Personal injury law in Missouri is a vast topic covering auto accidents, medical malpractice, slip and fall cases, defamation, and much more. Quite frequently, understanding your rights when confronted with a personal injury case can be a fact-specific inquiry into what happened, and what the state of Missouri law is with regards to your accident.
Whenever an incident occurs—whether it be a car accident or a slip and fall—it’s extremely important to obtain a police report, if at all possible, regarding what occurred. Quite frequently, many car accidents and slip and fall cases only have one or two witnesses to the accident: either yourself, or the other person involved. These cases will sometimes boil down to a “he said, she said” situation, which may limit your possibility for recovery, particularly in the case of a car accident in which you both may have been at least partially at fault. Having a police record of the incident shows that the police performed an, at least, rudimentary investigation of the scene of the incident. The police were also able to witness your injuries (if any), damage to your car and the other car, and can document relevant details that may seem unimportant to you at the time, but can turn out to be crucial pieces of evidence. The report will serve as an objective, third party retelling of what occurred.
It’s extremely important to limit your statements to the police to a factual retelling of what happened. Far too often, victims of car accidents will make statements to police that are statements of opinion or purport to state legal conclusions, rather than what actually happened. For example, stating “I saw the other car enter the intersection after the light turned red” is a statement of fact, whereas “The other car was at fault because they ran a red light” is a legal conclusion that only an attorney or judge is fully qualified to make. This is doubly true if you believe you may be at fault, or partially at fault, for the accident. Oftentimes, clients severely limit their legal rights by admitting to fault at the scene of the accident (because, for example, they were speeding when they rear-ended a car, or were running over an icy patch of a sidewalk when they fell), only to discover that the other party involved is much more at fault (such as driving under the influence of alcohol, or having failed to de-ice their sidewalks for many hours after an ice storm). The police are concerned with gathering facts and information, and not necessarily in apportioning blame or fault until a full investigation has transpired.
Second, if your incident involved a car accident, be sure to inform your insurance company of what occurred. Similar to obtaining a police report, the sooner your insurance company is informed, the more straightforward your case may be. The report generated by the insurance company will also serve as crucial evidence of the severity of the incident, and what exactly transpired.
Third, obtain medical care. If you believe you have been injured, you may seriously jeopardize your legal rights by failing to immediately go to the hospital, or a doctor. This is so because a later insurance adjustor, judge, or jury, may see your failure to seek medical care immediately after the incident as proving that you were not seriously injured, or that your injuries actually stem from a different incident entirely. Moreover, seeking immediate medical care can permit a doctor to assess and treat injuries that may not be obvious directly after the accident. For example, oftentimes accident victims will fail to notice injuries due to a rush of adrenal resulting from the accident, or may be suffering from latent injuries, particularly injuries to internal organs and the spine, that do not become apparent until days or weeks later. Only a medical professional can diagnose such injuries and pursue an appropriate treatment plan.
Fourth, contact an attorney who is experienced and skilled at handling personal injury incidents. Most attorney will not charge a fee for consultation after an accident. Moreover, almost all personal injury attorneys will take cases on a “contingency fee” basis, meaning that they will take a portion of the amount that you win at trial or at a settlement as their fee. This means that you can pursue your legal rights without having to pay, upfront, for the cost of an attorney and a possible trial. Even a brief phone call with an attorney can save thousands upon thousands of dollars by enabling you to preserve your rights and timely pursue a case.
Missouri places strict time limits on when an injured victim can pursue a legal case against another person or another entity. These limits are often called the “statute of limitations,” and can vary based on the type of injury sustained, and the party that you are considering bringing legal action against. In general, however, injured parties have two years from the date of the incident to initiate a lawsuit. Although two years may sound like a long time, it is not uncommon for police and insurance investigations to take months to resolve themselves. It is therefore enormously important to contact an attorney at the outset of your case who can advise you when and in what manner to pursue legal action.
Many car accidents and slip and fall incidents in Missouri are resolved with insurance companies. For example, the driver who hit you in a car accident (who, in Missouri, is legally mandated to carry auto insurance) will likely have his or her insurance company contact yours, who will then apportion fault based primarily on the police report and the insurance adjustors’ assessment of the incident. In the case of slip and fall personal injury incidents, you will most likely be dealing with the insurance company for the business that you slipped in and, in medical malpractice cases, with the insurance held by the doctor or hospital. It’s extremely important to realize that, in all cases when dealing with an insurance company, an insurance company’s offer to you (or your insurance company) for payment is simply an offer, despite what the insurance company may tell you. This means that you are free to reject this offer, if you believe, or you in conjunction with your doctor and attorney, believe the offer is too low, or apportions fault incorrectly. All too often, insurance companies will attempt to “low ball” victims under the belief that they are too unsophisticated to understand their legal rights. In these cases, oftentimes the mere presence of an attorney is enough to convince insurance companies to offer more realistic settlements.
