California Personal Injury Basics

Personal injury lawsuits are perhaps the most common of all lawsuits. But what does a personal injury claim entail, exactly?

At its core, a personal injury case involves an injured party suing the at-fault party for monetary compensation. California, as with every other state, has its own set of rules governing personal injury claims.

Crimes vs. Torts

A crime is a wrong committed against society as a whole. A tort, on the other hand, is a civil wrong committed against a private entity: a person, group of persons, or an organization.

Personal injury claims can be confusing to clients because they frequently appear to occupy a middle ground. Assault and battery is identifiably criminal conduct, but it is widely understood that the victim of an assault and battery can sue to recover damages for the injuries they suffered.

It is important to understand that an injured party can simultaneously have been a victim of both a criminal wrong and a civil wrong (tort). The at-fault party may therefore be prosecuted under criminal law - and face various criminal penalties and even incarceration - and may also be sued civilly by the injured party. Personal injury law is based on the law of torts and governs the civil side of the claim, which is brought by the injured party. The civil case is crucial to justice in its own way, as the damages award from a successful personal injury lawsuit is intended to compensate the injured party for the wrongs inflicted upon them and, to the extent possible, make them 'whole.'

One common concern when it comes to personal injury claims is that the case will be somehow impeded by criminal law, and by extension, the criminal courts. Some victims might worry that they will have to satisfy the stricter burden of proof demanded in criminal actions. The answer is, bluntly, no. If there is a criminal and civil lawsuit, they will be separate, and the goings-on of one will not typically affect the other.

Again, it should be noted that, although the criminal lawsuit will be dealt with by the State, the civil lawsuit is the injured party's responsibility. If you believe that you may have an actionable personal injury claim, it is therefore crucial that you contact a qualified personal injury attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your rights under the law are exercised to their fullest extent.

The Types of Personal Injury Torts

There are three major types of personal injury torts, and each will significantly affect the way in which the case should be approached from a legal strategy standpoint.

Intentional Torts

Intentional torts involve willful conduct on the part of the at-fault party. T and battery may more readily come to mind when one thinks of intentional, willful injury-causing behavior, most personal injury claims could come under the ambit of intentional tort depending on the discovered-intentions of the at-fault party. Imagine, for example, a premises liability claim in which the owner of a restaurant knows that the front steps to his restaurant are negligently maintained, and who fails to properly maintain the steps in hopes that someone will fall and be injured. Though one could argue that the owner was negligent in his maintenance of the steps, taking it further, one could argue that the owner was willful in his neglect.

Intentional torts are advantageous for the plaintiff from a legal strategy standpoint. The plaintiff must simply prove that: a) the defendant intentionally acted in a manner such that injury was likely to occur; and b) the plaintiff suffered harm as a result.

Negligent Torts

Negligence is premised on the existence basic duty of care that a person owes to another when conducting themselves. The duty of care analysis may vary quite substantially depending on the specific circumstances of the case, and as such, one should consult a qualified personal injury attorney for guidance.

To prove negligence, the plaintiff must show that: a) defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff; b) defendant breached his or her duty of care; and c) the defendant's breach caused, in substantial part, plaintiff's injuries.

Strict Liability Torts

Strict liability is theoretically advantageous to the plaintiff, as, in a strict liability case, the defendant is liable regardless of how at-fault they actually are. The plaintiff simply needs to show that defendant caused his or her injury.

Strict liability applies in three types of personal injury cases:

  • Animal bite cases
    • California Civil Code section 3342 makes a dog owner strictly liable for the damages suffered by a person who is bitten by their dog, whether in a private or public place.
  • Ultrahazardous cases
    • A defendant engaging in 'ultrazahardous' activity will be strictly liable for any injuries resulting from such activity. Ultrahazardous activity is statutorily defined in certain instances (California Health & Safety Code section 12005.5, California Water Code section 13350(b)), but in many cases, the court will determine whether an activity qualifies as ultrahazardous based on an analysis that takes into account the degree of risk, the ability to limit the risk of harm to others, how common the activity is, and the value of the activity to the community as compared to its dangerousness.
  • Product liability cases
    • Product liability is by far the most common strict liability circumstance in personal injury. Strict liability is applied to defective product litigation so as to give more weight to consumer safety. Because of strict liability in product liability, manufacturers and product designers are incentivized to create safer, better-designed products.
    • For a plaintiff to succeed in a product liability case, he or she must prove that: a) the product was defective (either defective in its manufacture or in its design); and b) the defect was the substantial cause of plaintiff's injury.

