When you hear the word liability, what do you think of?
Many would say a debt or financial obligation, something that they are expected to pay. In financial accounting, a liability is an obligation arising from past transactions that lower someone’s assets, hence the familiar equation: Assets = Liability + Equity. Assets are the things you have, while liabilities are what you owe.
In the world of personal injury law, also known as tort law, liability means being legally responsible for the injury or harm of another person.
The Blame Game
Determining who was at fault, or liable, for an injury is a major issue in a personal injury case. One of the main responsibilities a personal injury attorney has is to establish liability by carefully investigating the circumstances surrounding an accident.
Even if there is tangible proof that one person was injured by another (such as a traffic ticket), this does not automatically make that person liable. Under tort law, people may not be held liable for every harmful act that they cause, but only for three basic types: intentional acts, unintentional but negligent acts, or conduct that falls within a special category called strict liability.
Intentional torts are offenses committed by someone who intends to do harm, and for intent to exist, the individual doing the harm must be fully aware that his act will result in injury to someone else. The act itself must be intentional, not merely careless or reckless.
An example of an intentional tort is defamation of character, in which a false statement is made about another person that causes that person to suffer harm. Slander is making these false statements verbally, while libel is defaming someone in writing by publishing such statements in a newspaper or magazine. Celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Cameron Diaz, Charlie Sheen, and Tom Cruise have all brought defamation suits over false or harmful statements made about them and/or their families.
The second type of conduct that a person may be found liable for in a personal in jury case are unintentional or negligent acts. The difference between negligence and an intentional tort is that negligent acts are not expected or intended, yet still result in harm to another person.
An example of an unintentional tort in which someone might be found liable is a car accident in which a driver was driving too fast or failed to stop at a stop sign. This negligence, or failure to foresee that injury, might occur and prevent it by exercising proper care (slowing down or stopping) resulted in an injury for which the driver might be found liable.
Strict liability, sometimes called absolute liability, leads to liability regardless of whether the harmful conduct was intentional, negligent, or entirely innocent. This type of liability is most commonly associated with defectively manufactured products. In a strict liability case, the person injured has to prove that he was harmed but is not required to prove the negligence of the product manufacturer.
Products that come with warning stickers about obvious hazards are labeled that way to protect the manufacturer from strict liability lawsuits. One of the most famous examples of a products liability lawsuit is the McDonald’s coffee case, in which a New Mexico woman scalded by hot coffee in 1992 sued the company and won $200,000 in compensatory damages and $480,000 in punitive damages.
Once Liability Is Determined, Then What?
If liability can be determined, an injured person may be able to obtain money, property, or the enforcement of a right against another party who is liable, or responsible, for their harm. Liability is not usually as obvious as it might seem, and it typically requires significant analysis by an experienced personal injury attorney, since nothing is “open and shut” when it comes to liability and personal injury law.
Image by molly steenson.