Who is Responsible?
Many people who are seriously injured may be unsure what they should do next. If someone else was responsible for your injuries, it is only fair that they should pay for your recovery. It could be the property owner in a slip and fall case, the owner of a biting dog, or the manufacturer of a defective product. How can you be sure that the person who caused the injury will step up and take responsibility for your damages? If you were partly at fault, does that mean that you have to pay for all of the injuries yourself? The answers to these questions will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your case.
Intentionally Caused Injuries
In some cases, the person responsible for your injuries may be obvious. If you were assaulted or hit by another person, this is considered an intentional tort. An intentional tort may also be a possible criminal violation. In order to seek damages from an intentional tort such as battery, the plaintiff will have to prove the defendant intended to commit a certain act, which resulted in unwanted contact with the plaintiff, causing harm.
Most personal injury cases deal with the legal question of “negligence.” Negligence is an area of tort law that involves careless or reckless activity which may not be intentional. If an individual is negligent and causes an injury to another person, they may be civilly liable to pay for the damages caused. In order to successfully recover damages in a personal injury lawsuit alleging negligence, the plaintiff will have to prove the four elements of negligence. This includes duty, breach, causation, and harm.
First, the plaintiff has to show that the defendant owes a duty of care. The type of duty owed to the plaintiff may depend on the type of claim. According to negligence law, we all have a general duty of care not to place other people at risk of undue harm. The standard for determining what duty a defendant owes is based on what a “reasonable person” would do. What a reasonable person would do depends on the specific situation.
In some cases, the duty owed is more specific, based on the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant. For example, a doctor owes their patient the duty of care and skill of an average healthcare professional with the same training and knowledge in a similar situation. Since most of us are not doctors and don't know what a typical doctor would do in a certain situation, an expert witness may provide an expert opinion to the jury on the issue of duty and breach.
Second, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant breached their duty of care. A breach involves the defendant making a decision based on the specific circumstances that deviate from what a reasonable person would do. Was the harm or injury a foreseeable risk of the defendant's breach? It is generally up to the jury to determine whether the defendant's actions breached the duty of care they owed to the plaintiff.
In some cases, a law or statute may provide that certain actions constitute negligence per se. For example, in the City of Philadelphia, it is a violation to text while driving. If an individual is texting while driving and gets into an accident, injuring another person and if the anti-texting statute is designed to prevent auto accidents, and was intended to protect the type of person harmed in the accident, violation of that law may be considered negligence per se.
Third, the plaintiff must show that the breach caused harm to the plaintiff. Causation can involve both the legal issues of cause in fact, and proximate cause. Cause in fact is also known as but-for causation; such as, but for the defendant's actions, the plaintiff would not have been injured.
Proximate cause relates to how directly or foreseeable the defendant's actions relate to the injury. For example, if a defendant is lighting off fireworks, it is foreseeable that a firework would explode, causing eye injuries to a pedestrian nearby. The defendant may be liable for the pedestrian's eye injuries. However, if the fireworks startle a man in a nearby house who thinks the fireworks are gunfire, and he shoots out the window, hitting a nearby pedestrian in the eye, this may not be a reasonably foreseeable consequence of lighting fireworks. In this case, the defendant may not be held liable for the gunshot injuries.
Another issue that comes up in proving causation is when there are multiple causes of an injury. If two defendants are both acting negligently, and their combined negligence causes an injury, they may both be held liable. As long as each of the defendants' actions were a substantial factor in contributing to the plaintiff's injury, together they may have both caused the injury.
Finally, the plaintiff has to show that they suffered damages as a result of the breach. If a defendant breached a duty to the plaintiff, which caused some harm, but there were no actual damages, the plaintiff may not have a viable personal injury claim. However, damages can encompass many types of injuries. Not all damages involve a physical injury. Negligence could cause property damage, damage to one's reputation, or even emotional harm. Any damages caused by the defendant may be subject to a personal injury claim.
Damages in a personal injury lawsuit generally fall into three categories: economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages. Economic damages and non-economic damages are considered compensatory damages, which are intended to put the plaintiff back into the position they were before the injury.
Economic damages include costs related to the physical injuries caused, such as medical bills, hospital bills, surgery, nursing care, medication, home care, physical therapy, and any future or continuing costs to treat the injuries. It also includes any physical damage to property, including home or car repairs, or the cost of replacement. For many people who suffer an injury, they may miss days of work, or be unable to return to their job because of the injury. Economic damages also cover lost wages and future loss of income.
