Minnesota Personal Injury Law: Car Accidents

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1 2009 Minnesota Car Accidents Laws/Statutes Statutes are laws that apply to all citizens and cover a variety of topics, including the following: the legislature, the executive branch, state departments, the judiciary and courts, tax policy, public safety and police authority, towns, cities, counties, commerce and trade, private property and private rights, civil injuries and remedies, and crimes against people and property and the penalties associated with them Statutes Index related to car accidents by topics: ACCIDENTS PERSONAL INJURIES NO FAULT DAMAGES DEATH BY WRONGFUL DEATH Minnesota Personal Injury Law: Car Accidents Personal Injury Law: General o General Concepts of Tort Law Degree of Fault Needed to Recover Negligence Intentional Misconduct Strict Liability Comparative Fault Vicarious Liability Burden of Proof Defenses Damages Suing the Government o General Accidents and Injuries Assault and Battery Illegal Confinement Landowner Liability o Products Liability Strict Products Liability Negligent Design or Manufacture Breach of Warranty o Automobile Accidents o Railroad Accidents o Aviation Accidents o Resources Personal Injury Law: General

2 Personal injuries, as their name implies, are injuries to an individual person. Crimes are wrongful acts against society. The government punishes those who commit crimes - criminals - with criminal penalties. For personal injuries, the government does not punish the wrongdoer but gives the victim the right to pursue a private, civil lawsuit, called a tort action, against the wrongdoer. Some wrongful acts are both crimes and torts, and can subject the wrongdoer to both criminal penalties and tort remedies. This chapter outlines the actions that lead to most personal injury lawsuits, including general accidents and injuries, professional malpractice, use of defective products, and injuries occurring to workers on the job. General Concepts of Tort Law Tort laws are based on the premise that when someone does something to harm another person physically, mentally, or financially, the person harmed ought to be compensated for the loss. Tort lawsuits are governed by a set of rules that are different from the rules that govern criminal lawsuits. Degree of Fault Needed to Recover There are three kinds of torts - negligence, intentional misconduct, and strict liability. Each requires the plaintiff to show a different degree of fault to recover from the defendant. Negligence A person is negligent if he or she fails to act as a reasonable person would act in a similar situation. Examples of negligence include automobile accidents caused by inattentive driving, or a fall at a store caused when a store owner fails to repair a defective escalator. If a reasonable person would have been driving attentively, or if a reasonable store owner would have fixed the unsafe escalator, the person who drove inattentively or failed to make repairs could be found negligent by a judge or jury. Negligent behavior is almost never criminal. Intentional Misconduct Intentional misconduct occurs when someone, acting deliberately, does something that hurts another person or damages that person's property. The law does not require that the person intend to cause the injury he or she actually inflicts; only that he or she acted deliberately. For example, a driver of an automobile may intend only to scare a pedestrian by swerving toward the pedestrian, but if the driver hits the pedestrian, the driver commits intentional misconduct. Intentional misconduct can be more difficult to prove than negligence, but often a plaintiff can recover greater damages if he or she can show the defendant acted intentionally. Intentional misconduct is often also

3 criminal behavior. Examples of intentional misconduct include assault and battery. Strict Liability In some situations, a plaintiff can recover for injuries received even if the defendant uses the utmost care. In these situations, a defendant is said to be strictly, or absolutely, liable for any damages resulting from his or her actions. The principle behind strict liability is that some activities are necessary but so dangerous that even a reasonable person cannot make them completely safe. Strict liability usually applies only to very dangerous situations and to products liability. As a social policy, defendants are permitted to engage in certain activities but are held strictly liable for any injury resulting from the activity. Strict liability claims most commonly result from extremely dangerous activities such as blasting, excavating, or demolishing a building or from defective products. Comparative Fault Tort law attempts to compensate victims if their injury is caused by another person. Where one person clearly causes all of another person's injury, blame is easy to place. In many other cases, however, the victim's actions help cause the injury or make it worse than it would otherwise be. For instance, a negligent driver might injure a pedestrian who is negligently walking in the street, instead of on a sidewalk where a prudent pedestrian normally walks. A victim might have been slightly injured by using a defective chainsaw, but his or her injuries are made worse because the victim negligently fails to wear safety goggles while using the chainsaw. In these cases, a judge or jury must calculate how much each party is at fault. Each state has its own rules for calculating damages that can be recovered when a victim is at least partially to blame for his or her own injury. Minnesota has a comparative fault rule. Under the comparative fault rule, a judge reduces the amount of any damage award by the percent that the victim's own actions contribute to his or her injuries. For example, if a jury finds that a plaintiff suffered $100,000 in damages, but was 30 percent at fault, the judge reduces the damage award by 30 percent to $70,000. In Minnesota, the reduction is only up to 50 percent. If the victim is more than 50 percent at fault, he or she collects nothing. Vicarious Liability There are several ways that a person can be held liable for the actions of another person. All of these are known as vicarious liability. For example, a parent might be held responsible for damage caused by his or her child if the parent knows that the child is likely to injure someone and the parent

