controversy exceeds $6,000, and they have exclusive jurisdiction over matters in which the amount in controversy exceeds $20,000.
|Where do I file my Alabama personal injury lawsuit?|
|Damages requested||Court system|
|$0-$6,000||Small claims court|
|$6,000-$20,000||District court or circuit court|
|$20,000 or more||Circuit court|
Once you know the appropriate court system, you need to determine the right venue.
The term “venue” refers to the geographic location where you’ll file your lawsuit. In most personal injury lawsuits, you can file your lawsuit:
- In the county where the defendant lives, or
- In the county where the accident occurred.
Let’s review what we’ve covered by looking at a hypothetical:
Bill, who resides in Baldwin County, is riding his motorcycle along Woodley Road in Montgomery, Alabama, when he is rear-ended by Sarah, who resides in Jefferson County. Sarah didn’t see Bill because she was texting and driving.
Bill injures his back in the crash and wants to file a personal injury lawsuit against Sarah for $25,000. In which court system can he file his lawsuit?
- Alabama small claims court
- Alabama district court
- Alabama circuit court
Because the amount in controversy is $25,000, Bill must file his lawsuit in circuit court.
In which venue must Bill file his lawsuit?
- Baldwin County
- Montgomery County
- Jefferson County
Bill must file his lawsuit in the county where the accident took place or the county where the defendant resides. Thus, he can file his lawsuit in Montgomery County or Jefferson County.
Put it all together, and we see that Bill can file his lawsuit in either of the following courts:
- Montgomery County Circuit Court, or
- Jefferson County Circuit Courts
File and serve your complaint
A personal injury lawsuit isn’t “filed” or “commenced” until you:
- File a complaint with the proper court and pay the associated filing fee, and
- Serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint and summons.
A complaint sets forth the facts of your case, the defendant’s liability and how much money you’re demanding. You can find a sample complaint here. A summons is simply a document that notifies the defendant that they’re being sued. You can find a sample summons here.
When it comes to serving a defendant, you must have a sheriff or licensed process server complete service and file a proof of service statement.
The process for filing a lawsuit in small claims court is a little different than filing a lawsuit in district or circuit court. To file a lawsuit in small claims court, complete the following steps:
- Go to court. Go to the small claims division of the district court in the county where the defendant (the person you want to sue) lives.
- File a complaint. File a Statement of Claim form (“complaint”). You’ll need to have some basic information to fill out the complaint, including the defendant’s address. You must also pay a filing fee at the time the complaint is filed. If you can’t afford a filing fee, you can fill out an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship form and ask the judge to delay or forgive payment.
- Wait for a case number. Once the complaint is filed, the clerk will process the complaint and assign a case number (processing typically takes 1-2 weeks).
- Wait for service. After the complaint is processed, it will be sent to the Sheriff’s Department for service on the defendant.
- Wait for an answer. The defendant has 14 days to answer the complaint and file their answer with the Small Claims Division.
- Trial. If the defendant files an answer, the case will be set for trial (roughly 6-8 weeks from the date the answer is filed). You should take this time to subpoena any witnesses and otherwise prepare your case for trial.
How long do I have to file a personal injury lawsuit?
Alabama limits the amount of time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit. This time limit is called the statute of limitations. In most cases, you have 2 years from the date of the injury to file your lawsuit.
If you fail to file a lawsuit within this 2-year period, you will (with very few exceptions) be forever barred from filing a lawsuit based on the injury.
The Alabama workers’ compensation system is intended to provide benefits to workers for work-related injuries.
In most situations, your only remedy for a work-related injury is to file a workers’ compensation claim. Filing a workers’ compensation claim is very different from filing a personal injury claim. You can learn more about how to file a workers’ compensation claim in Alabama here.
Do I need an attorney to file a personal injury lawsuit?
There are lots of hoops to jump through when filing a lawsuit. The process gets even more complicated if you’re suing multiple defendants or out-of-state defendants.
Unless you're filing a lawsuit in small claims court, we strongly recommend hiring an attorney to file your lawsuit. Failing to properly file your lawsuit will almost certainly result in your lawsuit being dismissed.