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Washington, D.C. Personal Injury Blog

Monday, March 28, 2016

What is the difference between contributory negligence and comparative negligence?

Contributory negligence and comparative negligence are two different systems that courts use to determine whether or not a plaintiff can collect for his or her injuries through a lawsuit. When an injury occurs, the cause of the injury is often the result of the actions of multiple people, including the individual who was injured. If the plaintiff is responsible for a part of his or her own injuries, it can limit how much he or she may collect, or preclude the plaintiff from collecting anything at all.

In a jurisdiction that has adopted a pure contributory negligence system, a Plaintiff is not allowed to collect if he or she is even 1% at fault for the accident. For example, if a pedestrian is crossing the street and is hit by a speeding car, the pedestrian will not win a lawsuit for the injuries suffered if he or she failed to look both ways before crossing the street, or if he or she did not cross in a designated crosswalk. Some jurisdictions raise the threshold for acceptable fault on the part of the plaintiff.

Comparative negligence provides that the total amount he or she might receive in compensation for his or her injuries will be reduced by the percentage for which that person is responsible for his or her own injuries. Under this framework, a person who is 90% at fault in a car accident can still sue for any injuries he or she suffered, but can only recover 10% of those injuries.

Many states in the US utilize a hybrid between these two systems. Under a hybrid system, if a person is responsible for more than half of his or her own injuries, he or she will not be awarded any damages at all. That person’s total award can still be reduced by the percentage a jury attributes to the plaintiff’s own actions. Some states use different systems for different types of injuries. For example, in Indiana, medical malpractice claims are subject to analysis under contributory negligence, but car accidents use comparative negligence. This confusing structure makes it all the more important to ensure that a person hires a competent attorney to help collect on damages.


Monday, March 21, 2016

What is the burden of proof in a personal injury case?

“Burden of proof” refers to the requirement that a plaintiff must demonstrate to prevail in a lawsuit. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” meaning that the prosecutor must prove that a defendant is guilty to a degree that a reasonable person would not hesitate to think he or she committed the crime.

 In any civil case, however, the burden of proof is much easier to meet. In a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove the facts in his or her favor by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that if the weight of the evidence is on one side, that side wins the case. It is a simple comparison. This is the reason why a person could be found not guilty of committing a crime, but still be held financially responsible for that crime. There are well known examples of cases in which those accused of murder won an acquittal in criminal court. When the victim’s families filed civil suits for wrongful death, however, the defendants were found liable. Even though the evidence presented in the criminal trials did not prove the defendants' guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the preponderance of the evidence in the civil cases proved sufficient.

In every case, there are different elements that all must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. For example, in a case for which a plaintiff claims that someone else’s negligence caused them an injury, that plaintiff must prove four separate elements. First, he or she must show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, second, that the duty was breached, third, that the plaintiff suffered an injury, and finally, that the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of his or her injury. When there is a motor vehicle accident, the defendant’s duty is to follow the rules of the road and to drive safely. It is breached when the defendant fails to do so. A plaintiff also has to prove that he or she suffered real injuries and that those injuries are the result of the car accident. Without having proved all the elements of the case by a preponderance of the evidence, a jury will find against a plaintiff.


Monday, March 14, 2016

If an intruder gets hurt on my property, am I liable?

A landowner owes a duty of care to everyone who enters his or her property, regardless of whether that person is a trespasser, a licensee, or an invitee. This article is a discussion of the standard of care a homeowner must take for a person who has no permission to be on his or her property. It may not seem intuitive, but a person can be held responsible for injuries suffered by an intruder.

A homeowner is not permitted to set up dangerous traps for an intruder. A spring loaded gun set to fire on an intruder who opens a door is an example of such a trap. Burying landmines in the front lawn can lead to serious liability issues. Although these are extreme examples, any sort of trap set to purposely injure a potential trespasser is not permitted. The legal system does not tolerate violent self help as a means of protecting one’s land from criminal activity.

