Personal Injury Law

Personal injury law encompasses a wide variety of cases in which a person seeks to recover damages as a result of injuries caused by another person. Personal injury cases usually involve physical injury, but can also extend to damage to property. Personal injury lawsuits are a form of tort case, with tort being a fancy word that refers to a legal cause of action through which an injured person seeks damages from another person who wrongfully caused their injury.

Personal injury claims may be broken into two general categories: unintentionally caused injury, and intentionally caused injury. In unusual cases liability may result from strict liability, meaning that there is a law that provides that if injury results from specified conduct the person committing the act is automatically liable for the injury that results.


Unintentional Injury

Unintentional injury results when the person who causes an injury engages in acts that result in injury but without the intent to cause the injury. These injuries may result from reckless acts (acts made with indifference to the lives and safety of others) or from negligence (acts taken without proper care, where there is a duty to respect the lives and safety of others.) Most personal injury cases result from claims of negligence.

Negligence

Causes of action arise from negligence when the person who causes the harm does not intend the injury, but is careless with the safety of other people. Most litigation arising out of motor vehicle accidents charges a driver with being negligent.

To win a negligence case, an injured person must show that the defendant owed him a duty to exercise reasonable care, that the defendant violated that duty, that his injuries resulted from the breach of duty, and that the injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the violation.

In the context of an automobile accident, the driver of a car owes other drivers the duty to drive safely and to keep his car under control at all times. It is foreseeable that mistakes made while driving can result in accidents which may cause serious injuries to other people. Thus, a person injured in a car accident is in a good position to argue that the driver who caused the accident was legally negligent and thus should pay compensation for the injuries caused by the accident.

Common negligence actions include automobile accidents, slip and fall accidents resulting from improper design or maintenance, and medical malpractice actions.

Negligence vs. Gross Negligence

In some cases a defendant may be alleged to have committed gross negligence, as distinguished from ordinary negligence. The difference between gross negligence and ordinary negligence focuses on the defendant's awareness of risk to others and choice to act without regard for that risk:

  • In an ordinary negligence case, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in relation to a foreseeable risk.
  • For gross negligence, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant consciously disregarded the risk of harm to others, where the disregard of the risk carried a foreseeable risk of serious injury to other persons, property, or both.

Gross negligence claims are often made in the context of claims against the government, as governmental immunity often bars claims for injuries that result from the ordinary negligence of a government worker but may allow a claim to proceed if the worker can be demonstrated to have committed an act of gross negligence.

Recklessness

In simple terms, recklessness involves a person's taking action that the person reasonably knows may cause harm to others. Recklessness may be proved by demonstrating what the person who caused injury knew or reasonably can be inferred to have known at the time of the action that resulted in injury (the "objective test"), or by considering what a reasonable person in the same situation would have understood the risk of that action to have been (the "subjective test").

An example of negligence would be drag racing in a residential area, or engaging in target practice with a firearm while disregarding the fact that the bullets were being fired toward an occupied building or other area where people might be present.

Strict Liability

Strict liability is normally restricted to activities that are inherently dangerous, such as causing injury to bystanders when committing demolitions work, through the transportation or storage of explosives or dangerous chemicals, when conducting a controlled burn, or for certain defective products.

Some states have strict liability laws for injuries that result from dog bites, for pets that have a history of causing injury to people or other animals, or from injuries caused by other dangerous animals that are not normally kept as pets.

Intentional Torts

An intentional tort arises when a person intends to commit the wrongful act which results in injury. Usually, it does not matter if the injury is intended, or if the injury suffered is far more severe than was intended. For example, defamation is an intentional tort because it involves the intentional transmission of false information to another person.

Other common intentional torts include assault and battery, and child abuse. Most criminal acts committed against another person will support a personal injury lawsuit based upon the intentional wrongful conduct of the criminal.

Intent vs. Negligence

From a legal perspective, it can be difficult to obtain compensation from a person who commits an intentional tort, as most insurance policies do not cover intentional wrongful acts. However, sometimes injuries result from the acts of more than one party, or multiple causes of action may arise from the same act.

For example, a daycare center has a duty to provide adequate supervision of its premises to make sure that the children are safe from harm, including keeping them safe the foreseeable wrongful acts of third parties. If a person molests a child, that is considered to be an intentional act. However, if the daycare center allows strangers to access the premises, or does not adequately screen or supervise its employees, and a child is molested as a result of the daycare center's lack of care, the daycare center's conduct may support a legal cause of action for negligence.

Workplace Injuries

Sometimes, people are injured at work. Most of the time, the only legal action they can bring against their employer or co-workers is a claim for workers' compensation.

A person who is injured at work may also have a claim against a "third party," such as the manufacturer of unsafe machinery, the owner of the premises where the injury occurs (if different from his employer), or against another company, whose employee causes the injury. For example, if a person is injured at work when accidentally hit by a forklift driven by a fellow employee, he will usually only be able to recover "workers' compensation" benefits. However, if the forklift is being driven by a delivery person for a different company, the injured person may be able to recover additional money damages against the driver and his employer.

If you are injured at work, you should consider having your case evaluated by an attorney to make sure that you are receiving all of the workers' compensation benefits that you are entitled to obtain, and to see if you have a claim against a third party for the injuries you suffered. If you want to hire a personal injury lawyer, you may find our article on How To Hire A Personal Injury Lawyer to be helpful.

Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.