A personal injury claim is a legal demand for compensation that is asserted against a person or business that caused an injury to the person. Personal injuries are bodily (physical) injuries. Injury victims are also entitled to recover compensation for mental injuries (such as emotional distress) that accompany a physical injury. The opportunity to recover damages for a mental injury that is unaccompanied by a physical injury varies from state to state but is usually quite limited.
Personal injury claims are typically based on the negligence of another person or business. A claim for physical injuries can also be based on intentional conduct, such as a claim for battery or assault. Claims for injuries that were intentionally inflicted are known as “intentional torts” and are governed by a different set of legal principles than those that apply to negligence claims.
Work-related injuries are not governed by personal injury law. Every state legislature has established a workers’ compensation system to deal with work injuries. Compensation is paid for work injuries without requiring the injured worker to prove that his or her employer was at fault. In exchange for that benefit, workers’ compensation does not pay the full damages that a worker would receive in a personal injury claim against a negligent employer. For example, emotional distress damages are unavailable as a workers’ compensation remedy.
Personal injury claims also differ from purely economic claims, such as a claim for property damage. A personal injury claim might seek compensation for economic losses, including wage loss and medical expenses, if the losses were caused by a physical injury to the person. Different rules of law govern claims for property damage, breach of contract, fraud, and other economic losses that do not arise from a personal injury.
Employment law claims, such as a claim for discrimination, sexual harassment, or whistleblowing, might entitle the employee to emotional distress and economic damages, but they are not regarded as personal injury claims. Employment law claims are governed by federal and state statutes that address the employment relationship.
Vehicular Accident Claims
Collisions involving cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians are the most common personal injury claims. The injury victim bases the claim on the negligence of another driver.
Common acts of negligence alleged in vehicular accident claims are driving while distracted (including driving while looking at a cellphone), failing to obey traffic signs and signals, speeding, failing to check for traffic before entering a traffic lane, turning in front of an oncoming motorcycle, and driving under the influence of alcohol.
Property owners have a duty to maintain their premises in a safe condition that creates no hazards for customers or guests. When that isn’t possible, they have a duty to warn customers or guests of the hazardous condition.
Unsafe property conditions often cause falls. Water in the produce aisle of a supermarket or spills of liquid products cause floors to be slippery. When the business owner knows or should have known of the condition and fails to warn customers of the danger or fails to dry the floor promptly, a customer who slips and falls will have a claim based on the property owner’s negligence.
Other property conditions that might cause a customer to fall include potholes in a parking lot, broken sidewalks on business premises, frayed carpeting, merchandise that juts into an aisle, electrical cords that stretch across a floor, and allowing club patrons to carry drinks onto a dance floor. Loose handrails on a stairway, defective escalators, and the failure to install grab bars in hotel bathrooms are also dangerous property conditions that can lead to falls.
Unsafe Property Condition Claims
Not all unsafe property conditions cause falls. Frayed electrical cords might cause an electrocution. An uncovered swimming pool might lead to a child’s drowning. When an unsafe property condition causes a foreseeable harm, the property owner is usually responsible.
Construction Accident Claims
Workers at construction sites are covered by workers’ compensation. Visitors, on the other hand, can bring a personal injury claim when they are injured by a negligent act. A worker who drops a tool from a height might inflict a traumatic brain injury on an unsuspecting victim. A pedestrian who walks beneath scaffolding on a sidewalk might experience significant crush injuries if the scaffolding collapses.
Medical Malpractice Claims
A medical malpractice claim is also known as a medical negligence claim. It is based on a healthcare provider’s negligent act (such as making a careless error during surgery) or failure to act (such as failing to diagnose cancer).
Many state legislatures have responded to lobbyists for the medical and insurance industries by making medical malpractices cases more difficult to prove. Patients with serious injuries caused by a doctor’s negligence should nevertheless explore the possibility of bringing a malpractice claim.
Product Liability Claims
Product manufacturers and sellers have a duty not to market dangerous products. To the extent that danger is unavoidable but might not be apparent, they have a duty to warn consumers about that danger. A breach of either of those duties may create liability when the breach injures a consumer of the product.
Products are usually dangerous because of their defective design or a flaw in the way they were manufactured. In some cases, it may not be necessary to prove that the manufacturer was negligent.
Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death law is a cousin of personal injury law. A wrongful death is a death that is inflicted without legal justification. Murder causes a wrongful death, but so do some traffic accidents.
Wrongful death law differs from personal injury law in that it is largely governed by statutes enacted by state legislatures. Those statutes determine who can bring a wrongful death lawsuit (usually the victim’s estate or specified family members), how damages are determined, and how the proceeds of the wrongful death claim are distributed.
What to Do After Experiencing a Personal Injury
Obtaining immediate medical treatment is essential after a personal injury. Following through on treatment recommendations is equally important. Medical treatment maximizes the opportunity for healing while making it clear to insurance companies that the injury is real.
After obtaining necessary emergency care, the next step is to obtain advice from a personal injury lawyer. A lawyer can suggest ways of protecting the injury victim’s right to obtain full compensation for the injury. That advice might include making no immediate statement to the negligent party’s insurance company and taking steps to preserve evidence.
It is particularly important to obtain legal advice before destroying any evidence (such as repairing or throwing out a damaged bicycle). Damaging or destroying evidence can harm the right to recover compensation.