4 negligently fails to exercise any control over the child. The owner of a vehicle can be held responsible for accidents caused when another person drives the vehicle if the owner negligently entrusts the vehicle to the other driver. The most common form of vicarious liability is called respondeat superior. Under respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for torts committed by employees within the scope of their employment. A business owner is usually not responsible for acts committed by independent contractors. For example, if a pedestrian is struck and injured by a person driving to a party, the victim has a claim against the driver. If the pedestrian is hit by a person driving a delivery van for his or her employer, then respondeat superior gives the pedestrian claims against both the driver and the employer. Frequently, personal injury plaintiffs cannot recover anything from the employee because he or she has no money. Employers usually have more money or better insurance, so plaintiffs often focus their recovery efforts on the employers. Burden of Proof The burden of proof in a civil case is less strict than the proof required in criminal lawsuits. In a criminal case, the state must prove a person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The state is required to meet this high standard because a defendant's liberty, and possibly even life, is at stake. The plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit needs only show that it is more probable than not that an injury was caused by the defendant's actions. If the jury finds that the evidence even slightly favors the injured party, then it must find for the plaintiff. The personal injury plaintiff need only meet this lower standard because the defendant's life and liberty are not at stake. Defenses One is sometimes allowed, or privileged, to commit acts that would otherwise constitute assault or battery and not be liable for damages. If one acts in defense of self, others, or one's land, the use of force can be justified. Minnesota has a Good Samaritan law that gives well-intentioned people a defense to liability if they injure someone while sincerely attempting to help the person. For example, if a person witnesses a car accident and in trying to help the victim accidentally worsens the victim's injury, the person who tries to help has a defense to charges of assault and battery. Damages The damages a victim may collect depend on the type of tort alleged. For injury to the body, a plaintiff can collect lost wages, diminished earning capacity, costs of medical care, pain, and suffering. For injury to property, a plaintiff can recover diminished value of the property, replacement costs, or cost of repair.

5 In a lawsuit alleging intentional misconduct, the plaintiff can often recover punitive damages in addition to any awards for injuries, pain, and suffering. Punitive damages, designed to punish people or organizations for unlawful acts, are often very large sums of money. Until recently, there were few limits to punitive damages. Although federal and state legislatures have recently passed laws capping punitive damages in certain types of cases, it can still be to the plaintiff's advantage to convince a jury that injuries were the result of an intentional act and not mere negligence. A wrongful death lawsuit is a lawsuit filed by the surviving relatives of a person. For example, under Minnesota law, any dependent heirs, such as sons or daughters, of a person killed by a defective product can sue the manufacturer for loss of that person's future income. Surviving relatives cannot, however, sue a manufacturer to collect damages for the pain and suffering of a person wrongfully killed by a manufacturer's defective product. However, the estate of the deceased person can sue to collect money needed to pay any bills for medical treatment received by the person before he or she died. A surviving spouse can sue for damages to recover for loss of advice, comfort, assistance, and protection. Minnesota also has a fetal protection law that allows wrongful death lawsuits to be filed if a manufacturer's defective product or a car accident causes the death of a viable fetus. Suing the Government There was a time when citizens could not sue the government for torts committed by government employees. The federal and state governments enjoyed complete immunity from tort lawsuits. This immunity has been partially waived, but there are limits on tort actions against the government. Although the federal government and most states now permit suits for personal injuries suffered because of the negligence of a government employee or as a result of a dangerous condition on government property, there are limits on how much can be collected and when a suit must be initiated. General Accidents and Injuries A broad variety of accidents and injuries can lead to personal injury lawsuits. Some of the most common are discussed below. Assault and Battery Many people believe that assault and battery are one action. They are actually two closely related but distinct actions. Assault is the attempt or threat to inflict injury on another person when coupled with the apparent ability to carry

