Personal injuries fall into the legal category of torts—wrongful acts that result in personal, property, or reputational damage for which the wrongdoer (“tortfeasor”) may be held civilly (rather than criminally) liable. The usual remedy for civil wrongs is monetary damages. Depending on the type of tort and the extent of injuries, damages might include those for incurred medical expenses, loss of future earnings, and pain and suffering.
Bases for LiabilityThe law provides several bases for personal injury liability, including negligence, strict liability, and intentional wrongs.
NegligenceA person acts negligently when he or she fails to act in the way a reasonable person is expected to act in similar circumstances. Legally, all people have a duty to conduct themselves in a reasonable manner. For example, when you get behind the wheel of a car, you owe a duty to the other drivers on the road, as well as to cyclists and pedestrians, to operate your vehicle safely and responsibly. If you fail to do so and cause injury to another, the injured individual(s) can hold you liable for the damages caused by your negligence. Individuals acting in a professional capacity (i.e. doctors) have a duty to act in the way that a member of the profession in good standing would act in similar circumstances.
Strict LiabilityStrict liability holds tortfeasors liable for damages that they cause without regard for whether they acted negligently. This most often arises in conjunction with product design or manufacturing defects. Rather than having to prove that a manufacturer or designer negligently manufactured or designed the product, all that is necessary is to show that the product itself was unreasonably dangerous when used as intended. Insufficient warnings may also provide the basis for strict liability. Courts can also hold animal owners strictly liable for damages caused by their animals, even if the owners take reasonable care to ensure that the animals do not injure anyone. In California a person cannot avoid liability for harm caused by their dog by keeping it in a cage or within a fence. If the dog injures another person the owner is liable in tort for those damages, regardless of the steps that he or she might have taken to prevent the damage from occurring. Courts can also hold individuals engaging in abnormally dangerous activities, such as conducting demolitions, storing or using explosives, or transporting hazardous chemicals, strictly liable for injuries caused by such activities.
Intentional Wrongful ActsSome torts arise from intentional wrongs. As the name implies, this type of tort requires that the perpetrator intended to commit the harmful act. Of the seven types of intentional torts, four relate to personal injury and are discussed below. The most common types of intentional torts are assault and battery. Battery is intentional touching in a harmful or offensive way. When people think of battery, they most often think of hitting another person, but battery also applies to certain types of medical malpractice, such as a surgeon performing a procedure without a patient’s consent or removing the wrong organ. Assault is the creation of the fear of a battery. Throwing a punch and missing meets the definition of assault. It is worth noting that both assault and battery are also punishable by criminal statutes. However, a criminal conviction is not necessary to prove either of these torts; the civil and criminal processes are entirely separate, and the burden of proof is lower in civil than in criminal cases. The other two intentional personal injury torts are (1) false imprisonment and (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress. False imprisonment is intentionally keeping someone in a bounded area by force, threat, or improper assertion of legal authority. It is similar to the crime of kidnapping, though not entirely the same. Intentional infliction of emotional distress involves engaging in outrageous conduct that leads to severe mental distress.
Types of InjuriesDepending on your circumstances, you may have suffered one or more of the following types of injuries.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI). These injuries occur when the brain sustains a jolt or blow or is deprived of oxygen for a sustained period of time. A person with a TBI may not experience symptoms until days or even weeks after the incident. TBIs range from mild (a concussion) to severe (a coma), and the severity of the related symptoms can widely vary. Brain injuries can lead to lasting cognition deficits. You may experience a TBI from a slip or fall in an unsafe area, as a result of a vehicle accident, or if you have been battered.
- Burns or lacerations. Burns and lacerations are common in vehicle accidents, but you may also have experienced a chemical or electrical burn caused by unsafe working conditions or exposed power lines. Victims often suffer lacerations as a result of workplace accidents, animal attacks, or the use of an unsafe product. Both of these types of injuries can leave scarring and cause mental trauma.
- Cancers and other terminal diseases. Exposure to toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, depressed immune systems, or respiratory illness. Unsafe working or living conditions caused by employers or landlords can lead to toxic exposure and create lifelong health problems for those exposed.
- Bone fractures. Fractures may result from a battery, falling due to poorly-maintained public spaces, and many other situations where a person has acted negligently.
- Loss of limbs. Unsafe working conditions, medical malpractice, exposure to toxins, burns, and vehicle accidents can all result in the amputation of limbs or digits. Understandably, individuals who undergo an amputation are often left with severe trauma and may be unable to return to the type of professional work that they once did or to enjoy their favorite leisure activities.
- Paralysis. Tragically, paralysis can result from serious automobile accidents, medical malpractice, or a severe battery. Those who become paralyzed may incur significant costs associated with rehabilitative therapy, specialized medical equipment (such as wheelchairs) and modifications necessary to make their homes or vehicles accessible.