Your Wilmington Personal Injury Case: The Basics
The bustling Independence Mall is full of activity. During peak times, you're likely to see children examining toys, teens serving food and beverages, and customers who can't wait to check out what they just bought. In other words, there are hazards all around! If you're coming out of a store wearing a new pair of boots, you are one spilled soda away from a personal injury case.
When you're hurt, you have a lot to overcome. FindLaw offers this guide to personal injury law in Wilmington as a means of helping you overcome that complexity in the law. You may not be confidently strutting through the mall, or along the Riverwalk, or across your university campus any time soon -- but you can be confident that you know the basics of a personal injury case.
Finding an Attorney
You will face important legal decisions at various stages in your case -- whether to accept a settlement offer; what forms and amounts of damages to seek; and which court to choose if you do, in fact, pursue a claim. With that in mind, may be best to speak to an attorney early in the process.
North Carolina generally allows attorneys to enter contingent fee agreements with their clients when pursuing a personal injury case. A client will typically not be required to pay much (if anything) for services up front, and will only have to pay from the amounts recovered from a settlement or a court judgment.
Winning and Losing -- Mediation May Be Required
Whether you win or lose in a personal injury case is largely a matter of perspective. If you've been hurt, you may be contacted by an insurance company very quickly with an offer to settle the case. Courts encourage litigants to settle their disputes outside of a courtroom. In superior court, parties are required to participate in the Mediated Settlement Conference Program.
Defendants often prefer to settle so as to reduce their costs which may be higher if they went to trial. On the flip side, plaintiffs often prefer to settle because North Carolina has a contributory negligence system. This means that if a plaintiff -- in this case, an injured person seeking a court's remedy -- is found to have been negligent at all in his/her own conduct, the plaintiff cannot recover anything. It's usually a good idea to speak with an attorney before entering any mediation or settlement talks.
The damages you may seek (and which also determine which court your case belongs) will depend on the specifics of your case. Courts generally allow a personal injury plaintiff to recover for past and future medical bills, past and future lost wages, and the other economic consequences of an injury. A plaintiff can, in many cases, also recover for suffering, anguish, and the enduring effect of disfigurement and disability.
Punitive damages in personal injury cases are typically reserved for cases involving intentionally awful conduct. Consult with an attorney if you are going to pursue punitive damages because courts demand a higher level of proof. Also, if a court finds that your claim for punitive damages is frivolous, the court may force you to pay the defendants' legal fees for having to defend against the claim.
Also, a plaintiff is only allowed to recover for his/her attorneys' fees in limited circumstances. State law on this is complex, but the point is simple: you can't count on recovering attorneys' fees, in many cases.
Which Courts -- Amount in Dispute Will Determine
The state has two different divisions of civil courts in which you may bring a personal injury case. In North Carolina, the Superior Court and District Court both have the legal authority to hear your case, but only one of them will be considered proper, and it all depends on the amount you seek in court. Superior Court is the proper court for suits involving more than $10,000 -- which is frequently the case in personal injury actions. In any event, your Wilmington personal injury case will likely be brought in the New Hanover Courthouse.
Some plaintiffs find it easier to file suits in small claims court. This is because the procedural rules are a bit simpler, there is no jury, and most parties don't have attorney. In exchange for this ease, a plaintiff is allowed to seek no more than $5,000. You may want to check with an attorney before pursuing a claim in Small Claims Court to make sure you aren't entitled to a larger award than you think. For more information, see FindLaw's article on Wilmington Courthouses.
Statute of Limitations -- Time Limits to File
North Carolina courts are very fair-minded, but they can't help you if you are too late in filing a claim. As a general rule, you have three years to file a claim for a personal injury. It generally does not matter whether the harmful conduct was intentional or merely negligent. Courts, however, will usually not begin counting time until the harm was either discovered or should have been discovered, whichever comes first.