6 out the attempt or threat. Assault does not require actual physical contact. For example, if someone threatens to strike a neighbor and appears capable of carrying out the threat, the person making the threat may be liable for assault even though he or she never touches the neighbor. Battery is similar to assault but requires actual unwelcome physical contact. The physical contact need not be so strong as to injure the other person. For example, a person can commit battery by touching another person in an unwelcome sexual manner. Illegal Confinement Illegal confinement, also known as false imprisonment, is confinement by force, threats of force, or physical barriers when one has no right to do so. Merchants are given a limited right to temporarily detain persons suspected of shoplifting. Under the shopkeepers' privilege, merchants who reasonably believe someone is attempting to leave a place of business without paying for an item or service can detain the person for questioning and notifying the police. A merchant who keeps the suspect longer than is reasonable or necessary under the circumstances can be liable for illegal confinement. Landowner Liability There are several ways a landowner can be liable to someone injured on the landowner's property. Business owners and homeowners can be sued if they do something wrong that causes others to be injured on their property. A business owner can sometimes be sued for injuries caused by people committing crimes on their property if the business owner did not take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of customers. An example of this type of case is a person being attacked in a parking lot and then suing the lot's owner for failing to provide security measures that could have prevented the attack. In general, a landowner is not liable for the injuries of a trespasser, although the landowner must take reasonable care to protect the people he or she knows to come on to one's property for legitimate purposes, such as a letter carrier. Under a separate doctrine known as attractive nuisance theory, a landowner can be liable for injuries to children injured on his or her property if there is something on the landowner's property, like a swimming pool, that is dangerous, attractive to children, and the landowner fails to adequately ensure that children cannot get to the nuisance. Products Liability Injuries resulting from defective products are the basis of some personal injury lawsuits. Products liability lawsuits frequently receive attention in the media. Stories of people recovering damages for faulty breast implants, exploding gas tanks, or flammable children's clothing all make headlines. Because a faulty

7 product line can injure many people, products liability lawsuits are sometimes brought as class action lawsuits in which many injured people, the class, bring one united lawsuit against the manufacturer, share legal costs, and split any award. Products liability claims usually rely on one of three theories: strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. Each of these has its standards and possible damages. Often a single injury leads a plaintiff to bring claims under all three theories against the manufacturer. For example, a person injured when a microwave oven explodes might allege that the oven's manufacturer breached a warranty, negligently manufactured the oven, and that the oven was so dangerous that its manufacturer should be held strictly liable for all injuries it caused. Strict Products Liability Strict liability makes the manufacturer of a product liable to the user of a product injured while using the product if the product was unreasonably dangerous. This theory focuses on the product itself. In Minnesota, a person alleging strict products liability must show that: The product was in a defective condition, so that it was unreasonably dangerous even if used for its intended purpose The defect existed when the product left the manufacturer's control The defect caused the plaintiff's injury For example, if a chair has a defective leg that makes it unsafe to sit in, the leg is defective when the chair leaves the manufacturer, and that weak leg cause s injury to a person who falls after sitting down in the chair, the manufacturer can be strictly liable for damages. Negligent Design or Manufacture Manufacturers can be sued for negligence. If a manufacturer negligently designs or manufactures a product, the manufacturer is liable to those hurt by the product. Unlike strict liability theory, which focuses on the product, negligence claims focus on the manufacturer's actions in designing and manufacturing the product. As in all negligence cases, the manufacturer can be found liable if a judge or jury finds that the manufacturer failed to exercise the degree of care that a reasonable manufacturer would exercise in manufacturing the product or that the product was not manufactured according to the manufacturer's own specifications. Under this theory, the manufacturer of the faulty chair might be liable if the company did not conduct reasonable inspections to ensure that products were checked for defects before being sold to consumers. It is important to note

