Q: How do I know if I have a personal injury case?
A: First, you must have suffered an injury to your person or property. Second, you should consider whether your injury was someone else's fault. It is not always necessary to have a physical injury to bring a personal injury lawsuit — some personal injury claims can be based on a variety of nonphysical losses and harms. In the case of an assault, for example, you do not need to show that a person's action caused you actual physical harm, but only that you expected some harm to come to you. Similarly, you also may have a case if someone has caused injury to your reputation, invaded your privacy or intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon you.
Q: How soon after I am injured do I have to file a lawsuit?
A: Every state has certain time limits, called “statutes of limitations,” which govern the amount of time you have to file a personal injury lawsuit. If you miss the deadline for filing your case, you may lose your legal right to damages for your injury. Consequently, it is important to contact a lawyer as soon as you suffer or discover an injury.
Q: What should I bring with me for my meeting with a lawyer?
A: You should provide a lawyer with any documents that might be relevant to your case. Police reports, for example, may contain eyewitness information and important details about the conditions surrounding the event from which your claim arises. Copies of medical reports and bills from doctors and hospitals will help demonstrate the extent and nature of your injuries. Information about the insurer of the person who caused your injury is extremely helpful, as are any photographs you have of the accident scene, damaged property and your injuries. The more information you are able to give your lawyer, the easier it will be for him or her to determine if your claim will be successful. If you haven't collected any documents at the time of your first meeting, however, don't worry; your lawyer will be able to obtain them in his investigation of your claim.
Q: What if a person dies before bringing a personal injury lawsuit?
A: If a person injured in an accident subsequently dies because of those injuries, that person's heirs may typically recover money through a wrongful death action. Also, even if a person with a personal injury claim dies from unrelated causes, the personal injury claim survives in most cases and may be brought by the executor or personal representative of the deceased person's estate.
Q: What is negligence?
A: The critical issue in many personal injury cases is just how a “reasonable person” was expected to act in the particular situation that caused the injury. A person is negligent when he or she fails to act like an “ordinary reasonable person” would have acted. The determination of whether a given person has met the “ordinary reasonable person” standard is often a matter that is resolved by a jury after presentation of evidence and argument at trial.
Q: What if I can't prove someone's negligence caused my injury? Is there any other basis for personal injury liability besides negligence?
A: Yes. Some persons or companies may be held “strictly liable” for certain activities that harm others, even if they have not acted negligently or with wrongful intent. Under the theory of strict liability, a person injured by a defective or unexpectedly dangerous product, for instance, may recover compensation from the maker or seller of the product without showing that the manufacturer or seller was actually negligent. Also, persons or companies engaged in using explosives, storing dangerous substances or keeping dangerous animals can be strictly liable for harm caused to others as a result of such activities.
Q: Will the person who caused my injury be punished?
A: Not in the traditional sense of the word. Defendants in civil actions for personal injury do not receive jail terms or criminal fines as punishment. Those are criminal sentences, and personal injury cases are civil actions. However, in some cases, juries and courts can award what are called “punitive damages,” which are damages designed to punish defendants who have behaved recklessly or intentionally against the public's interest. The goal in ordering the payment of punitive damages is to discourage such defendants and others from engaging in the same kind of harmful behavior in the future.