There are more than 1.3 million attorneys practicing law in the U.S. today. Each individual will spend years studying law in preparation for practice. But the specific type of law that they focus on will vary.
In fact, there are dozens of types of law that attorneys may choose to practice. Common practice areas include bankruptcy law, criminal law, real estate law, and tax law. While lawyers may practice more than one area of law, in most cases, their chosen areas of specialty will be similar.
Personal injury law is one type of law. But what does it mean for an attorney to practice personal injury law, and how do you know when you need to contact a personal injury lawyer? Keep reading to learn what personal injury lawyers really are, and when you need to contact one for help.
What Falls Under the Category of Personal Injury Law?
The first part of the term, “personal injury lawyer,” may seem self-explanatory; the law that refers to a situation involving an individual.
However, many other types of law may revolve around actions against an individual, or actions performed by an individual. For instance, a tax or bankruptcy law case may center on one person who has evaded taxes or filed for bankruptcy. Or an individual may be trying to defend themselves against charges of tax evasion with the help of an attorney specializing in this area of law.
It’s the “injury” part of the term that sets this area of practice apart. In order for a case to fall under this category of practice, an injury must occur. While the injury is typically physical, it can be psychological as well, or a combination of both.
Injuries That Fall Under the Umbrella of Personal Injury Law
Unlike financial crimes or those involving crimes against property, personal injury law focuses on individuals that have been injured, including both physical injuries and psychological injuries.
These injuries are typically the result of another person’s negligence or negligence on the part of a business, agency, or property owner. Negligence that leads to an injury can sometimes be accidental, but it can also be the result of carelessness or malicious intent.
Not all psychological or physical injuries are what you might expect. Defamation, breaches of a contract to a person’s rights or property, or acts in bad faith can also fall under the category of personal injury.
Injuries, incidents, and accidents that may warrant a personal injury lawsuit include:
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Boat accidents
- Truck accidents
- Workplace accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Medical malpractice
- Slips and falls on another person’s property
- Injuries caused as a result of defective products
- Physical attacks
- Identity Theft
- Instances when insurance companies refuse to pay for medical expenses or other damages
What do Personal Injury Law Cases Seek to Achieve?
When a person commits a crime that leads to injury, whether physical or psychological or resulting in damage to a person’s property, they may get arrested or ticketed. Depending on the case and its severity, they may then go to court, where a judge will determine their punishment.
Legal punishments vary by state and crime. A crime could carry a minimum or a maximum jail sentence or fines. Judges may also choose other forms of punishment, such as requiring that an individual go to counseling or rehabilitation, perform community service, and more.
These punishments serve a number of purposes. They are designed to prevent or deter criminals from future offenses. Victims of the crimes committed may also feel that some justice has been served.
However, this form of justice may not help cover a victim’s medical bills or do anything to compensate them directly for their physical and mental suffering, as well as ongoing complications like lost wages or additional childcare.
That’s where a personal injury case may come in. Personal injury lawyers aid their clients in seeking compensation for a variety of types of losses they sustained. These losses, or damages, are often divided into two different categories: compensatory, including both special and general, and punitive.
What are Special Compensatory Damages?
One of the categories that damages may fall under is compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are the most common, and the term actually covers a wide variety of types of damages. This category is again divided, this time into general and special damages.
General damages are typically awarded in standard personal injury cases, like auto accidents, medical malpractice, or workplace injuries like slips and falls.
Special compensatory damages are monetary losses that occur as a result of an injury. This may include damages like:
- Medical bills, including extended hospital stays or rehabilitation
- Future medical bills and other costs of care, including both ongoing rehabilitation or full medical care required after debilitating injuries
- Loss of current earnings while receiving treatment for injuries or dealing with an accident
- Childcare costs required as a result of being unable to care for children because of injuries
- Lost future wages
- Cost of canceled trips or other plans that had to be altered as a result of an accident or incident.
These damages are ones in which an actual monetary value can be determined. By comparison, general compensatory damages are losses that are non-monetary.
What are General Compensatory Damages?
General compensatory damages that are “generally” sustained following an accident. While not all victims of personal injury suffer special compensatory damages, it is expected that most victims will suffer at least a few general compensatory damages.
These damages, while physically and/or mentally painful, are difficult to assign a monetary value to. However, your attorney will help you determine the monetary value that you should receive as a result of suffering from these damages.
Some examples of general compensatory damages include:
- Physical pain, both immediate and ongoing. While the pain is a direct result of injuries sustained, these damages are separate from those for medical care.
