In personal injury law, a defendant is someone who is the subject of a lawsuit seeking compensation for a personal injury. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a defendant until you turn a claim into a lawsuit by filing a formal complaint.
Nevertheless, people often use the term “defendant” loosely to refer to anyone who is the subject of an attempt to secure personal injury compensation.
The Elements of a Negligence Claim
Negligence, which means something like “carelessness,” is the most common basis for personal injury claims. To win a negligence claim, the party filing the lawsuit (the “plaintiff”) must assert the following four elements:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a certain duty of care;
- The defendant breached their duty of care to the plaintiff;
- The plaintiff suffered damages (quantifiable losses); and
- The defendant’s breach of duty was the “proximate cause” of the plaintiff’s damages.
Other possible bases of a personal injury claim also exist, such as intentional misconduct and strict liability. These types of claims apply different elements than the “duty, breach, damages, and causation” elements above.
Liability Without Fault
There are two main ways a plaintiff might nonetheless impose financial liability upon a defendant who was not at fault: strict liability and vicarious liability.
Under strict liability, the defendant must pay compensation regardless of fault. In a California dog bite case, for example, the dog’s owner is liable for a bite even if the dog owner had no way of knowing that the dog was prone to aggressive behavior.
With strict liability, the defendant can be held liable even if they weren’t negligent (careless)
Under vicarious liability, one party is liable for wrongdoing committed by another. The most common example of this is where an employer bears liability for the wrongful conduct of an employee who was acting within the scope of their duties. The employee is liable as well but typically lacks the financial resources to pay compensation.
The Burden of Proof
The “elements” of a claim refer to specific facts the plaintiff must prove to win. The burden of proof, by contrast, refers to who must prove the case and how much evidence they must provide to win. In California, the defendant does not need to prove that they are not liable. Instead, it is the plaintiff who must prove that the defendant is liable.
“Preponderance of the Evidence”
A plaintiff meets the “preponderance of the evidence” standard when their evidence is weighty enough to convince the court that the odds are better than 50/50 that their version of events is true. This standard applies to most negligence claims.
“Clear and Convincing Evidence”
The more demanding “clear and convincing evidence” standard applies when the plaintiff seeks punitive damages. To meet this standard, you must prove that your version of events has a high probability of being true (far greater than a 50/50 likelihood).
“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is the most demanding standard of all. It doesn’t apply to personal injury law. It only applies to criminal prosecutions.
The General Defense Against a Personal Injury Claim
Since it is the plaintiff’s job to prove the defendant’s liability, all the defendant needs to do to win their defense is to deny the plaintiff a “preponderance of the evidence” with respect to at least one of the elements of their claim.
A defendant doctor, for example, might prevent the plaintiff from proving that their failure to order a C-section during a difficult delivery was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Common Affirmative Defenses Against Personal Injury Claims
An affirmative defense is a defense that the defendant must raise and prove to avoid or reduce their liability. Submitting an affirmative defense is unnecessary unless the plaintiff has already submitted enough evidence to win the case.
Expiration of the Statute of Limitations Deadline
Most California personal injury claims expire two years after the date that the injury occurred. You must either file a lawsuit or finalize a settlement by this time. If you don’t, the defendant can win a dismissal of your claim based on this defense.
Failure To State a Claim
The defendant can win a dismissal based on “failure to state a claim” if you state your complaint in such a manner that the defendant would not bear liability even if your claim were true.
Assumption of the Risk
The “assumption of risk” defense applies when the defendant suffers an injury while voluntarily participating in a risky activity. If the plaintiff knew the dangers of the activities and consented to bear the risk themself, the defendant can assert an “assumption of the risk” defense.
Business owners often have customers sign a “waiver of liability” for the purpose of preserving an assumption of the risk defense in the event of an injury. Sometimes this strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Failure To Mitigate Damages
Suppose you suffer a motorcycle accident caused by the defendant. If you were not wearing a helmet and you suffered head injuries, the defendant might argue that they should not have to pay compensation for them since you could have easily avoided them by wearing a helmet. The applicable principle is that a plaintiff should not recover for injuries they could have easily avoided.
In many cases, especially traffic accidents, more than one party is to blame for an accident. Under this circumstance, California will apportion liability. This is not necessarily a complete defense, but it can reduce the defendant’s liability. If the plaintiff was 20% at fault, for example, the court will reduce the defendant’s liability by 20%.
A Vista Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help You Prepare for Any Defense
Your best chance to win your claim—and to maximize your payout—lies in seeking the assistance of a Vista personal injury lawyer as early in your case as you can. Don’t worry about money. Most personal injury lawyers charge based on a contingency fee arrangement, which means you only pay if you recover compensation. Contact Petrov Personal Injury Lawyers to schedule your free consultation with an experienced attorney or give a call at (619) 344-0360.