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Accidents that lead to personal injury can and do happen. Oftentimes an accident isn’t just a happenstance but rather the result of a person’s negligence. In such cases, a personal injury lawsuit can help recover the money needed to cover medical costs and lost wages and compensate for unnecessary suffering resulting from the injuries.
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Why Someone Should File a Personal Injury Lawsuit
Personal injury law exists to protect people who have been harmed by another person’s or legal entity’s negligence. A person should consider filing a personal injury suit if one or more of the following results from an injury:
- Large medical bills
- Loss of income or earning power
- Ancillary expenses (e.g. car rental due to a vehicle being totaled)
- Emotional or physical suffering
- A significant change of lifestyle (e.g. loss of mobility or independence)
In such cases, a personal injury lawsuit can collect money owed or compensate for suffering. Money asked for or awarded in a personal injury lawsuit is called “damages.”
How to Know if You Have a Personal Injury Case
It is not always easy to tell if one has a personal injury case. In general terms, a person can sue another party for an injury if that party (a person or legal entity) owed a legal duty to the injured person. Examples include:
- A doctor owes a legal duty to provide an acceptable standard of medical care.
- A supermarket owes a legal duty to keep the floors safe to walk on (e.g. free of broken glass or slippery puddles).
- A landlord owes a legal duty to ensure the electrical wiring is in good order and not a shock or fire hazard.
- All drivers owe a duty to drive safely and not take risks that could cause an accident.
If a person is unsure if an injury is the result of negligence on the part of another party, it would be wise to speak with a personal injury attorney. An attorney will know what questions to ask to determine if another party breached their duty to the injured person. These consultations are usually free, and skilled attorneys will only take cases with a good chance of success.
What Is Pain and Suffering?
Damages generally fall into three categories: economic, non-economic, and punitive. The first ican be fairly easy to calculate. All costs to date related to the accident, as well as possible future costs, are added together. For example, the cost of replacing a vehicle, co-pays for seeing a doctor, lost wages due to an inability to work, and costs associated with future medical treatment (e.g. surgeries, wheelchairs, etc.). If modifications need to be made to a home to account for a wheelchair or other mobility needs, these would also be included.
Non-economic losses—also called pain and suffering—are more abstract. They are based on the subjective assessment of how negatively the injury has impacted the person’s life. This could include literal pain or emotional pain. It is clear, for example, that a person who incurs permanent stiffness and pain from a neck injury endures tangible suffering. At the same time, a person who used to enjoy soccer but is no longer able to play due to permanent injury suffers in a different but also meaningful way.
Experienced attorneys have a good sense of what kinds of suffering justify certain levels of monetary award.
What Are Punitive Damages?
In extreme situations, a person could be awarded punitive damages. This is a monetary award offered to the injured party as a punishment. By contrast, other damages are aimed at trying to make the injured person “whole again,” primarily by easing undue financial constraints.
In addition to acting as a punishment, punitive damages are also meant as a deterrent to other persons or entities that might engage in similar activities or forms of negligence.
Punitive damages are rare and only issued in circumstances where the neglect and/or injuries are particularly egregious. Most people should not expect to receive punitive damages.
What a Personal Injury Attorney Does
A personal injury attorney is important because he/she will do all the heavy lifting in a personal injury case. There is a lot of paperwork and processes involved when a person wishes to sue for damages. Among the many roles of an attorney are:
- Evaluating the claim. The attorney can examine the facts to determine if the client has a claim, and if so, how large the potential award. This will be based both on the severity of the injury and the level of neglect that caused it.
- Gathering evidence. This may include police reports, witness statements, photographs of the injury and/or accident scene, and much more. An attorney will also speak to numerous experts, including medical professionals. Among the goals is to prove that injuries were incurred, that those injuries were the result of neglect, and that financial hardship and/or suffering resulted.
- Negotiating with insurance companies. When a person or company is sued, an insurance company often takes on the bulk of the financial liability for the defendant. One key reason is that these companies employ shrewd, professional negotiators. An experienced attorney will know how to handle all communication with insurance companies in order to ensure the best chance of receiving an adequate award.
- Preparing pleadings. Most personal injury cases result in settlements without trial, but when a trial is necessary, the attorney may file a formal complaint against the liable party/parties. The complaint lays out the arguments for why the defendant is responsible for the accident and the damages that the client is seeking.
- Conducting discovery. This includes requesting information from the defendant, deposing (questioning) parties, witnesses, and experts.
- Representing the client at trial. If the case ends up going to trial, the attorney will represent the client in court and handle all of the stages of a personal injury trial.
How Much a Personal Injury Attorney Costs
Most attorneys in this field of law work on a contingency fee. That means the lawyer is only paid if the client collects damages, in which case the attorney will collect a percentage. The vast majority do not charge hourly rates or require down payments.
As a result, personal injury attorneys are very discerning—they only take cases that have a good chance of winning something. However, this factor alone does not guarantee an award.
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