I am a consumer. Every time I hear about the rising cost of healthcare or the downturn of the economy, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see relief anytime soon.
Like you, I don’t want to hear about businesses leaving our state because of increasing liability expenses, or that a doctor is calling it quits because of the rising cost of malpractice insurance. When I shop for car insurance, I want to pay a reasonable price and not the equivalent of two months’ pay.
I am a lot like you—except I’m also a trial lawyer. I represent people from all walks of life who have been injured or killed by another person’s carelessness or a defective product. I am a consumer advocate fighting for people who, while minding their own business, were hurt, maimed, or killed by someone else doing something stupid, or as we say in court, was “acting negligently.” The people I represent have suffered serious and painful, sometimes permanent injuries or their families have lost a loved one. I pursue the responsible party or corporation to get fair and adequate monetary compensation for my clients.
In our society, money is the only justice an injured person or the family of a wrongfully killed person can get. To be clear, no amount of money will ever bring back a loved one, or make up for the debilitating injuries my clients have suffered. Sometimes, the money is for lost wages, medical bills, ongoing medical care and payments for pain and suffering. More importantly, however, the money has a symbolic value. It means that my client’s pleas for justice have been heard.
Most of my clients can’t afford to pay me by the hour. I am paid through the “poor man’s key to the courthouse,” the contingency fee. The contingency fee guarantees access to the courthouse for everyone, not just the wealthy or large corporations. If I don’t recover a dime on a case, I don’t get paid. It’s a risk I take. Together with a staff of only a few, I take on multibillion corporations for my clients.
I can only do this because we have something unique and precious in the United States—the civil jury system.
Every year in the United States, over 60,000 people are killed and more than 4 million persons are injured in accidents. Types of accidents include those involving motor vehicles, mass transit (e.g., buses, subways, heavy-rail vehicles, light-rail vehicles, electric trolleys, cable cars, and trains), large trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians, boats and personal watercraft, “slip and falls,” “trip and falls,” elevators and escalators, dog bites and attacks, defective products, medical malpractice, and more. Many of the accidents occur because someone else was careless (“negligent,” in legalese) and could have prevented the injury or death. When an injury or death is due to the negligent act of another person, the injured victim (or the victim’s survivors) may have the right to sue the wrongdoer for monetary damages in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.
The persons injured or killed in these accidents include the operators and passengers of motor vehicles, motorcycles, boats, buses, trains, and subways, and pedestrians, bicyclists, shoppers, product consumers and users, medical patients, and others. Many, if not most, of the injuries and deaths are due to the carelessness of another person, whether it’s the driver of the car you’re riding in, or the driver of another vehicle, but they can also be attributed to defectively designed roads, hazardous railroad crossings, poorly designed or manufactured vehicles, etc. The injuries can range from simple cuts and lacerations to “soft tissue” damage in the neck, back, and shoulders (whiplash), severe spinal cord injuries resulting in quadriplegia or paraplegia, traumatic brain injury, amputation, life-threatening burns, severe disfigurement, and even those resulting in death.
If you were injured or have lost a loved one as a result of another person’s negligence, this book contains almost everything you will need to know about the personal injury and wrongful death system. It will explain your rights and discuss issues such as how the victim’s lawyer’s fees are calculated (traditionally, the “contingency fee”), whose fault the accident was, what happens if the injury was partly due to the victim’s own carelessness, and how a monetary value is placed on the injury or death.
It will also discuss how a personal injury or wrongful death case proceeds through the legal system, from the moment the person is injured or killed until he (or his survivors) receives a settlement check or a jury delivers a verdict in the victim’s favor.
The book is designed to serve as a companion to your lawyer’s advice as you pursue a case for personal injuries or wrongful death. It explains things that your attorney may not have time to explain in detail, or fails to explain clearly and in terms the ordinary person would understand. Attorneys are busy and may not have the time to give you the clear and thorough explanation that you desire and deserve.
It is our goal and sincere desire to provide you with a sober, practical guide that will help you understand how the California system of personal injury and wrongful death works. We welcome your comments and suggestions regarding how useful you find the information and what other topics we should include. Please contact us at www.pigeonlakepublishing.com.
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. The 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 the 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 re-attached 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 arising out of our careless conduct.
Every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of the law and what you should do in the event you are injured or a loved one killed by another person’s actions, defective product, or other cause. However, the materials in this book have been prepared for information purposes only and should not be construed as or relied upon as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. These materials do not, and are not, intended to constitute legal advice. Every situation is unique to the facts of the case and the law that applies. Readers should not rely or act upon any information contained in this book without first consulting a personal injury lawyer experienced in the area of the law involved.