Personal Injury Law Overview In D.C.

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Personal Injury law is also commonly known as Tort law. A “tort” is a civil wrong committed by one party that causes the victim to suffer a loss, resulting in legal liability for the wrongdoing party. In addition to provisions set forth in the DC Civil Code, previous cases decided by Washington, D.C. courts have established a set of rules which govern what types of claims may be brought by injured parties as well as the timeframes in which these cases may be brought. There are three major categories of tort law: negligence, strict liability, and intentional torts.

Statute of Limitations

An essential element in any personal injury case is the statute of limitations for a claim. All states have certain time limits in which a victim may bring a claim for an injury-causing incident. This is known as the Statute of Limitations. The rationale behind such laws is to prevent relevant evidence, which could help prove the truth of the claim, from becoming “stale”, providing both parties a fair chance at proving or disproving a claim and ensuring that the cases proceed through the court system in a timely manner. The District of Columbia sets the Statute of Limitations (DC Code § 12–301) at three years for most personal injury claims, two years for wrongful death cases, and one year for most intentional torts. A statute of limitations will begin when the claim arises (sometimes referred to as when the claim “accrues”), which usually means the day of the injury or death. However, there are some exceptions for an injury which is not discovered until a later time period (for example, in a medical malpractice claim, if a sponge is left inside a surgical patient, there is a strong likelihood that the patient will not “discover” this until a later date.)

An important exception to the 3-year general rule is the recovery of damages for events occurring when someone is a minor. The Statute of Limitations will then extend to seven years from the date that the minor turns 18, or 3 years from when the victim comes to knowledge of any abuse.


In a personal injury case, the victim who is bringing the claim is known as “the plaintiff”. The party who the victim believes to be responsible for the injury is the defendant.

If you are bringing a personal injury claim under a negligence theory, the burden of proof is on you to show that the defendant’s negligent actions or negligent failure to act was the cause of your injuries. This is done by establishing certain elements of negligence. There are four elements to every negligence case. They are:

  1. Duty: The defendant owed a “duty” to the plaintiff to prevent unreasonable injury or harm.
  2. Breach: The defendant “breached” this duty.
  3. Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty caused the plaintiff to suffer injury or harm.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff’s injury or harm resulted in some form of “damages” that are recoverable from the defendant.

The first part of any negligence case is establishing a “duty” that the defendant owed to the plaintiff. This might be best thought of as creating an expectation of reasonable responsibility. For instance, a reasonable pedestrian would expect drivers to stop while he or she crosses the street at a marked crosswalk. Drivers on the road would, therefore, owe the “duty” of stopping at crosswalks to pedestrians.


The second part of creating negligence is showing a breach of that duty. Let’s take a look at our driver and pedestrian again. A “breach” would have occurred if a driver did not stop when the pedestrian entered the crosswalk.


In personal injury claims, causation is broken into two categories: cause-in-fact and proximate cause. Cause-in-fact is sometimes referred to as but-for causation, meaning that “the cause without which the event could not have occurred.” Black’s Law Dictionary 250 (9th ed. 2009). In making a determination of cause-in-fact, the court will ask would the accident have occurred but-for the actions of the defendant?

Proximate cause is the second component of causation. This refers to a legally recognized cause, or one that is “a cause that is legally sufficient to result in liability” Black’s Law Dictionary 250 (9th ed. 2009). “Proximate cause has two components: ’cause-in-fact’ and a ‘policy element’ which limits a defendant’s liability when the chain of events leading to the plaintiff’s injury is unforeseeable or ‘highly extraordinary’ in retrospect'” District of Columbia v. Carlson, 793 A.2d 1285 (D.C. 2002). This doctrine attempts to protect potential defendants from liability for conduct where the injury is one that the defendant, though he or she may have caused, could not reasonably foresee. A classic example of this theory was the case of two railroad employees who witnessed a passenger rushing to catch a train. As the passenger appeared to stumble, the employees each attempted to physically guide the passenger onto a railcar, causing him to drop a package which, unbeknownst to the railroad employees, contained fireworks. The fireworks detonated, causing injuries to another passenger. The court in this case (Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.) ruled that the railroad employees could not have reasonably foreseen the harm which would result from the dropping of a package, and, therefore, should not be legally liable.


