Learn about all types of legal liability for harm to others. Find out who is financially responsible for your injuries and losses.
When you’re injured because someone else made a mistake, or failed to do the right thing, you have a right to seek compensation. Understanding liability laws will help you make a successful injury claim against all parties responsible for your damages.
We’ve taken the mystery out of personal injury liability. Learn about different types of liability and tort claims, explained in non-legal language with examples you can relate to.
The official definition of civil liability states:
“Civil liability is a legal obligation that requires a party to pay for damages or to follow other court-enforcements in a lawsuit… [and] is usually brought by a private party to sue for damages...”
Civil liability often applies to personal injury claims. For example, Mary slips and falls on an icy sidewalk in front of a donut shop. She files a civil lawsuit against the shop owner and is awarded $6,000 for her damages. The donut shop owner has a civil liability to pay Mary for her damages.
Financial losses can also result in civil liability. A creditor can file a lawsuit against a debtor (person who owes them money for goods or services). If the lawsuit results in a judgment against the debtor, the person’s obligation to pay is a civil liability.
Civil liability is separate and distinct from criminal liability, although a wrongdoer who is criminally liable may also be liable under civil law for the harm they caused to another.
Civil Liability vs Criminal Liability
When a party is criminally liable, it means they are legally responsible for unlawful activities.
Individuals can be criminally liable, such as a person convicted for assault and battery. Businesses can also be criminally liable for illegal financial dealings, producing harmful products, or egregious safety violations that result in harm to workers.
Criminal cases are prosecuted by the local, state, or federal government.
Victims cannot file a criminal law case against an offender, but they may be eligible for financial assistance or restitution through state or federal crime victim programs. Victims also have the right to bring a strict criminal liability case against the at-fault party.
Punishment for criminal liability includes incarceration and financial penalties.
What is an Intentional Tort?
“Tort” is a legal term for behavior that harms another, resulting in civil liability for the at-fault person who commits the harmful act or omission. Negligent torts cause most personal injury claims.
An intentional tort occurs when a person has a duty of care, yet deliberately hurts another person.
The victim of an intentional tort can file a civil liability claim against the person who caused the injury, and the attacker may also be arrested and face criminal charges.
Example: Intentional Tort from Road Rage Attack
Jack slammed on his brakes in the middle of the lane in a fit of road rage. He jumped out of his car and rushed to the car behind him, driven by George.
Before George could get his window up, Jack reached through and punched him in the face, breaking Jack’s nose.
Jack was arrested and charged with assault. George also filed an injury liability lawsuit against Jack.
1. Strict Liability
Strict liability, also called absolute liability, “imposes legal responsibility for damages or injuries even if the person who was found strictly liable did not act with fault or negligence. This theory usually applies in three types of situations: animal bites (in certain states), manufacturing defects, and abnormally dangerous activities.”
Proving your injury occurred is enough to satisfy your burden of proof in some dog bite claims and product liability cases. You won’t have to show the other party did anything wrong or intended to hurt you.
Example: Strict Liability for Dog Bite
Allison lives in California and was walking along a sidewalk in her neighborhood. She had Bucky, her four-year-old boxer on a leash. Bucky was well-trained and had never shown aggression to other people.
Suddenly, a couple of ten-year-old boys on skateboards whizzed by Allison. Startled by the noise and activity, Bucky lunged at one of the boys, biting deeply into his leg.
Even though Allison was a responsible dog owner, and Bucky had never shown prior aggressive behavior, Allison had to pay. She lived in California, a state with strict liability dog laws, and was therefore legally responsible for the child’s injury.
2. Comparative Liability
Comparative or contributory liability comes into play when an injury victim shares some of the fault for causing their injuries. The other party’s liability can be reduced or eliminated based on the victim’s share of blame and the liability laws in the jurisdiction.
Only four states and the District of Columbia follow the severe pure contributory negligence rule. Under this rule, the victim’s injury claim can be denied if they share as little as one percent of the liability.
In states with pure comparative fault rules, you can seek compensation for bodily injuries even when you are mostly to blame. Your compensation would be reduced accordingly, so if your claim was worth $10,000 and you were 80 percent to blame, you could still get $2,000.