8 that the manufacturer is not negligent merely for failing to produce a perfectly safe product. Minnesota courts use a reasonable care balancing test that asks jurors to balance the likelihood and seriousness of harm against the feasibility and burden of possible precautions that might have avoided the harm. For example, manufacturers might not be required to install a safety feature if doing so would make the product prohibitively expensive or impossible to use. In these cases, the manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks associated with its use so that users can protect themselves. This is why ladders have so many warnings on them. No ladder can be made perfectly safe, so manufacturers warn consumers of their dangers. Some of the most convincing evidence of negligence is what other manufacturers of similar products do. If a manufacturer fails to take precautions or to provide warnings that are standard in the industry, there is a strong likelihood a jury may find the manufacturer was negligent. Breach of Warranty Manufacturers can also be liable for product injuries caused by a breach of warranty. Breach of warranty lawsuits can involve the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), a bundle of statutes adopted in Minnesota and other states to govern many commercial transactions. Under the UCC, a product must be fit for its intended purpose. If a consumer buys a product and is hurt while using it for a purpose for which it is clearly intended, the manufacturer can be liable. A product must also be fit for a particular purpose for which the seller knows the buyer is purchasing the item. A manufacturer can also make additional warranties to the consumer. The breach of any of these warranties can make the manufacturer liable to consumers hurt by the product. In some situations, a manufacturer is allowed to disclaim some of these warranties, so a plaintiff must check to determine which of the warranties apply. Automobile Accidents Automobile accidents account for a large percentage of the personal injury lawsuits filed. Minnesota requires its residents to buy no-fault motor vehicle insurance for their vehicles. The purpose of the act is to eliminate tort actions resulting from minor accidents because damages for injuries are settled without determining fault. Each person in an accident files a claim with his or her own insurance company asking for reimbursement for any medical bills resulting from the accident and for any economic losses such as lost wages. There is a $40,000 limit to these no-fault benefits, $20,000 for medical expenses and $20,000 for lost income, replacement services, funeral expenses, and certain survivors' benefits. In addition, Minnesota requires all vehicle owners to buy insurance to cover themselves if they have an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist.

9 The no-fault act, however, does include a tort threshold that allows someone to sue for greater damages, including punitive damages if the victim: Is permanently injured Is permanently disfigured Dies Is disabled for more than 60 days Sustains more than $4,000 in medical expenses If a person's injuries fall into one of these categories, he or she has the option of bringing a lawsuit, which does require proving fault. If a jury awards damages as a result of such a lawsuit, the law requires that the damage award be reduced by any amount of money already received under the no-fault benefit system. Aviation Accidents While commercial aircraft remain the safest means of long distance travel, accidents do happen, and the litigation that follows an airline crash is notoriously complicated. Plaintiff lawyers in airline cases face a variety of difficult issues. For example: What law (federal or state) should be used? Where is the best forum for the trial? Should lawsuits be brought individually or as a class action? Who should be sued as a defendant (e.g., the aircraft manufacturer, operator, owner, airport operator, corporate officers, component part manufacturers)? What is the best method of proving damages? How should evidence of the crash be preserved? It is obvious, therefore, that when choosing an attorney to represent your interests after an airline accident, it is best to choose someone with experience in airline tort litigation. Other areas of personal injury law are discussed in the Personal Injury Law: Medical & Professional Malpractice chapter. Resources A Manufacturer's Guide to Product Liability Law in Minnesota, Minnesota Small Business Assistance Office, 500 Metro Square Building, 121 Seventh Place East, St. Paul, MN ; (612) or This is a free booklet. The Products Liability Resource Manual: An Attorney's Guide to Analyzing Issues, Developing Strategies, and Winning Cases, James T. O'Reilly and Nancy C. Cody, American Bar Association General Practice Section, Chicago, IL, 1993.

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