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California Personal Injury: Basic Concepts

While not every time you are injured—either physically, financially or by reputation—warrants a lawsuit, California's personal injury laws provide an avenue to compensation. However, personal injury lawsuits are notoriously complicated. Both the injured (plaintiff) and the injurer (defendant) must maneuver through specific statutes and burdens of proof.

If you've been injured in San Diego, Sacramento or San Francisco, use LawInfo's California personal injury articles to learn about the laws surrounding your case and to find a qualified attorney.

California Proving Negligence

A personal injury case may initially seem straightforward to the injured party. “The defendant clearly injured me and owes me compensation.” However, the defendant's negligence must be proven in court which itself is a complex matter. If a defendant is able to prove that the plaintiff's injury wasn't a result of the defendant's negligence, they may be able to get penalties reduced or the case dropped altogether.

To prove negligence, a California court measures the defendant's actions against those of a “reasonably prudent” person—a legal standard of an average person's reasonable and responsible reaction in a similar situation. For example, if your house had a faulty electrical switch that's an electrocution hazard, reasonably prudent actions would be to shut off the breaker for that switch, prevent or warn others from using the switch and have the switch replaced as soon as possible.

There are four elements California courts use to determine a defendant's negligence:

  1. Duty—Did the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff? Who was responsible for ensuring that no harm came to the plaintiff?
  2. Breach of Duty—If the defendant had a duty of care, did they breach it?
  3. Causation—If the defendant did breach their duty, did it directly cause injury to the plaintiff? Could injury have been avoided if there was no breach of duty?
  4. Damages—Does the plaintiff's injury constitute an actual damage that can be compensated? Was there a financial loss like medical bills or loss of work time?

California Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations limits how much time after an injury occurs that a plaintiff has to pursue legal action against a defendant. Once the statute “runs out,” a lawsuit cannot be pursued. California's civil statute of limitations includes:

  • Two years for personal injury and wrongful death.
  • Three years for injury (or damage) to property.
  • Four years for breaking written contracts.
  • Two years for breaking oral contracts.
  • One to three years for medical malpractice.
  • Three years for fraud.

California Actual and Punitive Damages

Plaintiffs who suffer a personal injury may sue for damages, which are often monetary compensation for hardship caused by the injury. In California, there are two main types of damages you can sue for: actual damages and punitive damages.

Actual damages are compensation for losses caused by the injury. There are two subdivisions of actual damages: general damages and special damages. General damages may be pursued for intangible losses like pain and suffering. Special damages may be pursued for tangible losses in which there are actual monetary losses, such as medical bills, loss of work and property damage.

Unlike actual damages which seek compensation for losses, punitive damages are fined as a means of punishing the defendant and discouraging future negligence. Personal injury cases in California involving a breach of contract typically do not allow plaintiffs to pursue punitive damages.

Speak with a Personal Injury Attorney

Injuries cost money, including time away from work, medical bills and other complications. You should have an attorney help you with your claim. Not sure if you have a good injury case? Speak to a local personal injury attorney about the merits of your case. This one step can help you protect your rights and take the proper next steps.

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