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What Determines Liability in a Personal Injury Case?

On Behalf of | May 14, 2024 | Personal Injury and Wrongful Death |

Liability is one of three basic, and equally important, factors to consider in determining whether you might have a legal right to compensation. These factors are 1) Liability, 2) Damages, and 3) Recoverability, and must all be present in order to have a successful personal injury or wrongful death case. For a general overview of the three factors, please see this article: How Do I Know If I Have A Strong Personal Injury Case?

Liability comes down to whether someone else is fully, or at least partially, responsible for the accident at issue. In some cases, it’s as easy as determining who drove through a red light or who ran a stop sign. However, in other cases assigning fault can be more complicated and involve conflicting recollections of events. Negligence is the most common basis for establishing liability in personal injury cases. Negligence occurs when a person fails to exercise reasonable care, thereby causing harm to another person. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had a duty of care, breached that duty, and caused the plaintiff’s injuries or death as a result.

The exact law applicable to any given case varies from state to state and country to country. However, regardless of where the accident occurred, the issue of liability boils down to an analysis of whether or not another person or entity bears legal fault for the accident at issue. To demonstrate the details of the analysis that can vary from state to state and country to country, we will take the State of Florida, USA, a popular destination for visitors from all over the world, as an example.

Florida Liability

The State of Florida operates under comparative negligence law, meaning that you are able to collect compensation for damages, even if you are found to be partially at fault. This means that if a jury values your damages at $100,000 but assigns 20% of the responsibility for the accident to you and 80% to the party you are suing, you will only be awarded $80,000.
In 2023, Florida enacted an significant change to its comparative negligence law with the passage of House Bill 837. The current system is now known as the “modified comparative negligence rule”.

This rule provides that individuals who suffer injuries from an accident due to the fault of another can only recover damages if they are found to be 50% or less at fault themselves. This means, for example, that if you are found to be 60% at fault for an accident and the other party 40% you are now not entitled to any compensation. Under the old system, you could have at least received partial compensation. The current law makes it particularly important to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your claim and its chances of success.

Liability Waivers and Releases

One common tactic for avoiding liability is the use of releases. Releases are commonly required by those offering inherently dangerous activities, such as bungy jumping, ziplining, skydiving, scuba diving, jetskiing, whitewater rafting, tubing, and other adventure type activities where injuries are commonplace. Releases, commonly titled “Release of Liability Waiver” or “Liability Release”, are often presented at the beginning of the activity at issue and are often signed by participants without being fully read or understood. It is important to note that in most jurisdictions, a signed release is enforceable and a claim that it was not fully read or understood before signing is not a valid defense against its enforcement. Accordingly, you should carefully consider whether to sign a release and whether to engage in the activity for which a release is being requested. As with many aspects of the law, there are exceptions to enforceability, such as for intentional or reckless conduct, or if the release failures to adequately and specifically address the type of injury at issue.

Other types of releases or waivers are requested once an injury has occurred. After an accident, it is common for the insurance company representing the at fault party to reach out to you with the intent of settling the matter as swiftly and cheaply as possible. Often, they may offer a quick settlement by presenting a release form along with a relatively small sum of money. However, it is crucial to understand the implications of signing such a release form. Even the request to sign such a form should alert you to the need to involve an attorney to help you evaluate your case. Remember, the insurance company is not on your side. The insurance company simply wishes to resolve the matter for as little as possible.

When you sign a settlement agreement or any form of release offered by the insurance company, you effectively release the parties they represent from further liability related to the accident. This means that once you accept the settlement and sign the release form, you forfeit your right to seek additional compensation from the at fault party, even if you later realize that the settlement amount was insufficient to cover your injuries and damages fully. If you have any future costs stemming from the accident, such as continued medical treatment, rehabilitation, or other related expenses, or you learn that your injuries were more serious than originally thought, signing the release form means you cannot recover these additional damages from the responsible party. Essentially, by agreeing to the settlement and signing the release, you are closing the door to any further financial compensation for your losses.

Given these implications, it is crucial that you fully understand the exact extent of your damages and potential future costs before agreeing to any settlement. This underscores the importance of consulting with a knowledgeable attorney who can assess your case comprehensively, including the past, current and anticipated future expenses/damages resulting from the accident. An experienced attorney can help you evaluate a settlement offer and advise you on whether it adequately compensates you for your damages, both present and future.

If you want to watch a short video of John Urban, head of litigation at UTPA, speaking on the topic of litigation please follow this link: What is Liability?

If you want to know more about the effect of House Bill 837 on Personal Injury Law in Florida please read the following article: A quantum shift in personal injury lawsuits