Dealing with insurance companies can be an art in of itself. In fact, many of the procedures insurance companies employ are intentionally designed to be difficult and overwhelming for non-attorneys to understand. If you do decide to reject the settlement offer of an insurance company (or they require you or your insurance company to pay for the accident), an attorney who is well-versed in dealing with insurance companies will be essential in navigating the complexities that you will encounter in obtaining compensation.
Many victims of car accidents are hesitant to pursue their rights because of a fear that they were “at fault” for the accident, or were somehow partially to blame for what occurred. Missouri employs a legal concept known as comparative fault, which can greatly assist injured victims in their recovery. In a “pure” comparative fault system, like Missouri, judges or juries can apportion financial recoveries based on how at fault a party was. For example, if you were struck by a drunk driver but were speeding at the time, you both might be somewhat at fault for the accident, although the drunk driver was likely much more at fault. In this case, a jury might find that you were 10% at fault, while the drunk driver was 90% at fault. If your injuries amount to $100,000, this means that you would recover $90,000 from the other driver (or 90% of the total amount). This also means that even in cases in which both you and the other driver were almost equally at fault (for example, you were 49% at fault for the accident, and the other driver was 51% at fault) can still yield a recovery. Moreover, as noted previously, many victims of personal injury incidents in Missouri are shocked to discover that the other party involved is often more at fault than they were, or at fault in ways not anticipated! It is therefore always a good idea to fully investigate and understand the incident, even if you strongly believe you were the cause of what occurred.
Even if your case—like the vast majority of all personal injury cases in Missouri—does not proceed to trial, it is important to understand how most personal injury cases in Missouri work. An injured victim must be able to show four interrelated elements to successfully recover for his or her injuries or other damages. First: the at-fault part must have had a duty to protect or prevent against the injuries suffered in the incident. For example, in a car accident, all drivers on roads in Missouri have a duty to drive in a reasonable manner, to drive at a reasonable speed, maintain their vehicles in a reasonable manner, be alert and aware of their environment, maintain control of their vehicle, and to fulfill any other duty imposed by state or local traffic laws. In motor vehicle accidents, it is usually not difficult to show that the driver of a vehicle had a duty to prevent against the injuries that may have occurred. In the case of a slip and fall, the store likely had a duty to prevent against injuries by store guests. In the case of medical malpractice, the doctor or other medical professionals likely has a duty to inform you of the best options for your medical care, and to prevent further or unneeded harm.
Second, the injured party must show a breach of this duty. In many personal injury cases, this is usually straightforward: for example, a driver had a duty to drive within the speed limit, but failed to do so as is evident from their exceeding the speed limit. A store had a duty to prevent against slip and fall accidents, but failed to do so, as is evident from the puddle of water left in an aisle.
Complications arise in understanding the scope of the duties imposed. For example, while a store has a duty to prevent against customer injury, a store owner or manager is only required to adhere to a standard of so-called “reasonable care.” The standard of what is “reasonable” is one determined after looking at the entire context and facts of what occurred. For example, it is probably reasonable to require store owners to clean up spills in the aisles of a grocery store within a few minutes of them occurring—but it’s probably not reasonable to require a store to clean up such spills mere seconds after they happen. In a similar vein, a grocery store may be held to a more stringent standard with regards to spills than a quiet office, which rarely receives outside visitors.
Third, an injured party must show that the injuries he or she suffered were a direct cause of the breach of the duty. For example, if a driver is struck by an intoxicated driver, and, as a result, breaks her wrist, she must show that, for example, her wrist was not already fractured at the time of the accident, or was not fractured in between when the accident occurred and when she went to the doctor or filed a claim for her injuries.
Finally, the injured party must show actual, physical damages. That is, usually being inconvenienced or emotionally disturbed is not enough to recover for personal injury damages, although non-physical damages may also be compensated for if there are, at least, some physical injuries.
Together, these four elements form what is called a “negligence” action, meaning that an injured party (the plaintiff) will sue the at fault party (the defendant) due to their legal negligence. Although there are other legal theories under which you may be able to recover for your injuries, negligence actions are, by far, the most common in Missouri law.
The complexities of pursuing a personal injury action in Missouri, and the important time considerations at play, mean that contacting an experienced, local Missouri personal injury attorney who specializes in the manner of incident you’ve encountered is absolutely essential in preserving your legal rights, and in obtaining maximum recovery for your injuries.