- Mental pain and suffering
- Loss of companionship
Cases of Wrongful Death and Compensatory Damages
Wrongful death can come as a result of a variety of circumstances. By definition, it’s death that occurs as a direct result of a person or agency’s negligence or gross misconduct.
Motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, defective products or manufacturing defects, and injuries caused by another person’s property, like a falling roof, can all fall under the umbrella of wrongful death.
Cases of wrongful death also carry their own unique damages. These also fall under the category of compensatory damages, because their monetary value can be determined. Wrongful death damages may include:
- Cost of medical care prior to death
- Emotional distress and psychological pain of surviving family members and loved ones
- Lost wages by family caretakers who were forced to spend time caring for their ailing family member
- Funeral expenses
- Burial expenses
- Loss of services
- Loss of companionship
- The lost wages and care that the deceased would have provided for his or her dependents
What Are Punitive Damages?
Compensatory damages can be awarded whether the person or party responsible for causing injury to a victim is found to have acted willfully to cause that injury or if it was found to be accidental. This means that the act was not something that was pre-meditated, or that singled out the injured individual as someone that the responsible party intended to harm.
In contrast, punitive damages are only awarded when a responsible party is found to have acted maliciously. This includes acts of assault, fraud, or battery. Road rage, identity theft, and a direct, physical attack are all examples of malicious acts.
In extreme cases, punitive damages could also be awarded to victims of widespread injury or pain as a result of defective products. For instance, a prescription drug that causes extreme side effects or a manufacturer's defect that leads to widespread injuries, like airbags that do not function properly.
What do Personal Injury Lawyers Really Do?
After passing the bar exam, lawyers can legally practice any type of law within their state. But because each area of practice comes with its own complicated set of rules, regulations, and procedures, most lawyers will choose to focus on a single area.
For personal injury lawyers, that means focusing on cases involving individuals who have been injured in accidents, attacks, or other incidents. They study the personal injury cases and court precedents. They examine the laws surrounding wrongful death, workplace accidents, product defects, and fraud.
By the time they begin taking on their own personal injury cases, they are prepared to help victims in a wide variety of ways.
Duties of a personal injury lawyer include:
- Determining the extent of the damages suffered by a victim as a result of an accident. This includes damages incurred as a direct result of the accident, as well as compounding damages like lost wages or mental anguish.
- Guiding clients through the legal process. This includes preparing them for depositions, hearings, and trial, gathering evidence, and filing claims. Understanding what to expect every step of the way can make a huge difference in helping you deal with both your injuries and the legal process ahead of you.
- Investigating your case, including looking at any evidence, speaking to witnesses, etc.
- Providing professional advice on when to proceed with a case and when to accept an out-of-court settlement.
- Protecting their clients' privacy under attorney-client privilege.
- Bringing in experts or witnesses to testify, where applicable. For example, if a victim suffered a debilitating injury that will affect their future ability to work, they may bring in a financial expert to testify about the lost wages that the individual will suffer. This will help better prove to the courts why a victim deserves the compensation that he or she and their lawyer are asking for in court.
- In cases in which a client is faced with dealing with an insurance company, a personal injury lawyer will be there to lend support and their professional skills. In nearly all cases, insurance companies will seek to present very low offers in the hopes of reducing their financial liability. They’ll use specific language and other persuasive tactics to convince victims to accept these offers to avoid court and further legal action. But a personal injury lawyer is not fooled by these tactics. Instead, he or she will help their client navigate these exchanges as they seek fair compensation.
- Helping you negotiate a fair settlement.
When Should You Call a Personal Injury Lawyer?
Understanding what a personal injury lawyer is will help you decide whether or not you need to contact one following an accident.
One common misconception about hiring a personal injury lawyer to represent your case is that you need to do so immediately after an accident. But the reality is that you can contact an attorney just a few hours after an accident or weeks or months later.
In most cases, calling a lawyer as soon as possible is best. However, in some cases, it may not seem as though you need a lawyer, at least at first.
It may not be until an insurance company refuses to pay or pays less than you know that you deserve that it will become evident that you need legal help. You might find that your injuries are longer lasting than you first expected, and lost wages and other expenses are beginning to pile up.
It is not always immediately evident that you have been injured in an accident. You might experience a rush of adrenaline. Or shock following a more severe injury. Either one can mask the pain for hours or even longer following an accident.
Alternatively, some individuals simply discover how tough navigating the legal process can be. It may seem as though it should be very clear who was at fault for your accident. But the process is still challenging, time-consuming, and stressful.
Whether you’re still reeling from an accident that occurred earlier today or medical bills are starting to pile up and you are months into the legal process, it’s not too late to call a personal injury lawyer for help.