Statute of Limitations on Personal Injury Cases

In California, the statute of limitations for most personal injury claims runs for two years from the date of injury (the statute of limitations may differ, however, depending on the type of claim). What this means is that the injured party has two years from the date of injury to file a lawsuit relating to the injury-at-issue. If the two-year time limit passes without a lawsuit having been filed, then the injured party will have no legal recourse through which to receive compensation.

Importantly, if the injured party did not immediately discover their injury on the date of injury (or soon after), then the statute of limitations changes accordingly - in such circumstances, the statute of limitations runs for one year from the date of discovery. Imagine, for example, that a man is slammed into by a bicyclist, injuring his head. The man recovers quickly from the initial pain of impact, thinking that he should not bother to bring a lawsuit against the bicyclist as the pain was fleeting. Two years later, the man is beset by memory loss issues. He goes to a neurologist and discovers that the impact caused brain damage that is influencing his memory two years later. Though it has been two years from the date of injury, the man can still file for a lawsuit as his statute of limitations did not begin to run (as he did not actually discover his injury - the memory loss - until two years after the accident).

The statute of limitations period is also different if the at-fault party is a Government agency or entity, or an employee of the Government. When you sue a government entity, you must file an administrative claim within six months of the date of injury.

Not all personal injury cases are straightforward. What appears at first to be a typical car accident may actually implicate the City in which the accident occurred if there was some flaw in the roadway, for example. Because it is difficult to predict the twists and turns of a case and where they might lead, and because the statute of limitations is so short when concerning public entities, it is crucial that the injured party contact a qualified personal injury attorney as soon as possible after the injury takes place. Good personal injury attorneys will quickly assess your claims, and if they are actionable, will file a lawsuit against all the known, relevant parties in order to preserve your claims.

Shared Fault

In many personal injury cases, there are multiple defendants involved, each at fault to some degree. In these 'shared fault' personal injury cases, California law divides the liabilities of the defendants according to pure comparative negligence. Essentially, each defendant - if found to be at-fault - is liable for a percent of total damages equal to precisely how at-fault that defendant was for the injury (itself measured by a percentage). To better illustrate the point, consider the following example:

Imagine that there is a car accident in which a woman driver is hit by two cars and injured. The woman is stopped at a red light. One of the defendants is driving fast towards the red light where the woman is stopped, but instead of slowing down and coming to a stop himself, this defendant slams his car into the back of the woman's stopped car, sending it rolling forward into the intersection ahead. As the woman's car rolls forward into the intersection, another car is speeding towards the intersection from her right-side. The driver of the car speeding towards her right-side is on his cell phone, distracted. He crashes into the side of the woman's car as it stalls in the middle of the intersection, causing her severe injuries.

In this example, certainly both of the drivers - the man who slammed his car into the woman's car from behind, sending it rolling into the intersection (Defendant A), and the man who was distracted and on his cell phone, crashing his car into the side of the woman's car (Defendant B) - are at fault. Suppose that the woman wins her case and damages of $100,000. Suppose, also, that the court finds that Defendant A is 40% at-fault, and that Defendant B is 60% at-fault. Given these facts, Defendant A will be liable for $40,000, and Defendant B will be liable for $60,000.

Damages in Personal Injury

There are three kinds of damages that may be available to the victim in a California personal injury case: special damages, general damages, and punitive damages.

Special Damages

Special damages are documented, economic damages, such as medical expenses, loss of earnings (due to a demotion, firing, or reduction in working hours), loss of future earning capacity, loss of employment opportunities, property damage and repair, and potentially long-term household care and rehabilitative care. Special damages are the easiest kind to prove as there will usually be documentation of such damages. Skilled personal injury attorneys will help you to identify and gather the necessary documentation.

General Damages

General damages encompass less tangible, noneconomic damages. General damages can be difficult to prove, and may include claims for damages based on pain and suffering, mental difficulties and emotional distress (i.e. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or Depression), social and reputational problems, damage to one's spousal relationship, and more. For mental, emotional, and social difficulties, it may be useful to have documentation from any psychiatrists/psychologists and counselors with which such difficulties have been discussed.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are 'extra' damages that are not meant so much to compensate the victim for their injuries, but are used instead to punish the at-fault parties and discourage similar behaviors. Generally, punitive damages are only awarded in cases in which the defendant not only acted willfully, but also acted in a particularly egregious, malicious, violent, oppressive, fraudulent, wanton, or reckless manner. Because of these quite stringent requirements, punitive damages are quite rare in the realm of personal injury.

For a free consultation with an experienced, highly successful personal injury attorney, call the Law Offices of Brian O' Grady at (650) 318-6131 to set up your appointment today.