In some situations a homeowner may have a duty to warn a trespasser of potentially dangerous conditions. If a large hole exists on a property that is not obvious to a passerby, it may be a good idea to put up a sign letting people know of the hole’s existence. A sign in a window reading “beware of dog” can protect a landowner from liability if that dog mauls an intruder. It can also act as a deterrent, keeping would be thieves looking for another house to rob.

The most common way a homeowner is responsible for an intruder’s injuries is if their home contains an attractive nuisance. This is a potentially dangerous condition that may seem particularly inviting to trespassers. Trampolines, swimming pools, and swing sets can attract children onto a person’s property without invitation. Landowners must be aware that children who get hurt while playing on their property can sue for their injuries, even if they never had permission to be on the property. Even an empty pool can attract skateboarders participating in an inherently dangerous activity, creating liability for a homeowner. The best way to protect oneself from this liability is to build a tall fence to make it impossible for small children to trespass and to make it clear to older children that their presence is unwelcome.


Monday, February 15, 2016

I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt. Can I still sue?

It is well accepted that wearing a seatbelt greatly reduces the risk of injury in an automobile accident. It is designed to keep a car’s occupant from being thrown around the passenger compartment or even ejected from the vehicle. It is significantly more dangerous to ride in an automobile without wearing one. That is why all cars are required to have them installed and almost every state has passed a law requiring drivers and passengers to wear their seatbelts. The answer to whether a person who fails to observe these laws can still collect money for injuries by filing a lawsuit depends entirely on the state.

In some jurisdictions, if an individual is not wearing a seatbelt, he or she may be barred from recovering any compensation for his or her injuries. These states are Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, South Dakota, and Washington DC. This is called contributory negligence.

In other states, a different system is used. A jury must determine what percentage of a plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt. The court will then reduce the award by that percentage. The states that follow this system are Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. This system is known as comparative negligence.

All other states use a hybrid system to determine whether or not a person can recover in a car accident when he or she was not wearing a seatbelt. If more than half of that individual’s injuries were caused by his or her failure to wear a seatbelt, he or she may not collect damages in court.

Even though the law varies from state to state, in every state, failure to wear a seatbelt can significantly reduce, or even completely bar, a person’s ability to recover damages and be made whole after a traffic accident. The law is meant to compensate a person for what he or she has lost through no fault of his or her own. The law says that failure to wear a seatbelt places some of that fault on the victim in a car accident.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How is Workers' Compensation Different from Personal Injury?

The primary difference between a workers' compensation claim and a personal injury claim is that a personal injury claim is based on fault, while a workers' compensation case is not. Any injury that occurs to an employee at his/her workplace is covered by workers' compensation, regardless of any negligence or lack of it.

In order to recover damages against another person in a vehicular accident or slip and fall, on the other hand, one must be able to prove some type of negligence on the part of the other person. In other words, the other party must be in some way to blame for the accident. Examples in the cases mentioned would be reckless or drunk driving or poor property maintenance resulting in a floor surface that is irregular or slippery.

In Workers' Compensation Cases, Fault-Finding Is Not Necessary

With very few exceptions, employees who are injured on the job are entitled to workers' compensation benefits regardless of fault. Employees need not prove any negligence on the part of their employers in order to file for and receive workers' compensation benefits. As a matter of fact, employees are eligible to receive workers' comp benefits even if the employee's own negligence resulted in the injuries.

Differences in Damages in Workers' Comp Cases and Other Personal Injury Cases

If it seems that the nature of workers' compensation, in which you can be reimbursed at times for your own clumsiness, is too good to be true, it is. This is because, while workers' comp will pay you compensation for your medical bills, any necessary vocational rehabilitation, lost earning capability or permanent impairment, it will not pay for your personal suffering.  The cap on workers' comp benefits, therefore, is much lower than the typical personal injury settlement once blame is assigned.

When you file a personal injury lawsuit, you may be entitled to compensation for enduring pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life (hedonic damages), even damage to clothing or jewelry during the accident. In cases in which you can file for workers' comp, however, you have foregone the right to sue your employer or co-workers for negligence and also the right to collect damages for pain and suffering.

Are Any Workers Legally Permitted to Sue Their Employers?

Yes, there are two categories of employees who are allowed to sue their employers when they are injured on the job: crewmembers of ships or boats and interstate railroad workers. Although these two classes of workers are not entitled to workers' comp, they are allowed to sue their employers under the Jones Act, for ship employees, or the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), for interstate railroad workers. It should be noted that workers on commuter trains may not qualify for FELA. Employees who work on ships or railroads should be sure to contact an attorney familiar with pertinent laws before filing for compensation.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Who is Responsible for Injuries Caused by Animals?

While laws concerning responsibilities for injuries caused by animals vary from state to state, there are some consistencies. Most of the time, the owner of an animal can be considered liable for his or her animal's dangerous behavior. Therefore, once medical attention has been sought, if the victim is contemplating legal action, the name and contact information of the animal's owner should be obtained. If the injured party doesn't know the owner's name, the information can often be uncovered by quizzing neighbors or witnesses, and this data should be provided to a personal injury attorney.  

States Differ Regarding "Strict Liability" for Injuries Caused by Animals 

While in some states "strict liability" applies, meaning the owner of the animal is responsible for the animal's behavior whether or not the owner was negligent, in other states the owner is only held liable if he/she was aware of the animal's "dangerous propensities." This awareness is often difficult to assess, for example, is the size or breed of the animal enough to create a presumption of danger, even if the particular animal has always been well-behaved?

"Contributory Negligence" as Cause of Animal Injuries

Another factor to consider in cases of injuries caused by animals is whether the person injured played some part in the event.  A person who ignores a "Beware of Dog" sign, for example, or who climbs into a fenced yard where an animal is contained, is considered to have assumed a certain amount of risk. It is still the owner, however, who bears the burden of convincing the jury of such arguments.

 Animal owners can also defend themselves and their pets if the "victim" teased or threatened the animal before the attack took place. 

Other Parties Who May Be Held Responsible for Animal Injuries

 In certain situations, it is not the owner who is held accountable for the injury inflicted by the animal. This may occur in the following cases:

  1. When an animal keeper or sitter is responsible for the care of the animal, such as in a kennel, a pound, or when the owner is not at home, that person may be held responsible for the inflicted injury.
  2. When a person under the age of 18 years is the owner of the animal, the parents or guardians of the minor may be held responsible.
  3. When a property owner has allowed the animal onto his/her property, that property owner may be accountable for the behavior of the visiting animal.
  4. If the landlord of an apartment knew, or should have known, that a tenant possessed a dangerous animal, it is possible that the landlord may be held liable.

What Damages Can Be Recovered After an Injury Caused by an Animal?

The damages the victim of an animal injury is entitled to vary according the severity and circumstances of the injury, and may include:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Property damage

There are even cases in which punitive damages will be awarded when an animal injury has taken place. This occurs when the owner, fully cognizant of the danger of the animal, allows it to run free or to be in contact with someone who is then attacked. Punitive damages are awarded not only to punish the owner and provide compensation to the victim, but to deter the defendant and others from engaging in similarly dangerous conduct.

 


Monday, December 21, 2015

What is strict liability?

In personal injury law, strict liability refers to certain types of cases in which the injured party does not need to show intentional action, negligence, fault, or even awareness in order to collect an award. This significantly lowers the burden of proof for the plaintiff. The plaintiff only needs to prove an interaction with the defendant, and that an injury resulted; however, the rules as to when strict liability applies are limited to specific situations. When a person engages in any abnormally dangerous activity, there is always a risk of injury. Any injuries that occur when engaged in these activities are strictly the responsibility of the person conducting them, even if that person takes every reasonable safety precaution to avoid injuries. Examples of abnormally dangerous activities include storage of explosives, transportation of flammable or hazardous materials, or anything that emits toxic fumes.

