Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

What Is a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

A personal injury lawsuit is a legal dispute that arises when someone suffers harm from an accident or injury, and someone else or an entity, might be legally responsible for that harm. The basics of personal injury law include concepts relating to tort law and civil lawsuits. Generally, the serious injury they suffered determines the amount they recover.

This article addresses the basics of a personal injury lawsuit, including formal lawsuits and informal settlements. It also discusses statutes of limitation and laws that govern personal injury cases. We'll also explore the types of recoverable damages.

The Basics of a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Suppose someone else's action or inaction injures you. In that case, the responsible person's insurance company will pay monetary compensation to you for:

  • Medical bills
  • Pain and suffering
  • Other ongoing medical expenses

If your case involves medical malpractice, your personal injury attorney will work with insurance companies and hospital attorneys.

You can begin a personal injury case through a personal injury lawyer providing legal representation to you at a civil court proceeding. This court session seeks to find others legally at fault through a court judgment or, as is more common, through informal settlement negotiations before a victim files a lawsuit. Depending on the type of personal injury and the injured party's damages, the life of a lawsuit can take a few months or a few years.

The likely two outcomes of a case, such as needing medical treatment for a car accident or an injury from property damage, are below:

Formal Lawsuit

A formal personal injury case typically starts when a private person (the "plaintiff") files a civil complaint against another person, business, corporation, or government agency (the "defendant"). This is in contrast to a criminal case, which the government initiates. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant acted carelessly or irresponsibly in connection with an accident or injury that caused harm. This action is filing a lawsuit.

Informal Settlement

Most disputes over fault for an accident or injury get resolved through early informal settlement. Settlement usually involves those personally involved in the dispute, their insurers, and attorneys representing both sides. A settlement commonly begins with negotiation, followed by a written agreement in which both sides forego any further action (such as a lawsuit). Instead, the parties resolve the matter by paying an agreeable amount.

The middle ground between a lawsuit and an informal settlement is alternative dispute resolution procedures like mediation and arbitration.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

statute of limitations is your time limit for filing a lawsuit. Generally speaking, the period of time dictated by a statute of limitations begins when you're injured or discover your injury. Within that timeframe, you must find a law firm that provides a suitable attorney-client relationship and sue for your damages, including any punitive damages. Once you start a lawsuit, you're no longer limited to a timeframe to present your case and have the other person's insurance policy payout if you win.

Where Are the Laws Governing Personal Injury Cases?

Unlike other areas of the law that find their rules in statutes, personal injury law has developed mostly through court decisions and treatises written by legal scholars. Many states have taken steps to summarize the development of personal injury law in written statutes. For practical purposes, though, court decisions remain the main source of the law in any legal case arising from an accident or injury. Legal elements that govern personal injury cases include:

  • The legal duty a defendant potentially owes to a plaintiff
  • The breach of that legal duty
  • Causation between the breach and the injuries to the plaintiff
  • Resulting damages suffered by the plaintiff

Wrongful Death

A wrongful death claim arises when someone dies due to the legal fault of another person. The right to file a lawsuit for wrongful death is a relatively new concept. Common law (the laws initially brought to the United States from England) didn't allow this kind of lawsuit. But during the last century, state and federal courts created the right to bring a wrongful death action, now the subject of statutes. Wrongful death claims involve:

  • Car accidents
  • Complicated medical malpractice cases
  • Product liability cases

Noneconomic Damages

Non-economic damages are compensation in a personal injury case that doesn't compensate a plaintiff for financial losses. Compensation for financial loss is economic damages. Non-economic damages compensate a plaintiff for losses that have affected their quality of life physically, psychologically, or emotionally.

This category can include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Loss of enjoyment of life

Product Liability

Product liability refers to a manufacturer or seller being liable for placing a defective product into the hands of a consumer. Responsibility for a product defect that causes injury lies with all sellers of the product who are in the distribution chain, including:

  • The manufacturer
  • The wholesaler
  • The retail store owner

Lawsuits based on negligencebreach of warranty, and strict liability are common in product liability cases.

At-Fault Party

In most personal injury cases, the victim must prove that another party was at fault, or legally responsible, for their injuries. The at-fault party can vary widely depending on the circumstances of the case and can include:

  • Individuals
  • Companies
  • Governmental agencies

The at-fault party may be liable due to:

  • Negligence
  • Intentional wrongdoing
  • Strict liability laws

Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is a principle commonly used in car accidents, among other personal injury lawsuits. In a state following a comparative negligence system, a plaintiff's damages award gets reduced by a percentage equal to their degree of fault. So, if you were 30% at fault for an accident, and your total damages were $10,000, you would receive $7,000.

Defective Products

Defective product cases, which fall under product liability, arise when a faulty product injures a consumer. Defective products can include anything from faulty car parts to contaminated food items. The injuries caused by the product can make the manufacturer liable if a product has:

  • A design defect
  • A manufacturing defect
  • A marketing defect (inadequate instructions or warnings)

Dog Bites

In many states, dog owners are subject to strict liability for dog bites. That means they're responsible for injuries even if their dog has never shown any aggression or propensity to bite in the past. In other states, "one bite" rules exist. In those states, owners are responsible for injury only if they know their dog tends to bite.

Emotional Distress

In some cases, you can bring a personal injury lawsuit against someone who caused severe emotional distress. That's even if you didn't sustain a physical injury. This often involves cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress, where the defendant's outrageous or malicious conduct leads to severe emotional trauma for the plaintiff.

