In a claim for personal injury, a plaintiff claims that they have sustained an injury due to an act or failure to act by the defendant. In response, the court may award the plaintiff with money damages for personal injury. Under specific circumstances, the events forming the basis of a personal injury claim may also form the basis of criminal charges. An example of this would be how a defendant may face a civil lawsuit for assault, as well as a criminal assault and battery charge.

A personal injury damages a plaintiff’s emotional health, physical health, and/or both. Mental health injuries include emotional pain and anguish sustained by an accident. Physical injuries include injuries to the organs, limbs, or other parts of the anatomy. The injury sustained by a personal injury plaintiff does not need to manifest itself instantly, meaning that it may develop over time.

There are several different types of events or accidents which may form the basis of a personal injury claim:

A personal injury can occur intentionally, such as when a defendant deliberately injures a victim, or intends to commit an act that they know results in injury to another person. However, a personal injury may also occur unintentionally.

If an unintentional injury is due to negligence, the plaintiff may file a lawsuit based on the negligent behavior. Automobile accidents, slip and fall accidents, and injuries sustained from medical malpractice, are examples of negligence cases.

An intentional injury occurs when the defendant’s deliberate act, or intent to commit an act, injures a plaintiff. This generally occurs when a defendant commits battery, assault, or false imprisonment.

What Is Legal Liability?

In personal injury cases, liability means that the defendant is legally responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries or accident. Liability becomes especially complicated when there are multiple people responsible for the injury, in which case division of liability becomes appropriate.

Division of liability in a personal injury claim refers to situations in which more than one person is responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. There are three types of liability in personal injury:

  • Joint liability, which will be further discussed below on its own;
  • Several liability; and
  • Joint and several liability.

Joint liability means that more than one defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injury, and each defendant is fully liable for the total amount of damages. An example of this would be how if three drivers involved in an accident are held jointly liable for the injuries of another driver, they are each liable for the damages.

If one of the three drivers dies, the other two must continue making the damages payments until the injured party’s losses are remedied. If one person pays for the full amount, the other defendant cannot be sued for the amount. Joint liability applies mostly to debt contexts, and as such is not common in personal injury or tort claims.

Several liability is the opposite of joint liability, so that each defendant is only liable for the percentage of the injury that they caused. If the three drivers were each only liable for one third of the plaintiff’s injuries, they would each pay only 1/3 of the amount of the damages award. Several liability is sometimes called “proportionate liability.”

Several liability become complicated when determining the exact percentage of liability for each defendant. An example of this would be how it may be difficult to conclude whether a defendant was 20% liable or 30% liable. Several liability is similar to the way in which liability is divided in a comparative negligence defense.

Joint and several liability holds each defendant liable as a group for the plaintiff’s injury. It is up to each defendant to determine how much of the damages award that they will be responsible for. In the example involving three different drivers, each driver will be included as a defendant and will incur liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. If the defendants decide that only one driver is fully responsible, the one driver would have to pay the full amount of the damages. If that driver disagrees, they can file a separate lawsuit against the other two drivers in order to obtain contributions from them.

How Is Joint Liability Different From Joint And Several Liability?

To reiterate, joint liability means that more than one defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s injury; each defendant is fully liable for the total amount of damages. An example of this would be if a doctor and nurse are jointly liable for a patient’s medical malpractice injuries. If one defendant is unable to pay or passes away, the other party is liable for the full amount.

In personal injury law, the phrase “joint and several liability” describes the responsibility that each person has when two or more people caused the same injury. Under joint and several liability, both defendant A and defendant B are responsible for paying 100% of the plaintiff’s damages.

What Else Should I Know About Liability In Personal Injury Cases?

Every state has its own laws addressing the division of liability in a personal injury claim. Some states follow “pure” rules, while others apply a “modified” version of a rule; meaning, they may place limitations on the division of liability.

States that follow “pure” several liability rules are:

  • AK;
  • AZ;
  • AR;
  • CT;
  • FL;
  • GA;
  • IN;
  • KS;
  • KY;
  • MI;
  • TN;
  • UT;
  • VT; and
  • WY.

The rest of the states apply their own modified version of the Joint and Several liability laws. Once again, “pure” joint liability is rarely applied in a personal injury claim.

Liability may be determined using a variety of approaches, largely depending on the type of injury. For automobile accidents, the physical evidence of the vehicles is often a key factor. For medical malpractice suits, the medical records and testimony of doctors are heavily utilized.

Proving fault in a personal injury case can be complicated by other matters, such as:

  • Previous injuries;
  • Insurance options; and/or
  • Contributory negligence.

An example of this would be if A is struck by cars driven by B, C, and D. The jury determines that A is entitled to $10,000 in damages. It is also determined that B is 20% liable, C is 20% liable, and D is 60% liable.

Under Several Liability rules, B would owe A 20% of the damages, which is $2,000. C would also owe 20%, or $2,000. D, however, would owe 60%, or $6,000. A would be compensated for the full $10,000, with each defendant paying in proportion to their individual (“several”) liability.

Under Joint and Several Liability rules, A may recover the full amount from any of the defendants, regardless of their percentage of liability. A could sue only C, who would then pay the full $10,000, even if they were only 20% liable. C can then pursue a lawsuit against B and D, who may have to pay $2,000 and $6,000, respectively. Alternatively, C can name B and D as co-defendants, who will be joined in the original lawsuit.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Joint Liability In Personal Injury Cases?

You should consult with a personal injury lawyer if you are involved in a personal injury liability claim. Your attorney can help determine how the liability laws in your area apply to your case, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.