Personal injury claims seek compensation for bodily injuries and accompanying emotional injuries that are caused by another person or business. While injury claims can be based on the intentional conduct, such as a claim for assault, most personal injury claims are based on the negligent infliction of harm.
Negligence is another word for carelessness. All people have a legal duty to take reasonable precautions to avoid causing foreseeable injuries to others. Careless behavior that creates a danger of harm breaches that duty.
People are negligent when they fail to act with the same care that an ordinary and prudent person would exercise under the same circumstances. How a person of ordinary prudence would behave is often a question for a jury to decide, although judges typically explain specific legal rules to juries that apply to the facts of the case. For example, a judge might instruct a jury that disobeying a traffic sign or failing to warn store customers of a known property hazard is an act of negligence.
Evidence of Negligence
Proving a negligence claim requires evidence. The evidence focuses on what happened to cause the victim’s injury and on what should have happened to avoid that injury.
Suppose a driver entered an intersection and was injured in a collision by a driver who entered the intersection from the injured driver’s left. Evidence will be needed to prove that (1) the injury victim had the right of way, and (2) the other driver negligently caused the accident by failing to yield. The judge will explain the legal rules governing right of way, but a jury will need to determine the facts. Relevant facts might include which vehicle entered the intersection first and whether both drivers were driving within the speed limit.
Unless everyone agrees about the facts, evidence of negligence in a right-of-way case might consist of the testimony of one or both drivers and of witnesses who saw the collision. Proof might also consist of physical evidence, including the location of damage to both cars, photographs showing the location in the intersection where the impact occurred, gouges in the pavement, skid marks, the location of accident debris after the cars were moved.
The first step in proving a negligence claim is to gather evidence while it is still available. Both vehicles should be inspected and photographed before they are repaired. An investigator may need to photograph the accident scene. When the cause or exact location of a collision is not obvious, an accident reconstruction engineer might be asked to inspect the accident scene, to make appropriate measurements, and to arrive at conclusions about how, where, and why the accident occurred.
Witnesses will need to be interviewed while their memories are still fresh. In some cases, an investigating police officer might identify and interview witnesses, but it is often necessary to obtain more comprehensive statements to assure that all-important details are memorialized in witness statements.
Since it is necessary to gather proof at an early stage of the case, injury victims benefit by contacting a personal injury lawyer immediately. The sooner an investigation begins, the more likely it becomes that an investigation will uncover and preserve useful evidence.
In addition to proving that a party was negligent, a personal injury case requires proof that the negligence caused an injury. Injuries and their cause are usually proved by the testimony of treating physicians. If an intersection collision caused a concussion, a twisted knee, and a lower back injury, a physician will explain the nature and extent of each injury. The physician will typically testify that the injuries are consistent with the car accident that the patient described. In the absence of evidence of any other potential cause of the injury, the jury will have a basis for concluding that the accident caused the injuries.
In some cases, causation might require additional proof. For example, insurance companies often argue that a low speed rear-end collision cannot cause a serious whiplash injury. Experts in biomechanics have determined that low-speed impacts can place significant stress on the spine and on muscles in the neck and shoulders. Unless the treating physician has special knowledge of biomechanics, it may be necessary to call an additional expert to explain why a serious injury can be caused by a collision that causes only a small amount of damage to a vehicle.
Presentation of Evidence at Trial
After conducting a thorough investigation, the accident victim’s personal injury lawyer will be able to determine how to prove negligence at trial. The lawyer will call the injury victim and any other witnesses to the accident to explain how the other party’s actions caused the accident. The lawyer will decide which treating physicians can best explain the victim’s injuries and the medical treatment they required. If other experts are needed, the lawyer will arrange for them to testify.
In addition to proving that the other party was negligent and that the negligence caused an injury, the lawyer will want to prove the extent of the victim’s damages. In a typical personal injury case, damages include past and future medical expenses, past wage loss and loss of future earning capacity, the expense of coping with a permanent or long-term disability, and pain, suffering, and emotional distress.
Medical expenses are usually proved by treating physicians, although a medical billing expert may need to testify that the expenses are reasonable. A vocational expert may need to provide evidence about loss of future earning capacity. A life care planner might testify about the future expenses of coping with a disability.
The victim and his or her family members will testify about the emotional impact of the injury on the victim. The lawyer will want to present vivid testimony about the victim’s physical and emotional pain. For example, an injury that prevents a new mother from lifting her baby might have a devastating emotional impact that transcends physical pain. The personal injury lawyer will identify the best witnesses to present concrete examples of how the injury had a distressing impact on the victim’s life.