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Liability and personal injury claims – what you should know
The sense that someone else is at fault for your being hurt can be difficult to come to terms with. If you've been injured badly enough that you require medical attention, too, the expenses can balloon quickly.
The challenge, however, lies in being able to prove that the person who harmed you was legally liable for your injuries.
Seeking compensation in relation to a claim of personal injury liability can lead to a complicated process, and it's important to know what you're really dealing with before your case advances too far.
Personal injury liability and three types of tort law
In law, the concept of liability hinges on the notion that an individual has a certain set of responsibilities in any given situation.
The types of torts giving rise to liability can be classified according to intent:
- Negligence – This type of tort refers to when there is a duty of care for one person to protect someone from harm but fails to support that duty unintentionally. (Read more on negligence.)For example, the owner of a corner store has a responsibility to keep the location's steps and sidewalk clear of any hazards, such as ice and water, that might pose a risk to anyone who may pass by.
Similarly, drivers have a responsibility to properly maintain the braking mechanisms on their vehicles in order to reduce the risks that other motorists face by simply being on the same road. (See the DMV's information on liability car insurance.)
Negligence is the most prevalent type of tort pursued in personal injury cases.
- Intentional – An intentional tort is when someone hurts another on purpose. This can sometimes lead to criminal charges also (personal injury torts fall under civil law, not criminal, just to distinguish the two here.) Some of the most common intentional torts that result in a personal injury case:
- Invasion of privacy
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Property damage
- Wrongful death/manslaughter/homicide
- Sexual abuse/sexual assault
- Strict liability – This liability exists regardless of fault or intention. In strict liability, the person who was injured only needs to prove the injury and that the other person or company caused it. Strict liability exists in situations that inherently carry danger or possibility of causing harm. Strict liability tort laws require people and businesses to take every possible precaution in those situations.The most common example of strict liability in personal injury cases is product liability. When a company makes a product available to others, it must take every reasonable precaution to make sure the product will not harm the people who buy or use it. (For more on product liability, you may enjoy Injury Claim Coach's article What You Need to Know about Establishing a Product Liability Case)
3 common types of injuries in civil cases
There are three common types of injuries people are found liable for in civil cases:
- Bodily harm
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
Bodily harm is overt damage to one's person. This is what we think of when we imagine auto accident claims or slip-and-fall cases.
Compensation for bodily harm typically extends to medical expenses required to stop the immediate problem from killing or further harming a person.
What is Personal Injury Law?
Personal injury refers to legal cases centered about injuries to the person.
Injuries may be physical:
- Bodily harm
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Negligent inflection of emotional distress
Learn more about the law and your injury.
Beyond that, one can usually also recover money to cover on-going care costs and expected future medical bills, such as physical therapy expenses.
Pain and suffering
Pain and suffering can be a product of the injuries that have occurred. The loss of a hand, for example, is worth much more to an injured person than just the medical expenses required to address the immediate problem.
That person may suffer from a diminished ability to do the things in life they enjoy, and they do have a legal right to be compensated for that loss.
Pain and suffering can fall under the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED).
Emotional distress is the product of someone's actions harming another party so badly on a psychological level that they can no longer function as well as they once did.
For example, civil cases have been brought for emotional injuries inflicted by defamatory acts and invasions of privacy.
Individuals who display a pattern of threatening behavior may also be found liable for inflicting emotional distress on others.
In these cases, a person's psychological state has been damaged to a point where they may not feel comfortable interacting with others or even going outside.
This concept often falls under intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).
There are normally two particular reasons a person might be found liable for an injury that someone else suffered. These are:
- A duty of care
- Intentional and outrageous behavior
Duty of care
A duty of care arises from situations where people or organizations are typically expected to take care of problems that present a potential risk to the general public.
When a motorist takes a left-hand turn, for example, the driver has a duty of care to see that the path is clear before beginning the maneuver.
Manufacturers of products have a duty of care to see that items they sell to the public go through quality control measures to ensure that they won't harm anyone.
Most types of negligence claims fall under the duty of care.
Intentional and outrageous behavior
Intentional and outrageous behavior covers everything from provocations to direct physical harm done to others.
Outrageous behavior usually enters into injury cases when someone makes a threat or does something far outside accepted social norms.
If one party recorded another individual's conversation and then made the recording public without consent, this would be seen as outrageous and injurious behavior in most states.
In order to prevent everyone from suing everyone else for everything, the law in most states requires a level of immediacy (proximity) in order for someone to seek damages.
If a motorist maims another driver during an accident, that motorist can only be held liable for injuries to the people most immediately harmed by the incident.
This usually means that liability only covers people who were present at the time the incident occurred.
For example, someone's relatives who felt emotionally harmed by the aftermath of an accident may not be able to seek compensation for their suffering or distress.
Other people might be harmed by what happened, but their suffering or emotional distress will not be covered because they were not immediate parties to the incident. This is a strict limitation in most states.
It should be noted, however, that an immediate loss, such as the loss of the companionship of a severely injured marital partner, is a recognized injury in many states.
Less immediate losses, such as the loss of a friendship with a close relative, are much less likely to be recognized.
In order to be held liable for an injury, demonstrable harm must have occurred. It is also expected that the harm was extreme in some way.
If two cars bump each other at low speeds and no damage is done and no passengers are hurt, there is no basis for seeking compensation.
Harm also has to be quantifiable. For example, a minor cut that could be addressed with a band-aid cannot be the basis of an injury claim. A real medical bill would need to be presented as part of the claim process.
Very few incidents in life are entirely the fault of a single party. The law recognizes this and asks parties to apportion blame accordingly.
For example, if two drivers' vehicles collide while trying to take the same parking space, it's unlikely that only one motorist was at fault.
The challenge for the insurance companies involved is figuring out how much fault to assign to each person.
In most states, if an individual is found more than 50-percent responsible, that person cannot seek any compensation. The prevailing party, however, will only collect the portion of the damages for which they were deemed not responsible.
Liability and insurance
Determining personal injury liability is a difficult job.
In fact, it's one so difficult that an entire industry - the insurance industry - has grown up around it.
If you believe another party may be liable for your injuries, it's a good idea to contact an attorney and ask for an unbiased perspective.
Learn more about the insurance industry and personal or business liability
- When does an individual need personal liability insurance? How much do you need? See what the Wealth Pilgrim, Wall Street Journal, the Insurance Information Institute, and the N.Y. Times say
- Watch Allstate's video on what liability coverage is
- Progressive's information on liability insurance
- Nationwide's FAQs on liability car insurance coverage
- What the U.S. Small Business Administration says about general business liability insurance
- Geico's general liability insurance for businesses
- Liberty Mutual's page on general liability insurance
- State Farm on its business liability insurance
- See Glass.net’s handy car insurance guide
For a discussion on the three different types of tort law and distinctions between criminal and tort law, see the Babcock Law Firm's article The 3 Different Types of Tort Law.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.