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.

People are injured every day because a person or business did something wrong or failed to do the right thing. When another party is at fault for your injuries, you expect them to pay for your losses.

You must establish the negligent party’s liability before you’ll see a dime in compensation from them or their insurance company.

What is a liability claim?

Liability is a legal term for responsibility. Legal liability means that a person or entity (like a corporation) is at fault for circumstances that resulted in personal injuries or property damage.

Liability is the starting point of every injury claim or lawsuit, no matter how you or your family member was injured. In most injury cases, liability is established by proving a person or business was negligent.

When liability is clear, the insurance company will accept your injury claim and it’s easier to get a fair settlement. Sometimes proving liability is tricky, like when more than one party might be responsible for your injuries.

How Do You Establish Personal Injury Liability?

The burden is on you to show why the at-fault party should pay for your losses. In most personal injury cases, you have to prove the other party was negligent to establish liability.

What Makes Someone Liable?

Most of us have a legal duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing harm to others. Liability is assigned when a victim 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 minutes 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.

How Do you Prove Someone Is At Fault?

Most personal injury cases, such as car accidents or slip and fall claims, require the injured victim to prove the elements of negligence to establish liability. There are four elements of negligence, like the four legs of a chair.

The four elements of negligence needed to build a solid injury claim:

  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.

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

Police reports and traffic citations can prove the 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 to link your injuries to the cause.

Who Determines Liability for Injuries?

The insurance adjuster will make a determination of liability before agreeing to pay your settlement. Often, you or your personal injury lawyer will have to collect and submit 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 owners
  • Residential property owners, managers, 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

More about liable parties:

What Happens if Liability is Shared?

All too often, the insurance company tries to deny or reduce payment on a claim by pointing the finger of blame at the injury victim. Most states have comparative negligence or contributory fault laws the adjuster will use to avoid paying a claim.

Most states allow you to get injury compensation even when you share some of the blame for the accident, so long as you are not equally or more at fault than the other party. A small handful of states ban any compensation if you bear as little as one percent of fault.

Don’t let the insurance adjuster have the last word on your alleged share of liability. Avoid admitting any fault and contact a personal injury attorney for a free case evaluation.

How can you defend against accusations of liability?

Watch what you say after an accident or incident. Saying “I’m so sorry,” or “Those stairs can be slippery” can be construed as an admission of liability.

Your insurance company has an obligation to defend you against a personal injury lawsuit, but you have to do your part. It’s important to promptly notify your carrier after a motor vehicle collision or any kind of accident in your home or business.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the other party to say they’re fine, only to hear from their lawyer later with a demand for money. If your insurer doesn’t already have your side of the story, they are in an awkward and potentially costly position.

Most liability insurance policies have a “notification and cooperation” clause. Failing to timely notify your insurer of a potential claim or lawsuit can void your policy, leaving you scrambling for legal protection.

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.
  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. Injury claims from defective products are usually strict liability cases. Also, some states have strict liability laws concerning injuries from dog attacks.

Common Liability Scenarios

Traffic Accidents: 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.

Product Liability Cases: 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