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Elements of a Personal Injury Claim and Required Mental State

Personal injury law lets an injured person recover money for physical, mental and financial damages by bringing an action against the party that injured them. The main theory behind personal injury law is that a person who is reckless, negligent or intentionally injurious to another person should be held responsible for compensating the victim. This general idea obviously covers a great many different situations; people can be reckless or negligent in countless different situations in life. However, the general theories underlying each personal injury claim will be the same. Some common personal injury actions include:

  • Wrongful death

  • Slip and fall injury

  • Motor vehicle injury

  • Birth defect, whether caused by exposure to a substance or medication, or improper medical care

  • Medical malpractice

Elements of a personal injury claim

Any personal injury claim must be able to prove the following elements in order to succeed:

  1. Duty

    1. The most common duty is that of reasonable care, which is what a layperson generally owes to another layperson. This duty is heightened depending on the circumstances; a doctor’s patients, for example, have the right to expect a higher duty of care from a medical professional than they would a layperson.

  2. Breach of that duty by the defendant

  3. Causation—To prove this element, both types of causation below must be met.

    1. Cause In Fact: Also known as “but for” causation. The plaintiff must prove that if the defendant’s negligence had not happened (or “but for” the negligence), the injury would not have occurred

    2. “Proximate” cause: The plaintiff’s injuries must have been a reasonably foreseeable outcome or consequence of the defendant’s behavior. If there are too many intervening causes or the defendant’s actions and the injury are too attenuated in time and/or space, proximate cause will not be found

  4. Damages—the plaintiff must have suffered a cognizable injury.

State of mind

In proving the proximate causation element, the defendant’s behavior will necessarily fall into one of the categories below.

  1. Negligence: This means the person failed to foresee the risk in their action. Negligence claims usually apply to injurious behavior that is careless or incompetent.

  2. Recklessness: This means the person knew or should have known that their actions were likely to cause harm. Reckless behavior differs from negligence and is consequently a more serious personal injury claim because it requires that the person make the conscious choice to take a certain action.

    1. a. A person can be found liable for reckless behavior even if they hoped or wished that the injury would not occur as long as they had a strong enough reason to believe that it might.

  3. Intent: Also called willfulness, intent means that the person intended to cause harm with their actions.

  4. Strict liability: This is reserved for specific situations where a person can be held liable for injuries they cause regardless of their mental state.

    1. a. Dog bite rules in North Carolina are one example of strict liability in civil law. A dog’s owner will be held strictly liable for any injury or property damages the dog inflicts.

    2. b. There is no strict liability for product liability cases in North Carolina.

Objective vs. Subjective

Determining a person’s state of mind can be an objective inquiry, subjective, or both for the court. An objective inquiry looks at what the average “reasonable person” would have been thinking in the defendant’s shoes. The subjective inquiry looks at what the actor thought or was believed to have been thinking.

The majority of personal injury claims involve negligence or recklessness.

Personal injury can have a devastating impact on the lives of the injured party and their loved ones. If you have experienced a personal injury, it is important to speak with an experienced attorney as soon as possible. Statutes of limitations can prohibit a person from bringing certain claims past a certain time period, so time can literally be of the essence in personal injury cases. The dedicated and professional personal injury attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC have been fighting for the rights of injured parties in Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union, Iredell, Gaston and the surrounding counties for years. Contact us today for an initial consultation about your case.