personal injury cases

Personal injury cases are brought by injury victims against the person or business responsible for their injury. Victims who bring lawsuits are called plaintiffs. The persons or businesses they sue are known as defendants.

Most personal injury cases require proof of three elements. First, the defendant in the lawsuit was negligent. The law imposes a duty upon all people to act with sufficient care to avoid causing foreseeable injury to other people. People are negligent when they behave carelessly.

Second, the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury. Third, the injury has a particular value. That value is the element of damages.

Kinds of Causation

Law students learn that there are two kinds of cause, both of which must be present to establish a defendant’s liability. Cause-in-fact refers to the defendant’s action or omission as an actual cause of the injury. It need not be the only cause. Sometimes a chain of events leads to an injury. Each link in the chain might be a cause of the injury.

For example, a truck that fails to stop because the driver is sending a text might slam into the rear of a car that is stopped in rush hour traffic, causing that car to collide with another car and producing a chain reaction. The car at the front of the chain might be forced across the median and into the path of another vehicle that crashes into the injury victim. The truck driver’s failure to watch the road was one cause of the victim’s injuries. If the oncoming driver could have swerved to avoid the accident, that driver’s failure to take evasive action might be another cause.

Because causal chains can be lengthy, the law also requires proof that the defendant’s act or failure to act was a proximate cause of the injury. A proximate cause is a direct cause of the injury. A cause that is far removed from the injury, although part of the chain of events that caused the injury, is not regarded as the proximate cause of the injury. Most states now refer to proximate cause by the term “substantial cause” to make clear that it need not be the only cause.

One test to determine whether a cause is proximate asks whether the defendant should have foreseen that the negligent act or failure to act might cause an injury. When harm is reasonably foreseeable, people have a duty to take action to avoid the harm. Since reasonable people can foresee that texting while driving can cause an accident, texting is a substantial cause of injuries that could have been avoided by not texting.

The foreseeability test does not require defendants to foresee the specific injury or the precise way in which the injury occurs. If a reasonable person would foresee that acts or failures to act could cause harm, the failure to take reasonable precautions to avoid the injury is a substantial cause of the injury.

Aggravating Causes of Harm

In some cases, an accident victim has an injury or disability prior to the defendant’s negligent act. If the defendant’s negligence makes that injury or disability worse, the defendant causes an aggravation of the preexisting condition.

Defendants do not get off the hook by injuring someone who was already injured. As a general rule in Florida, if a jury can determine the extent to which the defendant’s negligence worsened the preexisting condition, it should award damages only for the aggravation of that condition. In other words, if a victim was limping before the accident and will have a more severe limp, or will be limping for a longer time, because of the accident, the jury will hold the defendant responsible for the additional harm inflicted by the defendant’s negligence.

In some cases, however, a jury cannot measure the extent of a preexisting condition. In one Florida case, for example, a doctor testified that a car accident aggravated a victim’s Parkinson’s disease. Since it was impossible for the jury to quantify the degree to which the disease was made worse, the jury was allowed to hold the defendant accountable for the full future impact of the disease on the victim’s life.

Intervening Causes of Harm

Sometimes a second act occurs after the negligent act that worsens the victim’s harm. For example, a property owner who fails to repair a pothole in a parking lot might be liable to a customer who breaks an ankle after stepping into the pothole. However, if a robber then clubs the victim on the head and steals the victim’s wallet, the property owner is probably not responsible for the skull fracture caused by the robber.

A second action that worsens an injury or causes a new injury is called an intervening cause of injury. Defendants are not responsible for unforeseeable intervening causes, but can be liable for intervening causes that are foreseeable. In the example of the truck driver who caused a chain reaction that caused a subsequent collision with an oncoming vehicle, the truck driver could reasonably foresee that rear-end collisions cause chain reactions that force vehicles into different lanes of traffic. Since the subsequent collision was a foreseeable consequence of the first collision, the truck driver is liable for injuries caused by the initial rear-end collision and the subsequent head-on collision.

Contributory Causes of Harm

A special rule applies when the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the plaintiff’s injury. That rule, known as the “contributory negligence” rule, differs from state to state.

Contributory negligence is often a factor in intersection accidents. A driver who fails to yield to another driver who has the right of way is primarily responsible for the accident. However, if the injury victim could have avoided the accident by braking earlier or taking evasive action, the injury victim’s negligence contributed to the victim’s injury.

Florida addresses contributory negligence with a comparative negligence standard. The jury apportions fault between the plaintiff and defendant. The court then adjusts damages according to the apportionment of fault. A defendant who is 80% at fault will therefore be responsible for paying 80% of the plaintiff’s total damages