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Elements of a Personal Injury Negligence Case: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Posted by Eric G. Young | May 12, 2022 | 0 Comments

Most people who find themselves in the legal system know little about what they have gotten themselves into. The average person's understanding of the legal system derives from what they watch on TV or in movies. These sources intentionally dramatize the legal system and litigators, in particular. Few TV shows or movies bother with depicting the activities that truly take up a majority of a litigator's time: telephone calls, correspondence, document review, answering discovery, and so on. If these entertainment outlets did present these activities to viewers, they would probably find their shows canceled and movie ticket sales plummeting. From the point of view of a producer, courtroom scenes like the one featured in A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson's character, Col. Nathan R. Jessup yells, "You Can't Handle the Truth!" are far more lucrative than two hours of watching a litigator scrutinize spreadsheets or medical records. Unfortunately, the result is that most people have a distorted understanding and unrealistic expectations of the legal system and the lawyers who work within it.

At Young Law Group, we view our role as attorneys as having an educational component to it. We strive to educate our clients about their rights and responsibilities under the law, and we also work hard to make sure they understand every phase of their lawsuit. We believe that knowledge empowers clients to make informed decisions. The purpose of this article is to provide some basic knowledge about cases where personal injuries result from someone's negligence. Specifically, this article discusses the differences between a criminal and civil case, the elements of a personal injury negligence case that every plaintiff must prove, and some common defenses that can be raised in personal injury negligence cases.

Personal Injury Cases

Personal injury cases are civil disputes between two or more parties in which one side seeks compensation for physical or emotional harm caused by the other party(ies). Typically, these cases involve allegations by the plaintiff that one or more defendants were negligent in some manner. Examples of common personal injury cases include:

  • Automobile collisions;
  • Slip/Trip and fall cases;
  • Dangerous products cases; and
  • Wrongful death

 Civil v. Criminal: What's the Difference?

There are several key differences distinguishing a civil case from a criminal case. The flow chart below illustrates these key differences:

Differences Between Criminal and Civil Case

Civil cases also have a completely different "life cycle" than criminal cases. Civil cases, including personal injury cases, can have one or more of the following stages:

  • Investigatory Stage
  • Pleadings Stage
  • Pre-Trial Discovery Stage
  • Dispositive Motions Stage
  • Trial Stage
  • Post-Trial/Appeal Stage
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)/Settlement Stage

Because there are many stages to a civil case, and because of other factors such as crowded court dockets and scheduling difficulties, civil cases can sometimes languish for over two years before they are resolved. Consequently, anyone embarking on a personal injury case should think of their case as a marathon and not a sprint.

Essential Elements of a Personal Injury Negligence Case

The vast majority of personal injury cases allege negligence. Whether these cases are successful or not depends on whether the plaintiff can establish the following four elements:

The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. A defendant must be obligated to reasonably protect the plaintiff from harm that was reasonably foreseeable. In California, for example, merchants who operate businesses open to the public have a duty of care to maintain their facilities to avoid customers falling while on the premises. Under some circumstances, this duty also includes preventing a patron from assaulting another patron, if such conduct is foreseeable. The more attenuated the relationship is between a plaintiff and a defendant, the less likely a court will impose a duty of care. Likewise, the more outlandish a particular harm is, the less likely a court will find that a defendant should have foreseen its occurrence.

The defendant failed to act reasonably in their conduct toward the plaintiff. This element is referred to as a "breach of the duty of care." For example, suppose a landlord knows they have an apartment with an unsafe staircase, but they go ahead and rent it to the plaintiff anyway without taking steps to remedy the dangerous condition or warn the plaintiff about it. 

The defendant's actions were a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's injury. This element is referred to as "causation," and it is, undoubtedly, the most difficult element to wrap one's mind around. Why is this the case? One reason is because of the way we, as humans, tend to think. We tend to think that when an event and a result are closely tied together in time, the event necessarily must have caused the result. When I teach on this subject, the example I give to my students involves me banging my fists on my desk and a heavy mirror hanging on the wall falls to the ground and shatters. It seems obvious that my banging on my desk must have caused the mirror to fall to the ground because the event (banging on the desk) and the result (mirror falling to the ground) occurred close together in time. Yet, this is not so. The heavy mirror may have been causing stress on a nail too weak to hold up the mirror, and the mirror would have fallen to the ground and shattered even if I never banged my fists on my desk.

Another factor that makes causation difficult to understand is that we must accept that a result may have more than one cause. This also goes against our natural tendency to believe that life is made up of a series of simple cause-and-effect scenarios. Life is far more complex and nuanced than that, just as personal injury cases are. In many instances, an event can have more than one contributing factor that causes the event to occur. Sometimes, a contributing factor may be something the injured plaintiff did. A plaintiff who hurries down a flight of steps in the rain, wearing flip flops, and is not watching where she is going, is likely to be found at least partially at fault for causing herself to trip and fall down the steps.

