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WHAT IS PERSONAL INJURY LAW?

Personal injury law, also known as tort law, is designed to protect you if you or your property is injured or harmed because of someone else’s act or failure to act. In a successful tort action based on one of three theories -negligence, strict liability or intentional misconduct–the one who caused the injury or harm compensates the one who suffered the losses. Automobile accidents, the area in which the majority of personal injury actions arise, provide a good example of how the tort system works. You have a negligence claim in a “fault” state if you are injured by a driver who failed to exercise reasonable care, because drivers have a duty to exercise reasonable care anytime they are on the road. When they breach that duty and your injury results, personal injury law says you can recoup your losses. (Note, though, that the system may be very different in states that have passed no-fault laws.)

Negligence reaches far beyond claims stemming from car accidents. It is the basis for liability in the majority of personal injury lawsuits, including medical malpractice.

An important and growing area of tort law is strict liability, which holds designers and manufacturers strictly liable for injuries from defective products. In these cases, the injured person does not have to establish negligence of the manufacturer. Rather, you need to show that the product was designed or manufactured in a manner that made it unreasonably dangerous when used as intended. Strict liability standards also apply in other areas of personal injury, such as workplace accidents. (Workplace injuries are further explained later in this chapter, as well as in the chapter on “Law and the Workplace”.)

Finally, although they are not as frequently brought, claims for intentional acts that invade a legally protected interest of yours may be the basis for holding someone liable to you in tort. If someone hits you, for example, even as a practical joke, you may be able to win a suit for battery. Or if a store detective wrongly detains you for shoplifting, you may be able to win a suit for false imprisonment. While perpetrators of some of the intentional torts — assault and battery, for example — can be held criminally liable for their actions, a tort case is a civil proceeding in court brought by an individual or entity and remains totally separate from any criminal charges brought by the government.

Every tort claim, regardless of its basis, whether intentional, negligence, or strict liability, has two basic issues — liability and damages. Was the defendant liable for the damages you sustained, and, if so, what is the nature and extent of your damages? If you can prove liability and damages, our system of justice will award you compensation for your loss.

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