Personal Injury Claim in California

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 What is a Personal Injury Claim?

According to California personal injury laws, a personal injury claim refers to a type of civil lawsuit that is filed when a person suffers harm or loss resulting from an emotional, physical, or psychological injury. In California, any individual can be held liable for intentionally or negligently causing harm to another person. 

Some examples of common personal injury cases include slip and fall accidents, motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, wrongful death suits, premise liability, and products liability claims. In such cases, an injured party may be able to sue another person or entity for damages if they can prove that the other party intentionally or negligently caused their injuries. 

For instance, a person can take legal action against a company for injuries received from a defective product. If the person can successfully prove that they suffered actual harm because of the company’s defective product, then they will most likely be able to collect a certain amount of damages.

One important thing to keep in mind about personal injury claims in California is that the state follows a comparative fault system. Thus, if the plaintiff was responsible for causing any part of their injury, then their damages award will be reduced by the percentage attributed to their portion of fault. 

For example, suppose two drivers get into a car crash and one of them sues the other in court. If during trial it is revealed that the defendant driver is 80% at fault for the accident and the plaintiff driver is 20% at fault for the accident, then the plaintiff will receive 20% less than the amount of damages they would have received if the plaintiff had been 0% at fault for the accident.

As is evident from the above information, personal injury cases can become quite complicated because they have so many moving parts (e.g., the case itself, elements of proof, damages calculations, etc.). Therefore, if you have suffered an injury and need to file a claim, you should contact a local personal injury lawyer before your ability to bring a lawsuit expires. 

When Should I Bring My Personal Injury Claim in California?

Each state has a law that prescribes the amount of time a person has to file a lawsuit for a particular type of claim. This law is called a “statute of limitations”. Depending on the facts of a case, the statute of limitations for California personal injury claims is two years from the date of the incident, or alternatively, from the date that an injury is discovered. When an injury is not discovered until later on, the law that applies is known as the “discovery of harm” rule. 

Additionally, the length of time may also be subject to change based on the type of injury suffered and by location. For example, the amount of time prescribed to file a personal injury lawsuit for injuries resulting from a slip and fall incident may not only vary by county in California, but also from the period of time a person may have to file a personal injury lawsuit for injuries relating to an auto accident.  

How Do I Establish My Personal Injury Claim in California?

California personal injury lawsuits are based on acts that cause physical, financial, or emotional injury to a plaintiff. In other words, most personal injury lawsuits have a basis in tort law, as opposed to criminal. Thus, these are normally civil cases held between private parties.

Some examples of causes of action that California personal injury lawsuits may be brought under include:

  • Negligence (e.g., breach of duty);
  • Intentional torts (e.g., assault, battery, etc.);
  • Premise liability;
  • Breach of warranty or contract; and
  • Strict liability.

So, for instance, if a plaintiff purchases a product from a seller who promises that the product provides specific benefits or is of a certain quality and the product does not live up to those claims, then the plaintiff may sue the seller for breach of warranty. 

What Types of Damages Can a Judge Award an Injured Plaintiff in California?

There are many types of damages that a judge can award to a prevailing plaintiff in a California personal injury case. Damages awards are typically divided into three main categories: economic, non-economic, and punitive damages awards. 

Since punitive damages are rarely awarded and will be discussed in further detail below, the remainder of this section will focus on the kinds of economic and non-economic damages that an injured plaintiff can receive instead.

Economic damages are used to reimburse the plaintiff for actual, measurable losses caused by an injury. Some common types of economic damages in California personal injury cases may include:

  • Lost wages and future earnings;
  • Loss of earning capacity;
  • Repair or replacement of property; and/or
  • Compensation for medical expenses (both future and past).

On the other hand, non-economic damages are a form of compensation, but they are meant to cover injuries that are unquantifiable or difficult to measure. Some common types of non-economic damages in California personal injury cases may include:

  • Emotional distress;
  • Pain and suffering;
  • Disability or disfigurement;
  • Loss of enjoyment of life; and/or
  • Loss of reputation. 

What Are Some Examples of Punitive Damages Awards in a Personal Injury Claim in California?

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are a special type of damages award that exceed the amount of actual damages issued to a plaintiff in a personal injury case. These damages are generally awarded at a court’s discretion and are intended to punish a defendant whose behavior is considered to be particularly appalling or shocking. 

Punitive damages may also be issued as a deterrent to hopefully prevent a defendant from acting in such a manner again in the future. 

For example, a court may issue punitive damages against a company whose actions were extremely reckless, endangered a large number of customers, and could have been prevented. This can happen when a company fails to oversee the manufacturing process of a specific product or knowingly released a defective product into the stream of commerce despite its illicit nature or a likelihood that using it would lead to serious injuries.

Many states, however, place restrictions on the amount of punitive damages awards that a plaintiff can recover in personal injury cases. These restrictions are known as “damage caps”. Laws prescribing damage caps typically vary by state. 

In California, a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit must be able to demonstrate that a defendant’s actions constituted fraud, oppression, or malice in order to be eligible for punitive damages. The standard of proof that a plaintiff is required to meet under these circumstances is the “clear and convincing evidence” standard.

It is much more difficult to satisfy the standard for punitive damages than it is for the one required to obtain actual damages, which is by “preponderance of the evidence”. 

Lastly, unlike many other states, California does not place a cap on punitive damages awarded in a personal injury lawsuit. However, the Due Process Clause and Supreme Court precedent does require that punitive damages reasonably correspond to compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff in such cases. 

Thus, all punitive damages awards in California must at least be reasonably related to the actual amount of damages in personal injury cases in the state.

What Defenses are Available in California for Personal Injury Claims Alleging Negligence?

Some defenses that may potentially be available to a defendant being sued for a California personal injury claim based on negligence include: 

  • The statute of limitations has tolled or expired;
  • The defendant did not breach or owe the plaintiff a duty of care;
  • The plaintiff assumed the risk of harm;
  • The plaintiff was partially at fault for their injuries (note that this defense only serves to reduce damages, it does not completely eliminate them); and
  • The plaintiff lacks either proof or sufficient evidence. 

Should I Hire a California Attorney for My Personal Injury Claim?

Personal injury lawsuits can be extremely stressful and overwhelming, especially when the law is not clear or the legal issues are complicated. Therefore, if you have been injured in an accident and want to file a lawsuit, you should strongly consider hiring a California personal injury lawyer before proceeding with your case. 

An experienced California personal injury lawyer will already be familiar with the law and various legal issues that arise in such cases. Your lawyer will also be able to predict the probability of your case being successful as well as the types of damages you could potentially receive if you prevail. 

Additionally, your lawyer can also discuss other options for legal recourse and can help you make an educated decision about whether to follow through with a trial. If you decide to move forward with a trial, your lawyer can also provide representation in court. 

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