Defenses in Personal Injury Cases

A look at common defense strategies that can bar or limit a personal injury lawsuit.

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If you're thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit, you'll need to know what kinds of arguments (defenses) you can probably anticipate from the other side, so you can be prepared. And, if you are on the other side (as a defendant) and someone is claiming that you're to blame for causing their injuries, you'll want to understand some defense strategies that can help you fight the lawsuit.

Defenses in personal injury cases are arguments that typically relate to two things: 1) what the plaintiff did in connection with the accident -- their role in causing it, for example, and 2) what the plaintiff didn't do after the injury -- like get proper medical attention or file their lawsuit on time. This article discusses some of the defenses that are used most often in personal injury cases.

Defenses Based on Plaintiff's Role in the Accident

When a plaintiff files a lawsuit for personal injury, one of the first arguments usually heard from the defendant's side is that plaintiff (the victim) was at fault (or partial fault) for the accident or the injury.

If you've filed a lawsuit but are partially to blame for the accident that caused your injuries, the compensation you receive will probably be affected. Timing-wise, this could happen early on, if you settle your case with the defendant and a damages award is drawn up by settlement agreement, or it could be the end result of a lengthy trial.

The degree to which a damages award could be affected by your fault -- or the chance that your recovery will be barred altogether -- depends on whether your state follows a "comparative negligence" or "contributory negligence" standard, which we discuss below. Similarly, if you willingly participated in a dangerous activity and ended up getting hurt, a court or insurer might say that you "assumed the risk" of injury, and they might deny your claim for compensation.

Below you'll find a look at the defenses of comparative negligence, contributory negligence, and assumption of the risk in personal injury cases. (For the basics on the legal concept of negligence, check out our article Negligence, the Duty of Care, and Fault for an Accident.)

Comparative Negligence

Most states follow a "comparative negligence" rule in personal injury cases, calculating damages under a formula that looks at each party's degree of fault for the accident.

For example, say you're in a car accident and you're found to be 25% at fault and the other driver 75% at fault. Perhaps this was the conclusion found in a police report filed after the accident or a stipulation that was agreed upon after the insurance companies for both sides investigated the accident. In this case, if you file a lawsuit for your injuries and property damage, any compensation you receive will likely be reduced by 25% (your degree of fault for the accident). So if your total damages add up to $20,000, you'll only receive $15,000.

The vast majority of states follow comparative negligence principles when damage awards are tallied in personal injury cases. But these states also typically fall into one of two camps: those that use a "pure comparative negligence" system and those that go with a "modified comparative negligence" system. The difference between the two is that in the "pure" system, an injured plaintiff can recover damages as long as they are not completely at fault (they can be anywhere from 1 to 99% at fault), while in a "modified" comparative negligence system, an injured plaintiff can recover compensation only if they are 50% or less at fault (or 49% or less in some states).

Contributory Negligence

While comparative negligence laws can reduce a victim's compensation when they're partially at fault (in most cases), the concept of contributory negligence isn't as forgiving. In states that follow contributory negligence principles, victims who share any degree of fault for an accident or injury are usually barred from getting any compensation via a lawsuit for personal injury. So, if you live in a contributory negligence state and you're in a car accident that was only 5% your fault and 95% the fault of another driver, you can't recover any compensation for your damages through a personal injury lawsuit.

Only a small handful of states have contributory negligence laws -- including Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia. Personal injury plaintiffs in those states may face an uphill climb if fault is at issue in the case.

Assumption of Risk

In some personal injury cases, a defendant faced with a lawsuit will argue that the injured person "assumed the risk" of getting injured by willfully participating in an activity that the injured person knew was dangerous. This kind of defense is raised most often in lawsuits that stem from contact sports (like football and basketball), paintball-style games, and spectator injuries (when a foul ball hits a spectator in the stands at a baseball game, for example).

One key aspect of a successful "assumption of the risk" defense is that the harm suffered must relate closely to the risk that's inherent in the activity. So if you're playing a game of organized basketball at the local gym, you've probably assumed the risk of getting elbowed inadvertently -- since that's a common occurrence in a game of basketball. A lawsuit over any resulting injuries probably wouldn't fly, because you assumed the risk of injury by deciding to play in the game. On the other hand, if you got injured playing basketball when the backboard broke and fell on you, the defendant (the gym owner, for example) couldn't rightly argue that you assumed the risk of such a thing happening, because a falling backboard isn't a danger that's inherent in the game of basketball.

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