 

When a company produces a defective product that injures a customer, it is strictly liable for the defect. There are different types of defects such as a flaw in the design of the product itself or a manufacturing defect for that specific item. The defect might also be a failure to warn consumers of a potentially dangerous condition. Any predictable use of a product must be anticipated.

 

The most common type of strict liability cases involve dog bites. Thirty five states and the District of Columbia have statutes making injuries caused by animals the strict responsibility of that animal’s owner. While these  statutes are not  uniform,  all of them impose some level of liability for dog bites. Some statutes impose strict liability for dogs outside of their enclosures or off a leash. In other cases, a possible defense is that the injured party provoked the attack. In some states, strict liability only applies if the dog has a history of aggressive behavior. A sign warning of the dog’s dangerous propensity might be enough to protect a dog owner from liability. If the injured person was trespassing, he or she might not be able to collect.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Factors Used to Determine Fault in a Traffic Accident

When the courts are asked to determine liability in a personal injury case involving a traffic accident, one of the first things a jury is asked to consider is who is at fault for the accident. There are several factors that are taken into consideration when making that determination.

First and foremost, if any of the drivers involved in the accident were guilty of any traffic violation related to the accident, there is a good chance that the court will assign fault the driver guilty of the infraction. Common traffic violations related to traffic accidents include running red lights or stop signs, speeding, making improper turns, and texting while driving. Similarly, if any of the drivers is guilty of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he or she is likely to be found at fault for the accident.

A police officer’s account of the accident is also important in determining which party is at fault. The police officer will interview witnesses, including the parties to the accident, and weigh conflicting stories to determine what actually happened to cause the accident. Tire marks on the road and the positioning of vehicles can help an officer come to a conclusion. Sometimes, video footage exists to eliminate any doubt as to what happened, either from someone’s dash cam or from a security camera. Police officers have experience and training to help them recreate accident scenes from the evidence available, but their reports are not perfect.

When an accident is the result of a rear end collision or a left hand turn, the officer is usually quick to assign blame to the car in the rear or the car turning left. The rule of thumb while driving is that the driver making a turn must wait for oncoming traffic to pass before turning. A driver must always cede the right of way to the traffic in front.

The role that the determination of fault plays depends largely on the laws of the state in which the accident occurs. Some states follow a doctrine of contributory negligence while some have a more lenient policy of comparative negligence. States that use contributory negligence may preclude a plaintiff from collecting any damages if his or her own negligence contributed to the accident at all. States that use a model of comparative negligence will reduce a jury’s award by the percentage of fault found to be the plaintiff’s. If a plaintiff has more than 50 percent fault, he or she cannot recover anything.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Suing for Injuries Sustained while Playing Sports

Any sports can be dangerous for participants. It does not matter what the sport is, there is always the chance of injury when engaging in physical activity. The chances of injury go up significantly when the sport being played is a contact sport, like football, but injuries are a part of every sport, including baseball, soccer, and basketball. Even golfers can suffer serious injuries.

Generally, a participant in a sport assumes the risk of normal injuries during play. If a concussion or spinal injury is suffered as a result of being tackled in a game of football, he or she will be responsible for his or her own medical bills. Similarly, a basketball player cannot sue for an injury sustained when landing awkwardly after a shot. However, if an injury is caused by a condition not within the scope of a participant’s consent, the loss from that injury can be recovered. A person who consents to play basketball, for example, can sue another participant for starting a physical fight because the person who started the fight was acting improperly. Similarly, a soccer player may be able to file a claim if the injury in question was caused by shoddy conditions on the field.

Individuals wishing to take part in organized leagues will often be asked to sign documents acknowledging their willful participation in the activity. These documents may include waivers of liability. It is important to read these documents carefully. If a waiver of liability is included, participants should make sure that the field of play is well-maintained before engaging in physical activity there. These waivers are not always enforceable. Each state has its own rules about how liability waivers are treated by the courts.

