Being injured in an accident does not automatically tell you that you have a personal injury case. If everyone who was injured were able to sue in every instance they were injured, court systems across the country would be overwhelmed and corporations unfairly held liable. Instead, claims for personal injury are recognized only when certain conditions are met.
You may have a personal injury case if your injury was caused by someone else’s carelessness or a violation of the law. There are general rules for determining what constitutes “negligence” that supports a lawsuit, plus additional rules for intentional injuries. Working with an Indianapolis personal injury attorney, you can investigate the causes of your injury and determine whether you have a personal injury case worth pursuing.
Elements of a Personal Injury Case
The phrase “personal injury case” usually refers to civil claims (“torts”) for either intentional bodily injury or negligent bodily injury. The elements for each type of claim are different, but if your situation meets all the elements of the relevant tort, you likely have a personal injury case and may be awarded money as damages.
The most common intentional torts are assault and battery. Assault is the act of intentionally putting someone in fear of imminent injury. This would include things like drawing back a punch and aiming it at someone or pointing a gun at them. Battery, on the other hand, is the act of intentionally touching someone in a harmful or offensive way. This would typically include landing a punch on a victim or sexually assaulting them.
While these elements usually overlap with criminal charges, proving a personal injury case is easier because the “burden of proof” is lower in civil cases.
Injuring someone in an accident usually falls under the tort of negligence instead of assault or battery. In these injury cases, you must prove four elements:
- The defendant owed the victim a legal duty
- The defendant breached that duty
- The defendant’s breach of duty caused the victim’s injuries
- The injuries include damages that the court can order compensation for
The legal duty in most cases is the duty to act as an “ordinary person of reasonable prudence” would act in the same situation. This means acting reasonably and avoiding causign injury to another if reasonably possible under the circumstances. For example, when holding a ladder for someone, reasonable care might mean holding on to the ladder and keeping an eye on the climber. Doing something unreasonable – like walking away or shaking the ladder as a “joke” – would be a breach of that duty.
Sometimes the law creates specific legal duties. This is common with traffic codes, where laws require drivers to follow speed limits, obey traffic signals, signal before turning, and leave a safe following distance. These laws are written to keep people safe, and a violation of those laws typically qualifies as a breach for the purposes of a personal injury case.
If the defendant’s breach of duty caused your injuries, you usually have a case. If the accident would have happened even without the breach of duty, your case might fall apart. The same is true if you don’t have the evidence to prove that the defendant was the actual person responsible.
Limits on Your Right to a Personal Injury Lawsuit
It seems simple enough to analyze these elements, but many situations are complex, and recognizing that your case meets the elements of a negligence suit is not always enough. In some cases, all these elements may be met, but you still cannot sue because of various rules and exceptions.
Most states use a Workers’ Compensation system that is the “exclusive remedy” for workplace injuries against a person’s employer or co-employee. This means that, even when all the elements of a negligence case are met, you still cannot file a lawsuit against your employer for workplace injuries. Instead, claims against an employer need to be filed through your employer’s Workers’ Compensation insurance.
This may change what damages you can get and how your claim should proceed, but an attorney is still often helpful (or even necessary) for successfully pursuing your claim. There are also many exceptions when a lawsuit is appropriate for a work-related accident, such as when a third-party other than your employer was at least partially responsible for your injury. You should always have an attorney review the specifics of your case to ensure that your rights are protected.
No-Fault Car Insurance States
States that use a no-fault car insurance system require each driver to have insurance to cover their own injuries in the event of a crash. In other states, you’d typically file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance for vehicle damage and personal injury. In no-fault states, you would first turn to your own insurer for injury claims, and lawsuits are usually not permitted unless you can meet additional requirements.
Usually, before pursuing such claims, you must meet a sufficient injury threshold before you can pursue a claim against the at-fault party. When those thresholds are met, you can typically pursue this relief. For example, in Michigan, which as a no-fault state, you can only pursue a claim for damages against the at fault party where you can show a “serious impairment of bodily function” as a result of the accident. What this means in any given case has changed many times since Michigan passed its first no-fault law in the 1970s. If you are injured in a no-fault state, it is imperative you talk to a qualified injury lawyer to review your specific circumstances.
Some contracts can prevent injury lawsuits from going forward in the usual way. In some situations, such as attending a private event by paying for a ticket, you may contractually agree to take on certain risks. However, there may still be opportunities to seek arbitration or file a lawsuit to get compensation for your injuries.
Many rental agreements and lease agreements are themselves contracts, and they may try to limit when you can sue your landlord for issues pertaining to rent and the like. However, certain injuries based on dangerous premises or uninhabitable living spaces might be grounds for a lawsuit despite those other restrictions. Again, these circumstances are fact sensitive and should be vetted by an attorney.
Cases Against the Government
Personal injury lawsuits against the government are often limited by “sovereign immunity” rules. These rules might put additional deadlines on case filings as well as damage caps for your compensatory and punitive damages. However, these lawsuits are still often necessary to get injured victims the care they need.