Non-economic damages may be more difficult to quantify, but are intended to cover the harm to the plaintiff's life, enjoyment, and relationships. This includes any pain or suffering, loss of consortium, emotional harm, dismemberment, disability, blindness, scarring, loss of one's reputation, and loss of enjoyment of life. In Pennsylvania, there is no cap on non-economic damages in most personal injury or medical malpractice cases.
Punitive damages are not intended to compensate or make the victim whole. Instead, they are intended to act as a penalty to the defendant for their egregious actions. Although they are rarely awarded in personal injury cases, they can be awarded in some cases where the defendant was especially reckless. This requires a showing that the defendant engaged in outrageous conduct accompanied by a bad motive, or with reckless indifference to the well-being of others.
Even if a defendant is shown to be negligent, in some cases, the plaintiff may not recover all of their damages. Contributory negligence refers to the negligence of the plaintiff in contributing to the accident or injury. Historically, if the plaintiff contributed even a little bit to their own injury, then they would be barred from recovery. However, this harsh approach has been changed over the years.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we have a modified comparative law approach under Pa.C.S. § 7202. This means that as long as the plaintiff is not more than 50% responsible for their injury, they will be able to recover something for their injury. Their recovery will be diminished in proportion to the amount of negligence attributed to the plaintiff.
As an example, if a plaintiff has $100,000 in damages, the jury determines that the defendant is 80% at fault for the plaintiff's injury, but the plaintiff was 20% negligent, then the plaintiff could recover $80,000 from the defendant. However, if the plaintiff was 55% at fault, and the defendant was 45% at fault, the plaintiff could not recover anything from the defendant.
Pennsylvania also holds multiple defendants (joint tortfeasors) jointly and severally liable for the plaintiffs injuries. This means that where two defendants were both negligent in causing the plaintiff harm, the plaintiff may seek damages from one of the defendants for their combined fault. If Defendant A was 10% responsible, and Defendant B was 90% responsible for the plaintiff's injuries, then the plaintiff could seek 100% of the damages award from either Defendant A or Defendant B. This allows the plaintiff to be compensated even if one of the defendants does not have enough money to pay their share of the damages.
An alternative to proving standard negligence involves strict liability cases. In some injury claims, it may be difficult to prove the four elements of duty, breach, causation or harm. The law has developed the theory of strict liability to protect the injured party in cases involving product liability injuries, or injuries caused by abnormally dangerous activities. Strict liability cases generally do not require a showing of traditional negligence.
Certain activities are considered so dangerous or hazardous that those responsible for the activity are strictly liable for any injuries that result. Examples of ultrahazardous activities may include keeping a wild animal on one's property, storing hazardous chemicals, or using high-powered explosives.
When a defective product causes an injury, the consumer may not know who was responsible for the defect. It could have been a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or maybe the seller repackaged a damaged product to sell as new. This would seem like a heavy burden on the consumer to prove who was responsible for the defect that caused an injury. The good news for the consumer is that the seller may be responsible under the theory of strict liability.
Sellers are in a better position to protect against product defects than the consumer. Because of this, sellers bear the responsibility for any injuries that result from the use of a defective product.
In a product liability case, the plaintiff only has to show:
- The product was defective at the time it left the seller's control;
- The product was unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer;
- The defect was the cause of the plaintiff's injury; and
- The product was expected to reach the consumer without substantial changes.
In most cases, the person who actually committed the harmful act will be named as the defendant in a personal injury lawsuit. However, when the person responsible does not have enough money to pay for the damages, a plaintiff may not think they will be able to recover for their injuries. In some cases, another party may be responsible for the negligence of another, and be forced to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries.
When an employee is negligent on the job, resulting in harm to another person, the employer may be liable for the injury. This is known as vicarious liability. The employer may be responsible for an employee's tort committed in the course and scope of employment. The employee's scope of employment includes actions that are:
- The kind and nature that the employee is employed to perform;
- Occurs within the time and location of their employment; and
- At least, in part, actuated by a purpose to serve the employer.
This is also known as respondeat superior, for the idea that a master is liable for the torts of their servants, if the servant's negligent conduct was within the scope of their employment. This may allow an injured plaintiff to seek compensation from the employer, who likely has more resources to pay for the employee's conduct.
Finding the Responsible Party in a Philadelphia Personal Injury Claim
If you are unsure who may be responsible for your injuries, you can leave it up to your Philadelphia personal injury attorney to make sure all relevant parties are named in your lawsuit. Your attorneys will investigate your claims, identify all possible defendants, and pursue your case to make sure you are compensated for your injuries. If you or a loved one has been injured due to the negligent behavior of another, please call Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.