Insurance Adjusters

Insurance adjusters are professionals investigating insurance claims to determine the extent of an insuring company's liability. Insurance adjusters negotiate with the injured party or their attorney to settle the claim in personal injury cases.

Insurance Claims

An insurance claim is a formal request by a policyholder to an insurance company for coverage or compensation for a covered loss or policy event. In the context of personal injury law, victims can file insurance claims to seek compensation for their:

  • Injuries
  • Damages
  • Losses

Intentional Acts

Intentional torts are personal injuries caused by a person seeking to harm another intentionally. Unlike negligence cases, intentional torts need proof that the defendant intended to cause harm. Examples of intentional torts include:

Mental Anguish

Mental anguish is a type of suffering that can get compensated for in a personal injury case. It is the emotional distress or psychological trauma a person may experience as a result of an injury or accident.

Premises Liability

Premises liability involves an injury caused by a defective or unsafe condition on someone's property.

Common types of premises liability cases include:

  1. Slip and fall accidents. These are the most common premises liability cases. They can happen in a grocery store, on a sidewalk, at a restaurant, etc. The causes range from wet floors and icy sidewalks to uneven surfaces and loose carpeting.
  2. Dog Bites. A dog's owner may often be responsible if their pet bites someone. The exact laws vary by location. Some states apply strict liability, and others must show proof of the dog's dangerous propensities.
  3. Swimming pool accidents. Residential and public pool owners must take measures to ensure swimmer safety. This includes providing proper fencing, maintaining pool equipment, and supervising young or inexperienced swimmers.
  4. Negligent security. Property owners are liable for damages if a visitor or tenant gets injured due to a criminal attack that could have been prevented by reasonable security measures, such as adequate lighting, functioning locks, or security personnel.
  5. Elevator and escalator accidents. Property owners and managers must keep these devices in safe working order. Accidents can happen when they fail to do so.
  6. Toxic torts. These are cases where exposure to a toxic substance causes injury. This could happen, for example, in a rented home with a high level of lead or mold.
  7. Children on property. Property owners can be liable for injuries to children, regardless of whether the children were invited or trespassing. This is particularly true if an "attractive nuisance," like a swimming pool or trampoline, is present.

In these cases, the duty of care expected from the property owner or occupier varies depending on the visitor's status. The highest duty of care is owed to:

  1. Invitees ( like customers in a store)
  2. Licensees (social guests)
  3. Trespassers

The property owner must always maintain a basic level of care.

Types of Cases

Personal injury law covers a broad range of incidents. The following are some of the most common types of personal injury cases:

  • Car accidents
  • Truck accidents
  • Motorcycle accidents
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Slip-and-fall accidents
  • Medical malpractice
  • Wrongful death
  • Product liability
  • Workplace accidents
  • Dog-bite cases

Types of Damages

In a personal injury case, damages get awarded to a person injured or harmed due to another party's negligence or unlawful conduct. Damages get categorized as either:

  1. Economic (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage)
  2. Non-economic (such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium)

Economic Damages

Economic damages represent actual, out-of-pocket expenses. These can include:

  • Medical expenses. These are usually the largest economic damages in a personal injury case. This includes costs of hospital stays, doctor visits, physical therapy, pharmaceutical costs, surgeries, and any future medical care needed.
  • Lost wages. If victims can't work due to their injuries, they can get compensation for lost wages. This includes not only actual lost salary or hourly pay but also lost vacation days or sick days and any bonuses or benefits the worker earned.
  • Loss of earning capacity. If an injury leaves a victim unable to earn as much as they did before their injury, they may get compensated for this loss of future earnings.
  • Property damage. If personal property got damaged as a result of the incident, the cost of repair or replacement could be economic damages.

Noneconomic Damages

Non-economic damages compensate for nonmonetary losses. These are often subjective and more difficult to quantify. Noneconomic damages can include:

  • Pain and suffering. This compensates the victim for the physical pain the injuries caused. The type of injury, the severity of the pain, and the prognosis for future pain associated with the injury can help calculate the amount.
  • Emotional distress. Serious accidents can lead to significant emotional distress, including conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Victims can seek compensation for the psychological impact of an injury.
  • Loss of consortium. If the injury has caused a loss of love, companionship, comfort, or support, the victim or the victim's spouse can get these damages. In some cases, loss of consortium damages gets awarded for the impact the injuries have on the victim's relationship with their spouse — including loss of companionship or the inability to maintain a sexual relationship, for example.
  • Loss of enjoyment of life. This involves compensation for the limitations put on your lifestyle due to your injuries. This can include hobbies, recreational activities, exercise, and other activities you can no longer enjoy.

Punitive Damages

Some cases involve punitive damages, including economic and noneconomic damages. Punitive damages get awarded not to compensate the victim but to punish the defendant for outrageous behavior and to deter similar behavior in the future. Not all cases are eligible for punitive damages. They're generally reserved for situations when the defendant's conduct was grossly negligent or intentional.

Workers' Compensation

Workers' compensation is a state-mandated insurance program that compensates employees who suffer job-related injuries and illnesses. In most states, employees can get workers' compensation benefits. These benefits cover:

  • Lost wages
  • Medical expenses
  • Disability benefits
  • Costs associated with rehabilitation and retraining

While the system protects workers, it also exists to shield employers from most personal injury lawsuits filed by employees.

Get Legal Advice With Your Personal Injury Lawsuit

Any potential personal injury case requires a detailed understanding of the facts, the processes, and the law. If an accident has affected your life and someone else is liable for that injury, you can get compensation. Learn more by speaking with an injury law attorney near you. Many attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. That means you may not owe anything upfront.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options