We think it is very important for our clients to understand how the civil justice system operates. With that in mind, we have developed a brief description of how the legal process works.
The Parties to a Civil Suit
A person who is injured and who seeks recovery through the civil justice system is called a plaintiff. In some cases there is more than one plaintiff. In class action cases, there may be thousands of plaintiffs, or class members.
The person or the company that has injured a person is called the defendant. In some cases there is more than one defendant.
The Insurance Company
In a majority of personal injury cases, an insurance company for the defendant assigns the defense of the case to a large insurance defense law firm. Lawyers from that law firm are assigned to the case. At the insurance company, a claims manager is assigned to monitor the progress of the case. Generally, the claims manager will assign a monetary value to the claim, and adjust that value upward or downward as the case progresses.
The Civil Complaint
Every claim made by an injured person is set out in the civil complaint, a document that summarizes the plaintiff’s claims. Each separate claim in the complaint is called a cause of action and it must be based on the law applicable to the plaintiff’s individual claims.
For example, a cause of action for negligence asserts:
- The defendant owed plaintiff a duty not to do anything unreasonable that might injure the plaintiff.
- The defendant breached that duty by engaging in conduct that fell below the proper standard of care of a reasonable person in the circumstances that led to the injury.
- The breach of that legal duty caused the plaintiff to suffer an injury.
- The injury caused the plaintiff to suffer actual damages.
Different causes of action have different proof requirements that the plaintiff must “carry” or prove in order to obtain a judgment against the defendant.
It is our job as your attorneys to identify the proper causes of action in your case, to describe them properly in the complaint and to gather evidence supporting each element of each cause of action.
Liability and Damages
Liability: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant should be found to be responsible or liable for causing his or her injuries. That is, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct fell below the applicable standard of care.
Damages: If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant was liable for his or her injuries, then the plaintiff must prove the nature and monetary value of his or her injuries.
In the context of the personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff is entitled to the reasonable value of:
- All of his or her medical expenses (past and future);
- Lost income (past and future);
- Miscellaneous expenses caused by the defendant (such as the cost of medical devices purchased for home use by the injured plaintiff);
- Damages for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress.