Columbians are careful and tough, but even we get injured. It could happen at any time: a dog bite in the neighborhood; a slip-and-fall in the Columbia Mall; or a small accident on Interstate 70. If this has happened to you, prepare yourself by learning the basics of a personal injury case in CoMo. FindLaw has prepared this outline of what you can expect as you either go about your recovery, or defend yourself from someone who was not so careful themselves.
Who May Sue and Be Sued
A person who has been injured due to another person's intentional acts or lack of care may have a viable claim in civil court. The injured party that has filed such a claim is known as a "plaintiff." The State of Missouri allows plaintiffs to sue other individuals, corporations, and sometimes even the government to recover for personal injuries. Those entities in a case are known as "defendants." Selecting the appropriate parties to sue can be an important but difficult legal decision, so it may be a good idea to consult with an attorney first. The possible consequences may vary, depending on the identity of the defendant.
If you have been sued, contact an attorney to know what defenses you may have, and who else should be a party to the case. It is important to know all of the other potential defendants because that may reduce your liability or make it easier to proceed in court.
Like many states, Missouri sets time limits for filing a lawsuit using what are called "statutes of limitations." Missouri has a generous statute that generally allows a plaintiff five years to file. This is only a general rule, and there are exceptions. For example, plaintiffs generally only have two years to sue for intentional harmful conduct. There may also be special processes for suing an employer or a governmental entity. Talk to an attorney soon after injury because if you fail to file within the proper statute of limitations, or you fail to follow the correct process, you may not be able to recover for your injury.
Recovering the Cost of Being Injured
In any personal injury case, a court may award "general damages" and "special damages." General damages compensate a plaintiff for the "necessary and natural" consequences of an action. For example, if you suffer an injury that causes you mental anguish, the court can award damages to compensate you for that suffering.
Special damages, on the other hand, compensate a plaintiff for the harms he/she suffers less directly, but still arising out of a defendant's bad conduct. For example, if you were injured by another person's negligent driving, and you elect to have surgery to repair your hip, the cost of surgery is a special damage.
A plaintiff has a limited duty to reduce the costs of his/her injury. Missouri law requires plaintiffs to use "reasonable care" in seeking medical aid. To be clear, no one is required to undergo any and all treatments that are offered. A plaintiff may, however, have his/her damage award reduced in some cases if he/she fails to get treatment.
The laws surrounding damages can be very complex. It may be a good idea to talk about your options and obligations with a Columbia-area attorney. You may also review the Missouri Bar's publication on Damages Generally (PDF).
Shared Responsibility: Joint and Several Liability
Missouri has a comparative negligence system. This means that either a judge or a jury will assign a percentage of fault to each party, which will then pay that percentage of the damages to the plaintiff. So, if a plaintiff is partially at fault for his/her injuries, then the plaintiff will receive less than the full amount of damages.
Occasionally, multiple defendants will be at fault. When this happens, each defendant will generally only be responsible for its portion of the damages. The law makes an exception, however, when one party is judged to be 51% or more at fault. In such a case, a plaintiff may recover the total damages (minus the amount for his/her own fault) from the most at-fault defendant.
Example: The owner of a warehouse sues two drivers who were drag racing and who caused a wreck damaging the warehouse and equipment. Driver 1, a wealthy man, lost control of his Lamborghini and caused 60% of the damage. Driver 2, a struggling Mizzou student, lost control of his Pontiac Firebird and caused the other 40%. The warehouse owner can recover 100% of the damages from Driver 1, who will then have to seek compensation from the Mizzou student. With this rule, it's Driver 1, and not the plaintiff, who bears the risk that one of the defendants will be insolvent (poor).
Finding a Lawyer
The Missouri Bar provides a lawyer referral service for individuals looking for a lawyer. If you decide to use this service, you must pay $25.00 to the service, and in exchange, you will get a 30-minute consultation. After the first half-hour, the attorney will charge his/her usual rate, or a rate that the two of you decide. For more information, visit the Missouri Bar Lawyer Referral Service online.
Contingent Fees for Plaintiffs
Many personal injury lawyers specialize in helping the injured party, or plaintiff. Many attorneys will consult with potential plaintiffs for free or at a reduced cost and then take a portion of any money that the plaintiff receives in a settlement or a judgment. This arrangement is called a contingent fee agreement. An attorney must clearly write out the formula or method for calculating the contingent fee and explain which expenses are covered and which are not.
Tort Victims' Compensation Fund
Our state legislature has created a special fund allowing injured persons to recover when the defendant has inadequate insurance, files for bankruptcy, or for some other reason is unable to pay. If this is your situation, submit an Application for Tort Victims' Compensation (PDF) for a maximum of $300,000. As with typical legal claims, time limits apply, so you may want to act or speak to an attorney sooner, rather than later. See the State's Department of Labor and Industrial Relations website for more information.
Contact a qualified attorney.