Most states use modified comparative fault rules, meaning the insurance company can’t deny your claim unless you are equally to blame (50% rule) or more to blame (51% rule) than their insured. If you share less than half the blame, you would be eligible for a proportionate share of your claim value.
Example: Reduced Slip and Fall Compensation
Patrick met several friends at a local sports bar to watch a playoff game. The game was nearly over when Patrick headed to the bar for another pitcher of beer.
Before he made it to the bar, he slipped on a spilled drink and ice cubes on the floor. Patrick went down hard, hitting the edge of a table with his face before crashing to the floor and breaking his collarbone.
Patrick filed an injury claim against the bar for $10,000 to cover his medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
The bar’s insurance company had witness testimony and security camera footage that showed Patrick had been drinking steadily for three hours and was unsteady on his feet before he fell.
The adjuster argued that Patrick might not have fallen so hard if he weren’t intoxicated, and determined Patrick was 40 percent liable for his injuries.
Because of the shared liability, Patrick was only offered $6,000 to settle his claim instead of the $10,000 he had demanded.
3. Vicarious Liability
Vicarious liability is the legal term used when another person or business is also held responsible for the harm caused by an individual.
Parents may be held vicariously liable for physical harm or property damage caused by their child.
Employers are usually liable for the acts or omissions of employees who were on duty when the action occurred.
Example: Vicarious Liability of Employer for Traffic Accident
Charlie was a driver for a company that sold and delivered auto parts to stores and vehicle repair shops. He was on his way to make a delivery when he glanced down to read a text from his boss.
Charlie didn’t see that traffic had backed up, and he didn’t have time to stop his box truck before slamming into the rear of the Johnsons’ family car.
All four members of the Johnson family were transported to the hospital with injuries. The Johnsons’ attorney filed a claim with Charlie’s personal auto insurance company.
Because Charlie was on the job and driving a company vehicle, a vicarious liability claim was also made against his employer, the auto parts company.
4. Joint and Several Liability
When more than one at-fault party is responsible for causing your injuries, joint and several liability laws may come into play. The application of these laws varies from state to state.
In pure joint and several liability states, each defendant is responsible for the full amount of the injured party’s damages. You can’t get the full amount from each at-fault party, but you may recover up to the full amount from one or the other.
For example, if you have $100,000 in damages from a multi-car accident caused by two drivers, you might be able to get the full amount from Driver A or Driver B. If Driver A ends up paying the full $100,000, you are fully compensated and Driver A can pursue Driver B for their share.
In pure several liability states, each at-fault party is only responsible for paying in accordance with their share of liability. If you have $100,000 in monetary damages from a car accident caused by two drivers, and the court decides Driver A is 60% liable and Driver B is 40% liable, you can only get $60,000 from Driver A and $40,000 from Driver B.
Many states have hybrid variations of joint and several liability. Consult a local personal injury lawyer for legal advice on pursuing compensation from multiple at-fault parties.
5. Premises Liability
Premises liability is the legal doctrine that states a property owner is financially responsible when their negligence causes damage to another person on their property.
Because injuries can happen on any type of property, figuring out who is responsible can be tricky. A business may be legally liable for your injuries, even though the property is leased from a conglomerate.
If you fall on poorly maintained stairs in a condominium, liability may rest with the condominium owner or with a property management company, or both.
In some cases, more than one party may be liable, and you can be sure each at-fault party will try and blame the other.
Injuries that occur in schools or other government-run facilities may be the responsibility of the county, state, or federal government. It’s important to note that injury claims against any government agency must be filed quickly and correctly to preserve your right to compensation.
Most injury liability claims are paid through the at-fault party’s auto or liability insurance policy. Common types of insurance claims include car accidents, slip and falls, and dog attacks.
No matter how you were injured, the burden is on you to convince the insurance company that their insured was liable, meaning legally responsible, for your damages.
Whenever there is a question of liability, you’ll need an attorney to get anywhere near the true value of your claim. You may be entitled to compensation from more than one party, but neither insurer will accept liability. Or, the other party says you are liable for the accident that caused your injuries.
You don’t have to settle for the insurance adjuster’s decision about liability. An experienced personal injury attorney knows the liability rules in your state and how to protect your interests.
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