The plaintiff sustained actual injuries or damages. The purpose of bringing civil actions is so an injured plaintiff can obtain compensation for their injuries or related expenses, such as medical care, missed time from work, property damages, and so on. These expenses must be real and quantifiable. They cannot be speculative or based on "what if"-type scenarios. For example, a plaintiff who sustains minor injuries in an automobile collision is not entitled to substantial damages simply because the collision was one where the plaintiff "could have died." The plaintiff did not die, and thus, he or she is limited to compensation for just the injuries and expenses actually incurred.

Common Defenses to Personal Injury Negligence Cases

For every meritorious argument a plaintiff can make, a defendant will make a counterargument. Our legal system is based on an "adversarial" nature as being the best way to arrive at the truth, a debatable concept that goes beyond the scope of this article. Below are some of the more common defenses that defendants raised in personal injury negligence cases:

Statutes of LimitationsAll civil cases are subject to deadlines by which they must be filed in court, or the plaintiff is forever barred from pursuing the case. These are known as "statutes of limitations." If a plaintiff waits too long and the deadline to file passes, the defendant will be off the liability hook, even if the plaintiff is 100% correct about what occurred.

Contributory Negligence. I touched on this concept with the hypothetical plaintiff running down the steps in the rain wearing flip flops. Some jurisdictions allow a defendant to argue that the plaintiff's conduct fell below a certain standard of care and was a contributing factor in causing the harm. In some of these jurisdictions, if a defendant can demonstrate that a plaintiff is even 1% at fault, the plaintiff is barred from recovery.

California has adopted a different approach, which is referred to as "comparative fault." Under this approach, fault can be attributed to one or more parties or individuals based on percentages of culpability. "Comparative fault" does not bar a plaintiff entirely from recovery, but it can be used to minimize the plaintiff's damages.

Assumption of RiskAssumption of risk occurs when a plaintiff chooses to encounter danger and suffers injury as a result. So long as the choice was knowing and voluntary, the harm that occurred was of a type associated with the risk, and the defendant did not do anything to increase the likelihood of harm, the plaintiff cannot blame the defendant for his injuries.

Special Situations - Fall Cases. Cases involving dangerous conditions of property that cause people to fall can often be more complex than one might think. These cases give rise to unique defenses. One such defense is similar to assumption of risk but is called "open and obvious." If a plaintiff is injured due to a defective condition of property that was "open and obvious," the landowner is typically not liable for failing to warn of the risk. This principle rests on the notion that a danger that is "open and obvious" serves as its own warning. 

Along those same lines, a plaintiff may trip and fall because of a defect that is slight. For example, suppose a plaintiff is jogging down a sidewalk, and she trips on a piece of concrete that is raised up about one-half of an inch. The defendant in that case will likely argue that the defect is "trivial," and the defendant had no obligation to repair something so slight.

These are only two examples. Dangerous property cases - also known as premises liability cases - typically involve a host of other defenses unique to those types of cases.

Equitable Defenses. Every defendant can, and does, raise a number of defenses that, collectively, are referred to as "equitable defenses." These defenses are based on notions of fairness, and they often have rather colorful names. For example, one equitable defense is known as the "unclean hands doctrine," which prevents a plaintiff from recovering damages if the plaintiff comes to court having done wrong himself; i.e., he has "unclean hands."

Another equitable defense is similar to statutes of limitations but is referred to as the "laches." Laches rests on the principle that the law does not come to the aid of a plaintiff who slumbers on their rights. In other words, act promptly when seeking a judicial remedy, or you may be out of luck.

Yet another equitable defense is called "estoppel," which comes in more than one form. The essence of all estoppels, however, is that they prevent someone from arguing something or asserting a right that contradicts what they previously said or agreed to by law. Simply put, estoppel is a legal principle that prevents someone from "blowing hot-cold" about something. 

Again, these are but a few of the many equitable principles that can be a defense in a civil action. In California, these equitable principles are codified in the Civil Code as the "Maxims of Jurisprudence," which can be found in Civil Code sections 3509-3548.

If you have been injured as a result of someone else's negligence, you may be entitled to file a personal injury case against that person and seek monetary compensation, including payment of your medical expenses, lost wages, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and more. However, you should not embark upon such a case on your own. In most cases, the defendant you sue will be protected by an insurance company with virtually inexhaustible resources and plenty of defense lawyers on speed dial. You deserve to have competent representation on your side, too.

Find out if we can help you with your catastrophic personal injury matter by scheduling a free, initial consultation. Nothing takes the place of consulting with an attorney. Keep in mind the information contained in this article is general in nature. It is not intended to cover all possible scenarios, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have been injured due to someone else's negligence, you should always seek the advice of your own attorney and not rely on anything you read on the Internet.

About the Author

Eric G. Young

Mr. Young began representing seriously injured persons in 1997. Since that time, Mr. Young has worked on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants, so he has experience working with the "other side," which he feels gives him a unique perspective on how to best represent injured person. Over his...

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