The law most helps people who know their rights. Just taking that first step and even considering a lawsuit can be the hardest part of the whole process. There will always be people and companies who downplay the situation when someone is injured. After all, they know full well the best way to avoid paying just compensation is for the suit to never be filed in the first place.
Suffering an injury is a big deal. There are medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and less tangible but no less real consequences such as mental trauma, fear, and even the consternation of family members. Some injuries are true accidents and no one’s fault, but some are not.
The law protects you. There is an area of law (“Tort law”) that covers situations where another caused your injuries, not necessarily by actually intending to injure you, but through recklessness or negligence. The law does not protect the negligent. The law does not protect the reckless. The law protects you.
There are many, many situations where another’s improper actions could injure you – far too many to list. This area of the law is fairly complicated, and so you might be able to recover in a situation that you might not ordinarily expect – which is where talking to a lawyer comes in. Most personal injury lawyers offer a free initial consultation where they’ll tell you whether they think you have a valid claim. In Florida, quite a few personal injury lawyers take cases on a contingency basis. This simply means that you only have to pay them if they win your case for you. You may wind up paying them more than if you had paid in cash up front, however this arrangement eliminates the risk to you, and is particularly useful to people who are injured but cannot afford an attorney.
Let’s talk more about negligence, the most common theory of personal injury. Negligence is a legal term for what you might think of as carelessness. Negligence is the breach of a duty someone else owes to you that causes an injury. This may sound a little odd, but realize that everyone has a duty to everyone else of reasonable care. In other words, people have a duty to be reasonably careful as they go about their daily lives. What is “reasonable” in a certain situation is generally for a jury to decide – however an attorney, after hearing your story, should have a good idea whether or not you have a valid claim.
If someone runs a red light and hits you with their car – that is probably negligence; it may even be reckless behavior. If someone drives at the speed limit, goes through a green light and hits you – that may or may not be negligence. For instance, it would be negligence if the reason they didn’t see you was that they were reading a newspaper. Reading a newspaper while driving is just not a reasonable thing to do – the risk of injuring someone is too high. If, on the other hand the driver hits you because they were unconscious due to a heart attack, that is probably not negligence. It still might be negligence, if say their doctor had ordered them not to ever drive a car because they were at high risk for having a heart attack.
Again, if you even remotely suspect your injuries were caused by someone else, it is in your own best interest to talk to a lawyer. Someone might have also caused your injuries by their failure to do something. This goes back to the idea of duties owed. The owner of a dangerous animal has a duty to protect people from that animal. If the animal hurts someone, the owner could easily be at fault. The owner of a car has a duty to not give the keys to someone she knows shouldn’t be driving. If the driver injures someone, the owner could be liable.
Florida has developed a body of law that covers situations where multiple people are responsible for your injuries. In broad strokes, a judge or jury will, after carefully considering the facts, divide up the blame among the different people involved in the situation. Each person then pays a judgment roughly on par with their percent of the blame. One other thing to note: Florida recognizes that the injured person may also be partially to blame for their own injury. Under this scheme of comparative negligence the person who injured you receives a percentage of the total fault and you receive a percentage of the total fault as well. These percentages then serve to reduce the actual damage award. For instance, if the jury determined the damages to be $100,000 with the defendant 80% at fault and the victim 20% at fault, the victim would receive $80,000. (Florida made the transition to comparative fault a few years ago, prior to that the rule used to be that if the victim contributed to their own injury they could not recover anything!)
Large corporations hate personal injury lawyers who represent people like you. Terms like “Ambulance chaser” get thrown around. There are always pseudo-news stories about people who sue large companies for ‘ridiculous’ reasons. Often times the media, in the rush to get a sensational headline to press, do not live up to their own responsibility of checking the facts. There is a reason that a jury, with the assistance of a judge, two attorneys, witness testimony, and a stack of documents, decides the case. This reason is that every case is different, and that the issues within it are complicated enough that they need careful consideration – NOT a knee-jerk response!
Slip-and-fall cases are often thrown out there as an example of “Frivolous” lawsuits. The media-promoted meme is that people have to take care of themselves and that people who fall and get injured are clumsy and/or stupid and certainly shouldn’t be wasting the court’s time. What never gets talked about is that there are both vulnerable people and negligent entities out there. If a floor is wet and slippery, the person cleaning the floor ought to warn people walking on it. Someone with a cane or on crutches should definitely be warned not to walk on it. The other factor in this derision is the fact that corporations are responsible for the injuries caused by actions of their employees. So a janitor or store employee who forgets to put up a “wet floor” sign might well cost their employer a huge sum of money when a customer gets hurt. Obviously big corporations hate this, and so their solution is often to use their financial pull, in the form of advertising dollars, to get favorable press. After all, if they can simply discourage one person from filing a valid lawsuit that potentially saves them hundreds of thousands of dollars! Personal injury lawyers help keep corporations honest – or perhaps slightly less dishonest than they would like to be.
If you’ve been injured, preserve the evidence! Write all the details down, take pictures, get the names and numbers of witnesses, and report the incident to the proper authorities. The other key thing is to never make any statements to insurance companies or sign any documents until you have talked to a personal injury lawyer. The other side’s insurance company, if they have one, will be the entity likely fighting you in court. They may appear very helpful at first, asking you to make statements while you are still in a state of shock so that they may quickly resolve your claim. They are really hunting for anything they may twist into a defense. Once you have an attorney, there will be plenty of time for communicating with insurance companies and signing documents. Another thing to remember, especially in car-related injuries is that the same insurance company may represent you and the other driver. In this situation it may be a bad idea to make statements without talking to a lawyer because ‘your’ insurance company has an interest in resolving the case as cheaply as possible.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Fight Club, the main character is an industry consultant who claims that companies cold-bloodedly weigh the cost of a product recall or new safety device against the likely payout in lawsuits to injured people – and go with whichever option is cheapest! Personal injury lawyers attempt to counter this cold-blooded disregard for human suffering. Lawsuits in tort may ask for punitive damages. This is money on top of the actual cost of the injury designed to prevent future bad behavior. Know your rights, and remember that the law protects you.