Personal Injury Law: The Basics

The first question in a personal injury case is almost always, “Was the act of harm intentional?”  This is because personal injury and wrongful death law for the purpose of litigation is broken into two categories:  intentional act (also referred to as “torts”) and acts of negligence.

Intentional Torts If someone intentionally commits a wrongful act which leads to the injury of another, they have committed a tort.  An important distinction to make is that in an intentional tort case the burden of proof for a personal injury attorney deals with whether or not the accused intended to commit the wrongful act, not whether or not the accused intended to inflict harm. The reason that intentional torts are set apart from all other torts is because the victim can be entitled to punitive damages well beyond standard compensatory damages.  For legal purposes, a tort case is a civil matter; however, someone guilty of a crime such as battery can be liable both in criminal court and in civil court.  Common intentional torts are assault, battery, defamation, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Negligence is defined as “the failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.”  Car accidents and motorcycle crashes are a frequent example of negligence.  For the purpose of this entry, the burden of proof in negligence cases will be simplified into four statements that all must be proven:

  1. The accused owed the accuser a duty to exercise reasonable care.
  2. The accused did not perform this duty.
  3. The harm to the accuser was a result of the breach of duty. 
  4.  The harm to the accuser was a reasonably foreseeable result of the breach of duty

Punitive damages are usually not allowed in cases of negligence, but compensatory damages can be recovered.  The only exception would be a case of gross negligence. 

A sub-category of negligence is contributory negligence.  A contributory negligence case is where the accused is at fault, but not 100% at fault.  In Iowa, the accused is liable for their share of the damages if they are more than 50% at fault for the injuries of another.  For example, if the accused is found to be 60% at fault for the injuries of the accuser, the accused must pay 60% of the cost to remedy the injuries.  Many negligence cases arise from auto accidents, medical malpractice, and “slip and fall” events.


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