Establishing Liability in Personal Injury Cases: How to Determine Fault

Establishing liability is vital for a successful personal injury claim. See how to prove negligence and handle allegations of shared fault.

Liability is a term for legal responsibility. Liability means that a person or entity (like a corporation) is at fault for causing personal injuries or property damage.

Liability is the starting point of every personal injury claim or lawsuit. You must establish liability before you’ll see a dime in compensation.

In most injury cases, liability is established by proving a person or business was negligent. This means the person or business did something wrong or failed to do the right thing, which resulted in injury.

There are different types of civil liability in personal injury claims. These types of liability apply to different types of cases, such as car accidents, slip and falls, dog bites, medical malpractice, and product liability cases.

When liability is clear, the insurance company will more readily accept your claim and offer a fair settlement. Sometimes proving liability is tricky, like when more than one party might be responsible for your injuries. If liability is unclear, the insurance company will put up a fight.

How to Establish Personal Injury Liability

The burden of proof is on you in a personal injury claim. You must show why the negligent party should pay for your losses. In most types of injury cases, you have to prove the other party was negligent first, in order to establish their liability.

What Makes Someone Liable?

Most people and businesses have a legal duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing harm to others. Liability occurs when someone is harmed because an individual or business did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable person would do.

“Reasonable” is an important word when it comes to determining liability. It can be subject to interpretation.

Let’s say you slip and fall on a spilled drink in a local tavern. If the puddle was on the floor for half an hour before your accident, the tavern owner will likely be liable for your broken wrist from the fall. However, if another patron knocked over a beer seconds before you walked by, the tavern owner probably won’t be liable for your injuries. It’s not reasonable to expect the tavern staff to instantly mop up every spill.

Also, if you signed an injury liability waiver releasing a business from responsibility for your injuries, you may not be able to bring a successful claim.

How Do You Prove Someone Is At Fault?

Evidence for proving fault in a personal injury claim can come in many forms. Photographs, witness statements, surveillance videos, medical records, and more.

Police reports and traffic citations can prove an at-fault driver had a duty of care and breached that duty, resulting in a collision.

City ordinances can establish that a business owner had a duty to remove ice and snow. Photos of the icy sidewalk taken after your slip and fall can establish the owners’ failure to remove the hazard.

Ambulance reports, medical bills, and doctor’s notes will support the cause and scope of your injuries. It’s critically important to tell all your medical care providers exactly when, where, and how you were injured. This will link your injuries directly to the cause.

The Four Elements of Negligence

There are four elements of negligence, and like the four legs of a chair, they all must be present to have a stable case.

  1. Duty of Care: Individuals and businesses have a legal duty of care to prevent harm to others. Motorists are required to drive safely. Businesses are obliged to maintain their property and remove hazards in a timely manner.
  2. Breach of Duty: The claimant must show the at-fault party breached their duty of care. A duty of care may be breached by doing something wrong, or by failing to do the right thing.
  3. Causation: The injured party must show how the breach of duty was the direct and proximate cause of their injuries.
  4. Damages: Evidence is needed to verify the victim’s personal injuries and other damages.

Who Determines Liability for Injuries?

In a typical personal injury claim, the insurance adjuster will make a determination of liability before agreeing to pay your settlement. Often, you (or your personal injury lawyer) will need evidence to convince the adjuster to accept liability on behalf of their insured.

Liability decisions in car accident cases are heavily influenced by the police accident report. Police officers are specially trained in accident investigation. The police report will detail the investigating officer’s determination of fault.

Judges and juries are called upon to determine liability in personal injury lawsuits (torts). The plaintiff (injury victim) and their attorney bear the burden of proving the defendant (accused wrongdoer) is liable for the injured person’s damages.

Who can be held liable for injuries?

Liable parties in personal injury claims can include:

  • At-fault drivers
  • Business property owners and managers
  • Residential property owners or tenants
  • Parents, if an underage child causes harm
  • Employers, for injuries caused by employees
  • Manufacturers and retailers of defective products
  • Federal, state, or local government workers or agencies

What Happens if Liability is Shared?

All too often, the insurance company tries to deny or reduce payment by pointing the finger of blame at the injury victim. Don’t let the insurance adjuster have the last word on your alleged share of liability.

Types of Shared Liability

  • Some states have pure comparative fault laws, which allow you to recover compensation regardless of how much blame you have for causing your injuries.
  • Other states have modified comparative fault laws, which allow you to recover compensation so long as you are not equally or more to blame than the other party.
  • A small handful of states have pure contributory negligence laws, which ban any compensation if you bear as little as one percent of the blame.

If the adjuster tries accusing you of being 100 percent to blame for causing your injuries, don’t accept it. Avoid admitting any fault and contact a personal injury attorney for a free case evaluation. There’s no downside to discussing your legal options with a professional.

Types of Liability in Personal Injury Cases

There are three general types of liability:

  1. Negligence Liability: An individual or business is liable for your injuries if they breach a legal duty to prevent harm, like a driver who runs a red light and T-bones your car, or a bar owner that overserves a patron.
  2. Intentional Liability: Someone who intentionally causes your injuries is also liable, such as a mugger who breaks your nose after demanding money.
  3. Strict Liability: Strict liability means you don’t have to prove fault, only that the harm occurred. Injuries caused by defective products are usually strict liability cases. Also, some states have strict liability laws for injuries from dog attacks.

Common Examples of Liability

Traffic Accident: Sharon was driving to pick up a friend for a girls’ night out. She was texting her friend to say she was on the way. While glancing down at her phone, she didn’t see the car in front of her had stopped, waiting to make a left turn.

Sharon plowed into the back of the stopped car, injuring the other driver. Sharon was cited for texting while driving and following too closely. She is liable for the other driver’s damages.

Slip and Fall: Matt was heading to work one winter morning. The snow had stopped falling a few hours before daybreak, leaving an accumulation of several inches. Matt stopped to get coffee at a popular diner near his office. The walkway in front of the diner hadn’t been shoveled, and was slick with packed snow and ice.

Matt slid and fell hard, breaking his collarbone. The diner owner should have shoveled and salted the walkway before opening for business. The diner owner is liable for Matt’s medical expenses and other damages.

Dog Bite: Tina was at the park, playing fetch with her three-year-old Staffordshire Terrier, Rocky. They had been playing for several minutes when Melody went jogging past, singing along to the music on her headphones.

Tina was horrified when Rocky charged after Melody, savagely biting the back of her leg. Melody was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she was treated for shock and received dozens of stitches. Tina failed to keep her unleashed dog under control in a public place. She is liable for Melody’s injuries.

Defective Product: The Barty Bike Company manufactured adult-sized bicycles popular with urban commuters. The newest bicycle model had a defective bracket that would break, causing riders to fall.

Several riders were seriously injured, and one rider was fatally injured when the bike broke in city traffic. The defective bicycle was recalled. The Barty Bike Company is liable for the injured riders’ damages.

Establishing Liability Questions & Answers