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Your Orange County Personal Injury Case: The Basics

Let's face it. Life can be dangerous. At any moment you could be involved in a serious accident. Next thing you know, you end up at St. Joseph's Hospital emergency room. Whether you are injured at someone else's home, at work, or even as the result of a defective product, knowing your rights is of the utmost importance.

What should you do next? What's going to happen? Here's some information to help guide you through the process of a personal injury case in the OC.

What Do I Do First?

Your health should always come first and foremost, so seek immediate medical attention if you are injured. Try not to minimize any pain or suffering you're feeling. Tell your doctor everything about your injuries and explain in detail how they happened. Don't hold anything back from your doctor. At this point, you may be able to start collecting evidence to help your case. Speak to witnesses, keep a journal, and take photos. If you are injured on the job, contact the California Department of Industrial Relations.

You may wonder if you have a personal injury case. How do you know for sure? There are a number of things to think about to in order to preserve your rights.

How Long Do I Have to File a Complaint?

The standard time limit for a personal injury claim in California is two years from the date of the incident causing the harm. There are some exceptions for minors and mentally impaired persons. Remember, even if you have a legitimate claim you may be unable to ever receive compensation for an accident if you file too late. Here's a few more:

Medical Malpractice: Three years from the date of injury or one year from the date of discovery, whichever occurs first.

Libel / Slander / Defamation: One year.

Injury to Personal Property: Three years.

Product Liability: Two years.

The Course of an Orange County Personal Injury Case

1. Someone gets injured as the result of another's negligence.
2. A complaint is filed in a timely manner and served by the plaintiff.
3. The defendant may be required to file an answer.
4. Both sides gather evidence.
5. A pre-trial conference takes place between judge and the attorneys to discuss possible settlement. You may also be able to hire a mediator and settle out of court.
6. If there isn't a settlement, trial takes place and a verdict is rendered.
7. Either party can appeal the decision to appellate courts.

California's Negligence Laws: How "Fault" Works

In order to win your case, you must prove the defendant was negligent or "at fault" for your injuries. There are a number of different ways to prove fault. It will depend on the particular circumstances of your case.

California uses a pure comparative negligence rule. Don't let the name intimidate you. That means the injured party may recover damages even if he was partially at fault, but those damages will be reduced by a percentage in proportion to his fault in the accident.

For example, the plaintiff may have been injured in an accident, but he is also 50% at fault. If the damage award is $50,000, he will only receive $25,000. The same process would follow were he to have been 75%, 20%, or even 99% at fault for an accident.

What kind of damages can I collect?

Assuming you are able to prove fault in a case, there are several types of injuries for which a person can collect damages. The most common type are physical injuries, which include direct trauma to the body. A victim may be to recover compensation for medical bills, lost wages (past, present and future), pain and suffering, loss of life's pleasures, scarring and disfigurement, and loss of consortium. Mental and emotional injuries can also be compensable. A victim may also collect money for property damages including damages to cars, houses or other personal property.

Punitive damages usually are sought only if the defendant was grossly reckless or intended to injure the plaintiff. These damages are awarded as punishment to make sure the defendant won't commit the act again.

How can I protect my rights?

  1. Keep a journal and calendar: As soon as possible after the accident write down the important details you remember, including the harm that resulted and its effect on your daily life. Continue to make notes about any potential impacts on your life, and keep track of dates including medical appointments.
  2. Report the accident: Report the accident to the police, your insurance company or, in some circumstances, the person/entity you believe is responsible. Obtain his or her name and address. If you are contacted by the insurance company which represents the responsible person, remember that it is generally best not to give the company a statement without first contacting a lawyer.
  3. Preserve the evidence: Evidence is the strongest link to winning personal injury cases. Take photos or videos from all angles at the accident scene and of the damages suffered. If injured, consider taking photographs periodically of the injuries.
  4. Obtain medical records: The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) gives you the right to obtain a copy of your medical records from any medical provider.
  5. Gather the necessary information. Obtain police reports and the identity of any witnesses (name, address, phone number).

Attorneys in Personal Injury Cases

If you aren't sure what to do, a trained legal professional may be able to help. Lawyers take personal injury cases on a contingency fee basis. What this means is that you do not pay for the costs of a case or pay the lawyer his or her attorney fees if you lose the case. If you win, you pay the lawyer a percentage of the money you get. A settlement of your case is considered a victory and your attorney will most likely be entitled to collect their fees.

Going to Court

If you do decide to sue, your lawyer will provide details about where and when to appear in court. Usually, the case is filed in the county where the injury happened. Here's a list of courthouses in Orange County.

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