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California Personal Injury: Basic Concepts

While not every injury, whether physical, financial or harm to reputation, warrants a lawsuit, California’s personal injury laws provide an avenue to compensation if your injury was due to someone else’s actions or negligence.

Personal injury lawsuits are notoriously complicated. Both the injured person and the person or entity that caused the injury must maneuver through specific statutes and burdens of proof. So, if you’re injured in San Diego, Sacramento, or San Francisco, use it will help to learn about the laws regarding your case and to find a qualified attorney.

How Are Personal Injury Claims Processed in California?

Most personal injury claims settle before reaching the litigation process. For instance, insurance companies handle the majority of car accident cases, state insurance programs pay out workers’ compensation claims, and most stores will want to settle slip-and-fall cases before they go to trial. The pre-trial process for your injury claim will vary depending on the specifics of your case.

However, you should be careful when dealing with insurance companies. Some may try to rush you through the settlement process before adequately evaluating the extent of everyone’s damages. An experienced personal injury attorney may be helpful in assessing an appropriate value for your claim and assist in the settlement process, even if you don’t think you’ll need to file a lawsuit. You should be sure not to sign any documents or make any formal statements without prior review by your lawyer first.

It is also important to document your injuries and attend all scheduled doctor appointments. Keep accurate records of your medical expenses, property damage repairs, and any time your injuries kept you away from work. You can document your damages with doctor bills and photographs of your injuries or property damage.

How Do I File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in California?

If insurance or a settlement doesn’t cover the full cost of your injuries, you can file a claim against the party at fault in California. Personal injury lawsuits can encompass claims for damages to a person’s health, emotional well-being, and reputation. If a court find’s a defendant was reckless or negligent, and that recklessness or negligence was a cause of your injury, you’re entitled to compensation for your injuries.

The process by which you seek compensation will vary depending on how and where you were injured.

California Worker’s Compensation

Workplace injuries are generally covered by worker’s compensation benefits, which compensate for lost wages, medical expenses, and future impairments to employment. State-wide insurance plans funded by employers pay out workers’ comp benefits, so most claims are paid without regard to fault by anyone. You can also file a claim if the accident was caused by a third party but occurred during usual work duties or was work-related.

Automobile Accidents in California

Drivers are under a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances when they’re behind the wheel. In order to recover for damages following a car accident, you’ll need to prove another driver’s failure to use reasonable care caused the crash. Proving fault in these cases is often contested and may require thorough investigation. A driver is also liable for an accident caused by intentional or reckless conduct, defined as a willful disregard for the probability that their conduct may cause an accident.

Injury on California Private Premises or Public Property

Likewise, property owners, managers, and occupants can be liable for injuries at their homes or commercial establishments. In these cases, plaintiffs must prove an unsafe condition on the premises caused the injury and that the owner should have known about and corrected the condition before the accident.

There are various degrees regarding the standard of care owed by a property owner depending on the type of visitor. For instance, a property owner generally owes a lesser duty of care to a trespasser than to a person who was invited onto the premises or otherwise has permission to be on the property.

Claims for injuries caused by an unsafe condition on public property follow a very different process. There are statutes mandating that injured parties file lawsuits against municipalities and public entities within a very short period of time and only after providing written notice of the injury with the government. California statutes of limitations require you to file a claim against a government agency within six months of the date of injury.

California Product Liability Claims

Injury can also result from defective products. Manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that their products will not injure consumers so long as they are exercising reasonable care within the expected parameters of the product’s use.

Unlike other personal injury claims, you do not have to prove negligence. You only need to prove that the product was defective due to its design or manufacture, or that the manufacturer did not provide adequate instructions or enough warning of potential risks or adequate instructions. Additionally, you can file a lawsuit against anyone participating in the chain of manufacture for that product, from the designer to the manufacturer to the retail store.

Proving Negligence in California

Personal injury claims may seem straightforward to the injured party, that the defendant clearly caused the injury owes compensation. But proving the defendant’s negligence in court can be a complex matter.

California courts measure 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, a reasonably prudent person would respond to a faulty light switch by shutting off the breaker for that switch, preventing or warning others from using the switch, and having the switch replaced as soon as possible.

There are four elements California courts use to determine a defendant’s negligence, all of which a plaintiff must prove for a claim to succeed:

  • Whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, or who was responsible for ensuring that no harm came to the plaintiff
  • Whether the defendant breached a duty of care
  • Whether the breach directly cause injury to the plaintiff or if the injury could have been avoided if there was no breach
  • Whether the plaintiff’s injuries constitute actual damages and quantifiable compensation

California also follows what’s known as the “pure comparative negligence” rule that compares the defendant’s negligence against the plaintiff’s negligence. This means that your own negligence could reduce the compensation to which you’re entitled by a percentage of your fault, but will not completely bar recovery.

Actual and Punitive Damages in California

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

Actual damages are compensation for losses caused by the injury. There are also two subdivisions of actual damages: general and special damages. General damages cover intangible losses like pain and suffering, while special damages cover more tangible injuries from which there are actual monetary losses, such as medical bills, property damage, or loss of work or wages.

Unlike actual damages, which seek compensation for losses, punitive damages are 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.

California Statutes of Limitations

A statute of limitations limits how long after an injury a plaintiff may pursue legal action against a defendant. Once the statutory time expires, you can no longer file an injury lawsuit. California’s civil statute of limitations varies depending on the type of injury claim:

  • 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

Between such civil statutes and the legal requirements for proving fault, an experienced California personal injury attorney can accurately assess your injury claim and advise you on the best way to proceed. Most offer free consultations and some may take your case on a contingency fee basis, meaning you won’t need to pay the lawyers unless you win your lawsuit or obtain a settlement.

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