The Basic Structure of a Personal Injury Case Has Three Distinct Component Parts: Liability, Causation, and Damages.
Liability – Legal Term For “Fault”
For a personal injury plaintiff to have a successful case she and her lawyer must prove “more likely than not” that the other party is liable for the injury, that the actions of the other party caused the injury, and then the personal injury plaintiff must prove the extent of their injury and damages. If a personal injury plaintiff fails to meet its burden of proof on any of these three items, then the entire case fails.
Liability is a fancy legal term for fault. Who is at fault and can you as the plaintiff in a personal injury case prove that the opposing party is legally responsible for the injury and damage? Many times, in personal injury cases in Florida, the legal theory is negligence. Negligence is a type of conduct that is unreasonable under the circumstances. Stated differently, negligence is failing to act as a reasonable and prudent person would act under similar circumstances.
If an injury is caused by someone rolling through a stop sign instead of stopping, then it is negligence if the reasonable and prudent person would have stopped at the sign instead of rolling through it. Or, if this is a medical malpractice case, the measure of negligence is whether the reasonable prudent physician (of similar training and experience) would have made a different decision in the care and treatment of a patient.
Liability can also take forms other than negligence. For example, you can establish liability against an opposing party in a Florida personal injury case by alleging violation of a statute, alleging strict products liability against a product manufacturer or seller, or alleging conduct that was even worse than negligence like recklessness. Reckless or wanton conduct is acting in a way that you realize is likely to cause harm or damage and you act that way anyway. In the stop sign example above, we noted how rolling through a stop sign might establish negligence but going 90mph through a stop sign at a known busy intersection would amount to something more than negligence, it would likely amount to reckless conduct.
So, the first building block of a personal injury case is liability or fault. Initially, you and your Florida personal injury lawyer will have to decide what legal theory or theories are available to bring against the opposing party. As referenced, most of the time this legal vehicle will be negligence, but all theories should be considered and if viable under your fact situation, should be considered by your legal team.
Second, in evaluating how successful your legal theory is there needs to be frank and candid consideration of the other two elements of a personal injury case: causation and injury/damages.
Causation – Ties Together Liability and Damages
Causation or legal causation is an examination of whether you as the plaintiff can show that the negligence or fault of the opposing party caused/or substantially contributed to your injury/damages. Legal causation means that the actions of the opposing party must be linked to the injury or damage. So, in the rolling through the stop sign example, the negligence would be rolling through the stop sign. If that negligence caused a crash, then the legal causation requirement would be satisfied. However, let’s assume that at the same time one party rolls through a stop sign another party at the four-way stop didn’t notice the stop sign and speeds through it striking your vehicle first before the car that was rolling through could even make contact and never contacts the car. The car that rolled through the stop sign and never made contact was negligent, but that negligent conduct did not cause damage or injury since it never impacted the injured party’s vehicle. The other vehicle that sped through the stop sign did make contact and would satisfy the legal causation since that driver’s negligence caused the damage/injury.
Damage / Injury Caused by the Other Party
Third, a successful personal injury case also involves the evaluation of the damages/ injury caused by the other party. For instance, there are situations where an opposing party rolls through a stop sign and causes impact with another vehicle and doesn’t cause an injury. So, then a plaintiff in a personal injury case could prove fault (rolling through the stop sign is negligence remember?) and could prove legal causation (the rolling car struck the client’s car) but if there is only damage to the car and there is no injury then you would likely not have a case worth pursuing since Florida law requires a permanent injury to have a successful car wreck case.
Likewise, if you are the victim of medical malpractice and let’s assume for purpose of this example that we can prove that the doctor was negligent (she did not act as the reasonable doctor would have acted under similar circumstances) and we can prove that that negligent act legally caused an injury to the patient, but we have trouble establishing that the severity of the injury will be sufficient to justify bringing the action.
Medical malpractice cases are expensive cases to bring since the laws in Florida require the injured party to spend about $100,000.00-$200,000.00 to bring and maintain a medical malpractice case. Not every injury would make economic sense to pursue. For example, let’s say you go in for surgery and the surgeon leaves a surgical sponge inside of your intestines, but the sponge eventually comes out and there is no permanent injury from the sponge being left in, but you suffer weeks of stomach discomfort and must see the doctor many more times than you otherwise would have.
However, if there are no significant and permanent medical issues that are the direct result of the negligent act (leaving the surgical sponge in the intestines) then you would likely not be recommended to pursue that case since it doesn’t make economic sense to do so. The costs of the case would likely exceed or be equal to what the case is worth and then the client and the law firm net nothing or take a loss.
In sum, a winning personal injury case requires that the injured party and her lawyer prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). This burden of proof requires evidence of three distinct elements liability, causation, and damages/injury. The personal injury lawyer will be evaluating all three of these elements from the very first call.
Joe Zarzaur is a Board Certified Civil Trial Attorney whose firm is dedicated to promoting community safety since 2007. ZARZAUR LAW’S AREAS OF PRACTICE: Serious Personal Injury, Product Defect, Auto Accidents, Cycling Accidents, Motor Vehicle Accidents, Products Liability, Wrongful Death, Community Safety, Boat and Jet Ski Accidents, Slip and Fall Injuries, and more. Licensed in Alabama and Florida.
If you’ve been the victim of an accident, it’s important that you don’t make any rash decisions. Put yourself in the best possible position to receive the justice you deserve. It is also important to consult with a Board Certified Trial lawyer who has the knowledge and experience to help you. We know accidents can be stressful and want to make the process as easy as possible for you. Call Zarzaur Law, P.A. today at (855) Hire-Joe, or by requesting a free case review through our website.