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Liability in Personal Injury Lawsuits

Liability is the legal responsibility, or in lay terms “fault”, for an accident, an essential factor in personal injury cases. It determines who is accountable and enables victims to seek compensation. Once liability is established, the responsible party may be required to pay damages to the injured person.

Need to know:

  • There are distinct types of liability with different legal requirements (detailed below).
  • There are sometimes separate trials for proving liability and awarding financial damages. This is referred to as a “bi-furcated trial.” When both liability and damages are decided in a single trial, that is referred to as a “unified trial.”
  • Proving liability can be complex, and the challenges vary by case, so securing an experienced personal injury lawyer is vital.

In This Article:

What is Comparative Negligence?

For most personal injury cases, your attorney must prove that someone acted with negligence.

Negligence occurs when a defendant neglects their duty to ensure safety, resulting in an accident and causing injuries. If someone is negligent, it implies they are responsible (liable) or at fault for the accident.

Sometimes, an injury victim may be partially responsible for the accident. In New York State, this can reduce the percentage liability of the party being sued and impact the injured party’s recovery of damages. Measuring fault in these percentages is called comparative negligence.

In cases of comparative negligence, both parties’ negligence levels are considered in determining responsibility and compensation. This makes liability and negligence highly contested issues in a personal injury case. For instance, if a jury decides that the Plaintiff and Defendant share equal responsibility for an accident, meaning each is 50% at fault for the causing of the accident, and determine that the Plaintiff sustained $100,000 in total damages then the Plaintiff would be entitled to $50,000 based on the verdict.

$3,258,000 Jury Verdict in Comparative Negligence Case

In one particular case where liability was hotly contested, our client admitted some fault. He was employed as a delivery helper, collaborating with a forklift operator to transfer pallets of beverages from a truck to a supermarket. On the day of the accident, our client stepped backward off the sidewalk into the street, getting hit by the forklift and suffering broken bones, necessitating multiple surgeries.

Our delivery truck driver admitted fault for stepping backward into the street, but he claimed that the supermarket was liable for faulty delivery practices and that the forklift operator was also liable for negligence. What percentage was our client at fault? What percentage was the supermarket at fault?

As the defendant, the supermarket gathered witness testimony to argue that our client’s wayward step into the street made him 100% responsible for the accident.

Across an 18-day trial, our attorneys argued that the supermarket could have made better choices to prevent the accident through competent management of the delivery area and operation of the forklift. We also focused on the driver’s operation of the forklift and some of the poor choices the driver made while also highlighting the physical and mental toll that our client’s injuries caused him.

A Bronx jury awarded our client a final verdict of $3,258,000. This was 90% of the original verdict because the jury found Plaintiff to be 10% at fault.

What is Strict Liability?

As we discussed, the concepts of negligence and liability are often intertwined. However, there is an exception to this principle called strict liability. This means that if you’ve suffered an injury due to a certain activity or product, the responsible party can be held liable even if they took reasonable precautions. It provides a path for seeking compensation when harm results, usually during dangerous, but necessary activity, emphasizing the protection of victims in situations where fault may not be the most critical factor.

We frequently handle strict liability in construction accident cases. In New York, legislation called Labor Law 240 (or The Scaffold Law) is designed to help construction workers and other laborers recover compensation after gravity-related accidents (falls, falling objects, etc.). Because Labor Law 240 is a strict liability statute, it does not factor in comparative negligence.

In a case we settled for $15 million, an HVAC technician lost his life while trying to transport a cooling unit. Initially, the case was dismissed after a motion, as the defense was able to persuade a lower court judge that the activity in question, while tragic, constituted routine maintenance. Labor Law 240 does not cover routine maintenance activity. Following mediation, the defense proposed a $4 million settlement to the grieving family. Block O’Toole & Murphy stood by our clients in declining this offer, recognizing that the worker’s tragic death had created a profound void in the lives of his widow and five children, which extended beyond monetary compensation. Instead, the firm pressed on with an aggressive but well-conceived appeal.

Because of strict liability, this was an all-or-nothing decision. If our appeal was successful, the defendant would be strictly liable, and our client would be in a position to be fairly compensated for this senseless loss of life. However, if the lower court decision remained in place, our client would not collect anything at all.

In a groundbreaking victory, Block O’Toole & Murphy won the appeal by analyzing the engineering behind the HVAC installation. We showed that this project was not routine maintenance work, but a substantial and critical modification to the building. This established that the worker had been covered under Labor Law 240 and that the defendant was therefore strictly liable for his death. The family of the deceased ended up with a $15,000,000 settlement. This case underscores the import of having a skilled attorney helping you navigate thorny liability issues.

What is Vicarious Liability?

Sometimes, parties can be liable for an accident by association, even if they were not directly involved. This is called vicarious liability. Vicarious liability comes from a legal concept known as “respondeat superior,” which means that anyone overseeing the actions of others (such as employees) can be held responsible for those actions.

