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Personal Injury Law 101: what it is, how it works, and what to expect

What is personal injury law?

  • Personal injury law allows an injured person (known as a “plaintiff”) to file a lawsuit in civil court and receive a legal remedy (known as “damages”) for losses resulting from an accident or other harmful act caused by another person or entity (known as the “defendant”) – yes, an entity, like a corporation, can be an “actor.”
  • The plaintiff’s injury can be physical or psychological. The personal injury legal process allows the injured person to be financially compensated or “made whole” after he/she has suffered harm due to someone else’s negligent or intentionally harmful conduct. An injured party may also be entitled to recover for future medical expenses, future loss of wages, or the loss of earning capacity (e.g., if you are a dance instructor, and you break your leg, preventing you from dancing in the future).
  • Negligence is typically associated with what many commonly think of as an “accident,” while an example of intentional conduct includes assault and battery (e.g., you get punched in the face at a bar) and similar types of intentional actions where the bad actor specifically intended to cause harm to another person.
  • Some common examples of “personal injury” include: injuries caused to a consumer by a dangerous and defective product (“products liability” cases); motor vehicle accidents; motorcycle accidents; bicycle accidents; pedestrian accidents; dog bites; slip and falls; or trip and falls.

How it works

  • Someone (the plaintiff) is injured as a result of harmful actions by another (the defendant).
  • Plaintiff feels that they were wronged by defendant and seeks legal consult from an experienced personal injury lawyer.
  • Plaintiff’s lawyer deems there to be a justifiable case against defendant. At this stage, plaintiff’s lawyer may present the case to the defendant or his/her/its liability insurer to determine whether a settlement out of court may be reached. If this is not possible, plaintiff’s lawyer files a lawsuit in civil court on behalf of plaintiff.
  • If a lawsuit is filed, the parties will engage in written discovery (investigation of facts), depositions, and may participate in a mediation. Oftentimes, a settlement can be reached during the litigation process. However, if an agreement cannot be reached then the case goes to trial, most often before a jury of plaintiff’s peers.

What to expect in litigation

  • An injured client should expect to help their lawyer build a case that proves responsibility (i.e., a wrongful or negligent act on the part of the defendant) and the harms/injury suffered by the injured client.
  • Plaintiff’s lawyer conducts discovery, which includes depositions of witnesses, the defendant, and even plaintiff’s doctors.
  • When the facts of the case are reasonably clear, the parties may wish to conduct a mediation prior to trial.
  • If a settlement cannot be reached prior to trial, plaintiff should expect to work with his/her attorney to prepare for trial.

Some interesting facts

  • Automobile accidents are the most common cause of personal injury accounting for over half of all personal injury lawsuits in the US, and people between the ages of 16 and 20 experience the highest rate of injuries.
  • More than 30 million injuries per year take place at work.
  • Over 95% of cases are settled before they go to court.
  • A statute of limitations, most often 2 years from the date of injury, applies for most personal injury cases (of course, there are nuances, so you should speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer to determine the specific rules for your case).
  • Once a case is settled with an insurance company, the plaintiff LOSES the right to pursue further compensation – don’t get bamboozled and don’t accept the first offer! Get a legal opinion first!
  • There may be more than one person or entity at-fault (responsible) for plaintiff’s injuries – it’s important to get the advice of a skilled personal injury lawyer to determine all of your rights, against all of the proper parties.

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