Your daughter was injured on a broken climbing structure in the Cogshall Park playground. A light fixture fell during your mother's visit to the Fitchburg Art Museum, striking and hurting her leg. Your husband, on his way to bowling night, was rear-ended on Putnam Street and suffered pain in his neck and shoulder. Personal injuries can happen all over Fitchburg, in a variety of ways, and the aftermath can be upsetting and confusing. Here is some basic information to help you navigate through your personal injury case in Fitchburg.
For a general overview of personal injury law, you may wish to start by checking out FindLaw's section on Accidents and Injuries, then come back to this article for information specific to Worcester County.
First Things First
Following a personal injury, the first thing you want to do of course is make sure that any immediate medical needs are taken care of. After that, it is a good idea to collect any evidence about the accident you can. For example, you may wish to jot down notes about what happened, take pictures, and get the contact information of any witnesses. This information -- obtained while memories are clear -- can be very useful to you later in your case.
Dealing with Insurance
Insurance companies (yours and/or the other party's) are almost always involved in personal injury cases. Depending on the circumstances of your injury, you may resolve the matter through insurance alone. However, if you find you need to file a complaint against an insurer, agent or broker, you may do so through the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.
If you decide to bring legal action, remember that there are limits on how long you have to do so. These are called statutes of limitations and in Fitchburg, like the rest of Massachusetts, you generally have three years to bring a personal injury action. Your case will likely be heard at the Fitchburg District Court (for matters up to $25,000 or small claims up to $7,000) or the Worcester Superior Court (for matters over $25,000).
The initial court paper you file will usually be your complaint. This document briefly outlines of the facts of the incident, identifies the parties, sets forth why you feel the other party is responsible and asks the court to award you relief (usually "damages" or monetary compensation). The other party (the "defendant") will then generally file an Answer in which he responds to your claims.
Determining Who is at Fault
Most personal injury suits are based on the claim that another party was negligent. To act negligently is essentially to act carelessly and for that carelessness to cause or contribute to the accident.
Many times both parties in an accident acted negligently -- what happens then? In a few states if you are even 1% at fault you are barred from bringing a claim under the theory of contributory negligence. However, Fitchburg and the rest of Massachusetts follow what is referred to as modified comparative negligence. Under this theory, so long as your negligence is not more than that of the other defendants combined, you may still bring an action, although your recovery will be reduced proportionate to your fault. So for example, if you were 30% at fault and your damages were $10,000, you would still be able to pursue an action against the other party for 70% or $7,000.
What Damages Are Available?
Generally in personal injury cases the injured party seeks "damages" or monetary compensation for his injuries. These are most commonly divided up into tangible, economic damages like lost wages and medical expenses, and intangible noneconomic damages like pain and suffering. You will usually seek both types. In addition, if you are married, your spouse may have his own claim for loss of consortium or affection. Check out this FindLaw article on Economic Recovery for Accidents and Injuries for a more comprehensive overview of available damages.
There are caps (limits) on some types of damages. For example, in medical malpractice actions in Fitchburg and the rest of the state, the noneconomic damages are limited to $500,000 unless it is found that there is "a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function or substantial disfigurement, or other special circumstances."
Do You Need An Attorney?
Depending on the extent of your injuries, it is recommended that you at least consult with an injury lawyer. In most cases, the initial meeting is free of charge and if the two of you decide to work together, it will likely be on a contingency basis, which means that the attorney's fees will be taken out of your recovery.
An experienced legal professional can effectively assess your case, help negotiate the best settlement, or win the best verdict. He may have experience working with insurance companies, the other attorneys, and the judges in your case, and can help make sense of the process and guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. For more information, see Using a Personal Injury Lawyer.
Contact a qualified attorney.