This only applies to certain relationships. Employers can be vicariously liable for accidents caused by their employees, and parents can be vicariously liable for damages caused by their children. In some auto accident cases, someone was driving a vehicle that did not belong to them. If the owner made the choice to lend out their vehicle, they can be sued along with the driver through vicarious liability. Vicarious liability is a form of strict liability because a liable party (like an employer) does not have to do anything negligent to be sued.

How Do You Prove Liability?

After an accident, parties who might be liable often try to deny their role in causing the accident. Whether the defendant is an employer, a property owner, an insurance company, or some other entity, financial interests drive them to portray a version of the event that might not be 100% true. To disprove these accounts, evidence is crucial.

When many people think of evidence, they might imagine the puzzle pieces of a violent crime. However, evidence is just as important in civil cases such as personal injury lawsuits. To prove that someone is liable for an accident, an experienced personal injury attorney will gather evidence such as video footage, documents, and the testimony of expert witnesses.

In today’s world, video evidence can be a powerful way to prove liability. For instance, Block O’Toole & Murphy represented the family of a 68-year-old pedestrian who was tragically killed when a bus struck her at an intersection.

In a remarkable effort, our attorneys diligently unearthed crucial video footage from a home surveillance camera in the neighborhood. This footage, capturing the woman legally walking within the crosswalk just moments before the bus struck her, became the linchpin in proving the bus driver’s liability for the injuries and subsequent fatality. Leveraging vicarious liability, we also held the bus driver’s employer accountable.

This tenacious pursuit of evidence resulted in a $2.25 million settlement for the grieving 41-year-old daughter of the deceased, highlighting our commitment to going above and beyond to secure justice for our clients.

Are There Different Trials for Liability and for Damages?

It depends on the venue of the trial. Some trials may be “unified” while some are “bifurcated.” The distinction aims to streamline the legal process and ensure fairness. Unified trials address all aspects comprehensively, while bifurcated trials isolate liability to prevent bias and enable independent focus on each aspect.

In a unified trial, the process of proving liability and awarding damages takes place at the same time. The New York State Unified Court System is split into sections called “departments.” The first department covers Manhattan and the Bronx, where the trials are typically unified. In a unified trial, a jury can absorb all the facts of the case before making decisions on both liability and damages. This generally, but not always, helps a plaintiff, because juries tend to be more sympathetic when emotional and graphic aspects of their injury, suffering and recovery have been introduced.

In a bifurcated trial, the first trial determines liability, and the second decides on damages. In New York, for example, departments such as the ones covering Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, and Richmond County usually conduct bifurcated trials. Bifurcated trials are more challenging for accident victims because the jury is not allowed to know about a victim’s specific injuries during the liability trial. This means a jury will determine liability, or who is at fault for an accident, before they learn most or all of the injuries and damages sustained by the victim.

Bifurcated trials tend to be less favorable than a unified trial for a Plaintiff. However, bifurcated trials can be won with a strong legal team. In a bifurcated Brooklyn trial, Block O’Toole & Murphy secured a landmark $53.5 million verdict for a paralyzed construction worker.

How Do Insurance Policies Affect Liability?

The amount that a personal injury victim can recover often hinges on insurance policies, and certain trends in insurance coverage appear across different industries.

Building owners tend to have large insurance policies aiming to protect themselves from building-related accidents. In addition, a building owner will require a general contractor to provide proof of a current amount of insurance – at least $1 million. General contractors also require subcontractors to carry their own insurance.

Under a strict liability law like New York’s Labor Law 240, where the defendant must be 100% liable, all these parties will typically try to shift liability onto each other after a building-related accident. In these circumstances, a written agreement called an “indemnification provision” might come into play. This document can direct responsibility onto an employer. Unlike building owners, general contractors, and subcontractors, employers are not usually liable. Through indemnification, a seasoned attorney can unlock an employer’s liability, and in turn, their insurance coverage.

For motor vehicles, every driver in New York State is required to have, at minimum, a general liability policy of $25,000. Some people (often those with high net worth) invest in personal liability policies. These policies become relevant if you are suing an individual for an accident they caused.

Our Results for Personal Injury Victims

Liability can be a complex issue. With the help of a veteran serious injury attorney, every plaintiff can have the best chance of securing fair compensation. Some results we have delivered include:

  • $110,174,972 verdict for a man who became a paraplegic after NYCTA (New York City Transit Authority) workers dropped a railroad tie onto his spine
  • $32,756,156 verdict obtained from auto insurance companies for a man who was catastrophically injured in a car collision
  • $20,181,484 verdict secured from the State of New York, which was liable for black ice that led to a violent car crash
  • $15 million verdict for the family of a man tragically killed while doing HVAC work in a hospital which was found to be liable

To speak with one of our skilled personal injury lawyers today, call 212-736-5300 or fill out our contact form online. We serve New York and New Jersey.

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