Damages can typically be broken down into two categories: compensatory and punitive. As the name implies, compensatory damages typically consist of monetary awards to serve as compensation for losses that the plaintiff may have suffered as a result of the defendant’s negligence. These can come in several forms. Plaintiffs can be awarded compensatory damages for medical costs, pain and suffering, loss of income, or even property loss. Punitive damages are economic awards to the plaintiff that serve as a sort of punishment to the defendant for the actions committed, and they are more commonly seen in cases of egregious or criminal negligence.

In the case of a pedestrian and driver, the plaintiff (the pedestrian) would likely want to seek medical damages as well as damages for pain and suffering, as vehicle-pedestrian collisions can result in severe injuries. Without any extenuating circumstances present, this hypothetical plaintiff would not likely see any punitive damages, as per Jonathan Woodner Co. v. Breden, 665 A.2d 929, 938 (D.C. 1995), cert. denied 117 S. Ct. 1080 (1997) “plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted in such a way that was with malice or ill will, or the defendant acted with wanton disregard for the plaintiff’s rights or well-being. Because of this, mere negligence does not constitute an award of punitive damages.” The defendant’s conduct, in essence, must have been either egregious or purposeful.

Pure Contributory Negligence: A Defense in Washington, D.C.

The District’s contributory negligence doctrine is outlined in D.C. Code § 35–302. Under this theory, if the jury in a personal injury claim finds that the plaintiff has to any degree contributed to the incident, or if they determine that the plaintiff is at fault to any degree, even as little as 1%, he or she will be prevented from recovering any damages. Suppose you are driving a little over the speed limit through a green light, when a driver runs a red light and hits you. If the jury finds that your slight speeding contributed to the accident, you will not be able to recover damages.

Types of Negligence Cases

Negligence cases can come in many forms. Some commonly seen types of personal injury cases that involve theories of negligence include:

  • Vehicle Accidents: Car accidents happen every single day and can cause severe injury, or even death. Impaired driving, failure to follow the rules of the road and failure to follow vehicle regulations (such as those placed upon commercial vehicles) are all negligent behaviors which can result in accidents.
  • Premises Liability: It is a property owner’s responsibility to ensure that an area is safe for visitors or inhabitants. Failure to do so can result in liability for the property owner. Falling objects, broken stairs, damaged or missing handrails, even poor security can lead to personal injury claims.
  • Medical Malpractice: Doctors and other medical professionals owe their patients a duty to provide treatment in accordance with the standards of their profession. Failure to provide care in accordance with this standard can constitute a specific form of negligence known as medical malpractice.

Strict Liability

Strict Liability is the theory of law that suggests that certain actions and situations automatically assign legal liability to the defendant without having to find or determine fault, unlike negligence claims. In these types of cases, as the plaintiff, you essentially need to only show that the defendant committed the act and harm occurred.

An example of strict liability claims is one that deals with faulty consumer products. Product Liability is a special area of tort law that deals with injuries to the users of certain products. We see this often with vehicles, medical devices, kitchen appliances, and most recently electronic cigarettes. Even some children’s toys are under scrutiny. Under a theory of strict liability, a plaintiff does not need to prove that a defendant acted negligently; the only necessary elements to be established are that: the product was defective when it left the defendant’s control (it is important to note that in a product liability case, the defendant could be a manufacturer, distributor or seller of a product), the product was unreasonably dangerous, there was no modification to the product between the time period of it leaving the defendant’s control and reaching the plaintiff, and that the product caused the injuries sustained by the victim.

Intentional Torts

An intentional tort is exactly what it sounds like: a tort committed on purpose, or with intent. These types of torts generally have criminal charges accompanying them. Assault, battery, and false imprisonment are all common intentional torts seen in personal injury cases.

  • Assault: In the context of a civil cause of action, assault is the act of creating apprehension of physical harm or trespass through threatening actions. Words alone do not constitute assault; however, if the plaintiff draws the conclusion that imminent battery will occur, the actions preceding may constitute assault. Assault does not actually entail any injury, however, it is commonly paired with the tort of battery which is often associated with injury.
  • Battery: Battery is considered a form of trespass to a person’s body, therefore no actual injury needs to be sustained in order to show battery; however, most battery cases involve the infliction of physical harm. Battery can also occur through indirect actions such as spitting in food.
  • False Imprisonment: False Imprisonment as a tort requires the plaintiff to prove the defendant detained them, without consent, and without authority of the law. False imprisonment is commonly associated with battery and assault, and does not require the plaintiff to suffer injury, however, injuries are common when a defendant exerts force to detain someone.

If you or a loved one has been injured in Washington D.C. contact us today to get the compensation you deserve.

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