In pickup games with friends, even though there is no waiver of liability signed, there is still an understanding of consent to play the game. Any incidental contact as a result of the sport cannot give rise to a lawsuit. For this reason, it is important that players  go over the extent of acceptable contact before participating.  It is also, for the reasons noted above, important to examine the field of play for any potentially dangerous conditions.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Auto Recalls and the Dangers They Seek to Avoid

Automakers recall millions of vehicles every year. A recall seeks to reach out to consumers to return faulty products, mistakenly put in the marketplace, for repair. In 2014, more than 60 million vehicles were recalled, nearly doubling the previous record set in 2004. These automobiles all had some sort of defect. Some of the defects, while annoying, were not of serious concern, such as a faulty air conditioners, while others resulted in significant safety issues, like problems with the ignition switches, brakes, or steering. Honda issued a recall of 14 million vehicles because its airbags might shoot sharp pieces of metal into the car when deploying.

Of the 60 million cars that were recalled in 2014, less than half were actually repaired. Consumers may not be aware of the recall. Cars change hands several times, and dealers have trouble reaching out to everyone who might have the car. Several major car manufacturers have been caught purposely misleading regulators and consumers about recalls to save money. Toyota recently paid a $1.2 billion fine for this improper action. Even when everyone is aware that a recall has been issued, a consumer may not prioritize it. When consumers are able to bring their automobiles in for the recall, the part necessary for the repair may be unavailable, especially on older model cars that are no longer in production.

This leaves millions of automobiles on the road every year that may pose significant safety issues. Wiring issues can increase the risk of car fires. Vehicle components could break resulting in loss of control of the vehicle. Seat belts might be defective. Windshield wipers might not work properly. All of these problems make the roads less safe for drivers of these vehicles and everyone else on the road.

If a consumer is injured as a result of an issue caused by an automobile defect, he or she may have a substantial claim against the auto manufacturer. If the defect has caused a collision, the car company may be responsible for all injuries. A consultation with an experienced attorney is necessary to determine whether or not a claim is viable in a particular situation. 

 


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Respondeat Superior and Vicarious Liability

The first question an attorney must ask when filing a lawsuit is who is responsible for the damages to his or her client. A lawyer must figure out who to name as a party in the lawsuit. This is incredibly important, because, if the wrong parties are named, the victim may be left with no way to recover for the injuries suffered. This would be a travesty of justice and is unacceptable.

It is prudent to name every party that might be responsible when filing a lawsuit. Only an attorney can make the determination as to who might be liable for an individual’s personal injuries. It is particularly important to make sure that the parties who are named are capable of contributing to the damages, either through wealth or insurance. For example, if a person who does not normally drive and has no insurance is borrowing a friend’s car, and causes a car accident, that person is likely to be unable to pay for the damage he or she caused. Similarly, if a person makes a mistake while working and causes personal injury, that individual may be the one who caused the injury, but the individual is not the only one who can be held accountable for the pain and suffering.

The legal doctrine of Respondeat Superior is Latin for “let the master answer.” It places vicarious liability on any third party that had the right, ability, or duty to control the individual who caused a personal injury. Respondeat Superior is one of the oldest traditions in the practice of law. It predates our Constitution and goes back to English Common Law. Without it, corporations and municipalities would have little reason to enforce standards of care among their employees. Employers would avoid liability for their employee’s negligence, but injured people would have no way to collect money damages for their pain and suffering. Respondeat Superior is an integral part of American jurisprudence. The most common uses of this doctrine are to hold employers liable for the actions or omissions of their employees, to hold owners of property liable for the negligence of those allowed to use that property, and to hold parents liable for their unsupervised children. 


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Richard F. Silber is admitted to practice in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. From his office in Georgetown, he and his legal team assist clients throughout the Washington metropolitan area.



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