For your birthday, you decide to treat yourself to a new pair of boots from the Galleria. You head to North Dallas and find the perfect pair in less than an hour and treat yourself to a snack. Unfortunately, someone else in the food court already spilled his/her Coke, and you slipped on an ice cube. Paramedics have to cut off your new boot to get a look at your swollen foot and ankle. It's a tragedy, and to make matters worse, you might even be injured.
If you've been involved in a personal injury case, you may be unsure of how to proceed. The legal landscape can feel like ice cubes on a slippery floor. This article will help you learn the basics of a personal injury case in Big D. With the right help, you'll be back on your feet (and in a new pair of boots) in no time.
Personal Injury law covers a wide variety of scenarios. In each case, a claimant (also called a "plaintiff") has suffered a physical injury. The claimant then approaches another person or entity believed to be responsible (a "defendant") and requests payment in response to the injury. If the parties do not agree on whether (or how much) the defendant must pay, the claimant may file a claim or lawsuit in civil court.
This article tracks the general rules of personal injury law. If you have been hurt in the course of medical treatment or your employment, speak to an attorney because the laws may be different in those contexts.
Find an Attorney
Finding an attorney is typically the first step to financial recovery after an injury. Many injured parties prefer attorneys that specialize in personal injury cases because the same issues tend to pop up again and again. Also, many personal injury attorneys work under contingent fee contracts. This means that the amount that you pay, if anything at all, depends the outcome of the case. Some attorneys do not require payment until you've received a settlement from the other party or a judgment from the court. When shopping for a lawyer, ask about contingent fees and the attorney's method of calculating the final amount due.
Theory of Recovery
In many cases, the claimant must show that another person or entity -- the defendant -- is at fault for his/her injuries because the defendant was negligent. To win a negligence case, a claimant must show that the defendant failed to act with enough care in his/her actions, and that their failure caused the plaintiff to suffer harm.
Texas has a comparative negligence rule, meaning that a claimant must not be more than half at fault in order to recover for his/her injuries. A judge or jury will assign a percentage of responsibility to each person or entity involved in the incident, including people and entities who may not be a part of the lawsuit. If the judge or jury determines that the claimant was more than 50% responsible, the claimant may not receive an award for any amount under the law. If the claimant was partially responsible, but by 50% or less, his/her award will be reduced proportionally.
You may prevent a court from reducing your damage award by "mitigating" the damage. Generally, a claimant must take reasonable steps to prevent further harm after an incident. "Reasonable steps" may vary case-by-case, but if you're injured, you should seek medical treatment and keep a record of your doctor's advice. Do not engage in activities that would further complicate the injury. Each state's law may vary, but for a general discussion of the topic, read FindLaw's The Plaintiff's Duty to Mitigate Damages.
Other possible theories of recovery exist. In some cases a defendant will be liable for intentional conduct without regard for who was actually at fault. You may wish to speak to an attorney to see if other theories apply to your specific circumstances. If so, proceeding under alternate theories may give you some advantages when seeking a judgment or settlement. For example, you may be able to (1) recover additional amounts, (2) file in a different court, or (3) obtain more time to file.
A court may award damages, money to be paid by the defendant, to the plaintiff if it finds that the defendant was liable for an injury. In most cases, a Texas plaintiff is entitled to only economic and noneconomic compensatory damages. If you've been hurt, you can recover the cost of medical treatment and lost wages, and additional amounts to compensate you for pain, suffering, and mental/emotional anguish. In extraordinary cases -- cases in which the harm results from a defendant's fraud or especially bad conduct -- a plaintiff may recover additional, exemplary damages designed to punish the defendant. As you can see, damages can be a tricky legal topic. It may be best to consult with an attorney to see how much of an award you may recover.
Choosing a Court
Personal injury cases typically begin in either Dallas County Justice of the Peace Courts (Justice Court) or Dallas County Courts. Choosing the appropriate court is an important piece of litigation strategy that should probably be discussed with your attorney. If you would like to go at it without counsel, the Small Claims Court (PDF) is a good option for unrepresented litigants. The downside is, however, that you cannot seek more than $10,000. For more on Dallas courts and courthouses, see FindLaw's article on the subject.
After you've sustained an injury, you have several important legal decisions to make, and not much time to waste. State laws places limits on the amount of time you have to file a claim, and those laws are known as statutes of limitation. Personal injury cases in Texas typically have a two-year statute of limitation and lawsuits can take a while to prepare.
Contact a qualified attorney.