A question many personal injury lawyers hear all the time is: Do I have a case? Well, there’s no simple or blanket answer to that question. We can promise that in selecting our firm, you will get the best representation possible.
But as to whether you have a case...well, even the best medical malpractice lawyers can only deliver within the limits of the law.
So we wanted to spend a blog post explaining how the law applies to your case, whether it be a malpractice, personal injury or product liability claim.
In short, your answer can be found in the jury instructions.
These are the elements that a jury will be asked to consider at the close of all evidence during a trial. They are essential to what we do. And thus, they are our guideposts as we work your case up towards a settlement or trial, informing every deposition, and all of our research as we determine how to deliver the best possible result to you.
A full copy of the instructions can be found here. But there are a few key instructions we want to highlight in this post.
If yours is a medical malpractice case, the applicable jury instructions are found in the 105 Series — what we call “Professional Negligence.”
The instructions define the “standard of care”, which is what we must prove the doctor, nurse and/or other healthcare provider violated. That definition is this: These individuals “must possess and use the knowledge, skill and care ordinarily used by a reasonably careful” doctor, nurse or other healthcare provider in the same or similar circumstances.
In other words, doctors and nurses must act with reasonable care.
What constitutes “reasonable care” isn’t defined, however, because it varies from case to case. The parties must prove that with expert testimony. This is where a good lawyer can deliver results, whereas a subpar lawyer may leave you with less than you deserve. Knowledge of experts, selection of the *right* expert, and guiding that expert’s testimony from the very beginning to ensure it connects with the jury in a simple, common sense way — these are all acquired skills which only come from years of hard-fought experience.
If yours is an ordinary negligence case — such as a trucking accident, auto accident, construction accident or fall — then the applicable jury instructions are found in the 10 Series, which is titled “Ordinary Negligence.”
The jury is instructed that negligence means “the failure to do something which a reasonably careful person would do, or the doing of something which a reasonably careful person would not, under circumstances similar to those shown by the evidence.”
As with malpractice, the jury is not given a more specific definition, because it varies from case to case. It is for the jury to decide what is, and is not, reasonably careful in our specific circumstances. But unlike malpractice, an expert is not required.
The reason no expert testimony is required is that non-professional negligence involves events and circumstances which are more commonly known and understood. Everyone knows what it means to exercise ordinary care behind the wheel, or whether steps taken to protect a customer from falling were reasonable.
To be sure, there are some circumstances where a party still might want an expert. For example, a construction engineer might help the jury understand hidden risks on a job site. But the law does not require such an expert.
As your attorney, we’d be looking to frame the case in a straightforward and logical fashion, so that even bad jurors are forced to agree that “yes, of course, obviously” the defendant acted in an unsafe manner.
Contributory negligence, which lawyers typically just call “contrib”, is a failure on the part of the plaintiff to exercise ordinary care, wherein that failure contributed to his or her injury.
In other words, the injury was — at least partly — the plaintiff's own fault.
The instruction defining “contributory negligence” is IPI 11.01.
If the jury finds for the plaintiff, but also finds contrib, they assess the percentage which was the plaintiff’s fault. The verdict is then reduced by that amount.
Therefore, if the jury awards $500,000, but finds the plaintiff 20 percent at fault, the award is reduced by $100,000 ($500,000 x .2 = $100,000), for a total verdict of $400,000.
This holds for a percentage of fault up to 50 percent. If the jury finds the plaintiff greater than 50 percent responsible — 51 percent or higher — then the injury is more than half the plaintiff’s fault, and the plaintiff loses. This is explained within 735 ILCS 5/2-1116.
Defective products are a different category than negligence cases. Here, we do not have to prove negligence. Instead, we have to prove that the product was unreasonably dangerous at the time the manufacturer placed it into the stream of commerce, and that it caused your injury.
A product can be defective and unreasonably dangerous in three ways: (1) A manufacturing flaw; (2) a design flaw; or (3) a warning flaw - - typically either a failure to warn of a danger, or inadequate instructions for use.
Ultimately, the jury is instructed in IPI 400.02 that we have to prove: (1) A condition existed, which (2) made the product unreasonably dangerous, and (3) this condition existed when the product left the defendant’s control.
That’s it. Again, we do not have to prove negligence. It is not a defense to say that the defendant used their best efforts. They have a non-delegable duty to provide the user a safe product.
Because we do not have to prove negligence, the defendants are not allowed to argue contrib. They don’t get to claim the injured plaintiff got hurt because he wasn’t paying attention, or made some other negligent mistake.
The only potential fault on the part of the plaintiff which a products liability defendant is can argue is assumption of the risk. This requires proving that the plaintiff knew of the specific defect, and knew that specific defect posed a danger, but decided to use the product anyway. This is very difficult to establish.
Additionally, for the types of cases above, it is not enough to prove liability — that is, that the defendant was either negligent or manufactured a dangerous product. And it is not enough to prove that you were hurt. We also have to prove that the defendant’s carelessness *caused* your injury. This is called proximate cause.
There is just one jury instruction on proximate cause, IPI 15:01. However, there are two different versions which can be given, depending on the circumstances.
The short form is just this sentence: “When I use the expression ‘proximate cause,’ I mean a cause that, in the natural or ordinary course of events, produced the plaintiff's injury”. This is given when there is absolutely no evidence of any other potential cause — such as when a police dashcam video clearly captures a perfectly healthy plaintiff getting rear-ended while stopped behind the line at a red light.
The long form version of the instruction adds this sentence to the first: “It need not be the only cause, nor the last or nearest cause. It is sufficient if it combines with another cause resulting in the injury.”
This extended version is given when there is any evidence of multiple causes, or contributory negligence, or sometimes even if there’s just evidence that the plaintiff had a preexisting condition. Defendants always fight against giving the long-form version; Plaintiffs always want it.
In practice, the long-form version is virtually always given.
We have already written extensively on damages and encourage you to read more on that topic if you are considering filing a lawsuit.
If you choose our firm to represent you, we will take the time to explain all of these elements in further detail, and can answer any questions you may have.
Remember, a good lawyer is not just someone who will help you receive compensation for your injury. A good lawyer will also help you understand the process, and make it a friendlier experience overall.
Because we know that if you were injured due to someone else’s error, you aren’t in our office because you want to be there — you are in our office because you have to be there. And we promise to always treat you and your case with the utmost respect and understanding. That includes making sure you are clear on how the law applies to your claim.
Our Belleville area firm is a proven resource for the information and action you need in one of life’s most challenging and stressful times. If you or someone you love has been harmed due to someone’s negligence, reckless conduct or medical malpractice, or because of defective products or automobile accident, please contact us to arrange for a free consultation.