Here is some basic information to give you a framework for understanding personal injury and wrongful death cases. There are two broad types of law: criminal law and civil law. Laws relating to personal injury and wrongful death are forms of civil law. In criminal law, the goal of the system is to punish a wrongdoer for committing an act that is offensive to the proper and ordered nature of society. Murder, burglary, arson, and robbery are just a few types of crimes that are recognized as criminal offenses. A person who is convicted of a crime or pleads guilty is punished, whether by a term in jail or prison, a fine, community service, restitution to the wronged person, or a combination of all or some of these. Death by lethal injection is the most severe punishment for a crime, and it is permissible only in certain murder cases that have special circumstances.
Civil law encompasses a wide variety of areas such as bankruptcy, corporate law, wills, trusts and estate planning, family law, probate, worker’s compensation, education law, business law, employment law, and that with which we will be concerned: personal injury and wrongful death law, also referred to as “tort” law. “Tort” is a French word meaning “wrong,” and that’s what a tort is: a civil wrong in which another person is injured or killed or his property is damaged. In civil law, rather than making a wrongdoer serve a sentence in jail or prison, he is ordered to pay the party who suffered the injuries an amount of money designed to make that person “whole” again. Of course, making the person whole again is not always possible, but a monetary award is the only way we know how to compensate the innocent victim.
For example, let’s say that a person has had her left arm amputated in an automobile accident caused by another person (the “defendant”). Unfortunately, medical science has not advanced to the point where the severed limb can be reattached and function good as new. Therefore, the law requires that the defendant pay the injured victim a reasonable sum of money to compensate for her loss.
The most often-used theory of liability in a tort (personal injury) case is what lawyers refer to as “negligence.” Probably the best plain English definition of “negligence” is carelessness. For instance, a driver may not be paying attention and therefore fail to see the taillights of the car in front of him as it comes to an abrupt stop, resulting in a rear-end collision; the inattentive driver would be guilty of the tort of negligence.
Perhaps an introductory lesson in law is appropriate here. Negligence is comprised of four parts: (1) the person was required to exercise a minimum amount of due care (safety) to avoid hurting others or causing an accident; (2) the person breached that standard of care by not acting safely (with the “requisite due care”); (3) the person’s breach of the standard of care was a “proximate cause” of the incident; and (4) someone else was injured because of the person’s negligence (or carelessness).
We are required to exercise sufficient due care at all times so that we do not subject others to an unreasonable risk of harm that may result in their injury or death. When we deviate from the standard of due care and that deviation results in injury to another person or damage to his property, then we are liable for all of the monetary damages to that person that arise out of our careless conduct.