Determining Fault in Personal Injury Cases: Washington State
When a person is injured in an accident and a claim is made, insurance companies must first decide who is at fault in the accident. If the case is brought to trial, a jury will be assigned the task of determining fault. In some cases, the injured party will be assigned a certain degree of fault.
In Washington, fault can be shared in a personal injury case. Damages are awarded based on contributory fault law which says that you may only be awarded damages proportionate to the percentage of fault contributed by the defendant and nothing for the amount of fault that you contributed.
Caps on personal injury awards in Washington State
Washington has no cap on personal injury damages despite efforts by the insurance industry. A statutory cap on non-economic damages has been deemed an unconstitutional infringement of the right to a trial by jury by the Supreme Court of Washington making Washington a fair state for personal injury claims.
Although there are generally no limitations on damages received to compensate for personal injuries such as reimbursement for medical expenses and lost wages, some limitations exist in certain situations. Your estimation of damages must be reasonably certain, especially for those damages projected for the future, such as future medical expenses or future lost wages.
Serious injury threshold and fault
Washington State has no serious injury threshold which means that insurance companies pay for an injury based on the claimant’s degree of fault in the accident, rather than the severity of the injury. Washington is one of the “fault states”. Specifically, Washington follows the Pure Comparative Fault Rule (also called the pure comparative negligence theory), which allows a damaged party to recover even if it is 99 percent at fault but where the court or adjuster will diminish the award in proportion to the degree of fault of the injured party. In other words, the recovery is reduced by the damaged party’s degree of fault. A person involved in a car accident in Washington State has the right to file suit for uncompensated economic damages such as lost wages and medical expenses and non-economic damages like pain and suffering.
Washington also follows the theory of Joint and Several Liability. This means that each defendant is liable for his share of the monetary award unless the plaintiff is not at fault at all, in which case each defendant will share in the responsibility of all liable defendants.
Proving fault and liability for injuries and damage due to an accident are vital to your personal injury case. Proving fault in an accident can be straightforward but it may not be in every case.
A person must prove three points to show liability in a personal injury case:
1. A legal duty of care was owed
In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation placed on an individual, business or organization that requires them to act with a standard of reasonable care while conducting any action that could foreseeably harm others. It is the first element that must be established in order to proceed with an action in negligence. For example:
- When driving a car a driver owes a legal duty of care to everyone else on the road. They must operate their vehicle in accordance with traffic laws and in a way any other reasonable driver would have acted under similar circumstances.
- When inviting guests to our homes social hosts have a legal duty of care to their guests. They must clear up dangers such as pot holes that guests could slip and fall over (or have them clearly marked) and refrain from serving alcohol to minors.
- When selling products to the public a designer, manufacturer or retailer owes a legal duty of care to the end user. The product must be safe to use when used in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions for its intended purpose.
- When a doctor provides medical treatment he or she owes a legal duty of care to their patient. They must act in accordance with established medical standards and in a way that a qualified peer would act under similar circumstances.
2. A duty was breached
To show that a duty was breached, the plaintiff must prove that the person who caused the accident was not operating within their legal duty of care. The “reasonable person standard” is used to compare the actions of the defendant to what a reasonable driver, manufacturer, social host or medical provider would have done in the same situation. If it is decided that a reasonable person would have acted differently or more carefully, then the defendant can be considered negligent and at least partially at fault for the accident/injuries. If the driver was also cited for traffic violation in relation to the accident or a medical provider received disciplinary action for the care they provided the injured party, those actions can help strengthen the case that a duty was breached.
3. The breach of duty led to injuries
Proving negligence is not enough to make a person responsible for an accident or injuries. The connection must be made that the person or organization’s negligence was the direct or proximate cause of the accident and therefore would not have happened with a reasonable person or organization.
Steps to take if you have suffered a personal injury in Washington State through no fault of your own:
- Seek appropriate medical care for any injuries
- Document all injuries and any damage to property (gather copies of accident reports, take pictures of injuries and the scene of the accident, keep medical receipts and invoices, keep notes of new symptoms, document time off from work, etc.)
- Get contact information from witnesses and gather their statements
- When you are able contact an experienced personal injury lawyer
- Open a claim with the other person’s insurance company
- Do not give any statements to anyone other than the police before speaking with a lawyer
- Do not sign any releases of liability or potential claims before speaking with a lawyer
Disclaimer: State and federal laws in the United States change on a regular basis. Any information provided in this guide is meant solely for informational purposes and should not take the place of the advice of a lawyer. Only a qualified attorney can assess the merits of your case and provide an effective plan for counsel.
If you or a loved one is dealing with an accident or injury, you have enough on your plate. Let an experienced accident attorney fight for the full compensation that you deserve. It is not uncommon to receive a settlement from the insurance company that is five to ten times bigger with the help of a lawyer. Call the caring accident attorneys at Tario & Associates, P.S. in Bellingham, WA today for a FREE consultation! We have been representing residents of Whatcom County, Skagit County and surrounding areas since 1979. You will pay nothing up front and no attorney fees at all unless we recover damages for you!