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What Does Liability Mean in Insurance?

personal injury attorney in california

If you need to file a personal injury claim following a serious accident, you may find that your lawyer and the insurance companies use unfamiliar words to discuss your status and your rights. One common term you will see: liability.

What exactly does liability mean, and how does it apply to your claim? If someone bears liability for your accident, how does that translate to financial compensation for the losses you may have faced?

Liability: The Basic Definition

Liability, simply put, means that the named party bears legal responsibility for a specific action, incident, or situation, including the outcome of that situation. In insurance, that means that the party covered by the insurance policy caused, generally through negligence, the negative impact to the party pursuing compensation.

Liability Insurance and How It May Impact Your Claim

Liability insurance provides coverage when the insured party causes damage, in some way, to another party. That insurance will compensate the injured party for the damages caused by the covered party.

Liability insurance comes in several different forms.

#1. Auto Insurance

When most people think of liability insurance, they think of liability-only auto insurance. In auto insurance, a liability policy covers injuries caused by a negligent driver. Liability coverage will usually provide some compensation for repairs to the damaged vehicle and injuries suffered by the other driver, but not the driver who caused the accident.

#2. Property Insurance

Most property owners take out property insurance because they want the protection it offers them if something happens to their property. However, property insurance can also cover an accident on that property due to the property owner’s negligence. For example, suppose a private property owner’s dog bites someone walking by on the street. The property owner’s insurance might provide compensation to the injured party.

Property insurance can be particularly critical for commercial property owners. Suppose, for example, that the owner of a commercial property fails to properly maintain it, and someone visiting the property suffers a serious injury. Property insurance can help provide compensation for the injured party’s medical costs and financial losses.

#3. Business Liability Insurance

Most businesses need to carry business liability insurance to help protect them in the event of a negligent action that leads to injury. Even a minor error, like failing to quickly clean up a spill, can result in serious injuries in cases like slip and fall accidents. A business that creates a dangerous product that results in injury to a user may use that insurance to protect the business itself in the event of an incident. Business liability insurance helps protect both the business and the person who suffers severe injury due to minor negligence, including negligence committed by the business’s employees during the usual business day.

#4. Medical Malpractice Insurance

Most doctors and hospitals carry medical malpractice insurance to provide much-needed coverage when a medical error results in serious injury to a patient. Doctors owe a high duty of care to their patients, but they also work in high-stress situations and often need to make judgment calls and decisions on the fly.

Doctors may also face situations when they have trouble protecting the patient as much as possible, particularly in surgery. When a doctor commits even a minor error, it can result in severe consequences for the injured party. Medical malpractice insurance helps protect the doctor’s finances while offering compensation for the injured party.

Establishing Liability After an Accident

In many cases, people who have sustained severe injuries may wonder how to prove that someone else bears liability for the accident. To file a claim through the insurance company, you must show that the party covered by the insurance company bears liability for the accident.

The insurance company will investigate every aspect of the accident, trying to determine whether you contributed to the accident or whether an outside party could also share liability. Identifying more than one party that shares liability for the accident can help reduce the compensation the insurance company must pay out, so insurance companies often look into all the details to help determine everything that may have contributed to the incident.

Ultimately, the insurance company will consider several key factors to determine whether the insured party bears liability for the incident and, therefore, for the damages the injured party sustained.

1. Did the party covered by the insurance company bear a duty of care to you at the time of the incident?

Sometimes you can clearly show that the liable party bore a duty of care to you at the time of the incident, including cases in which one party bears a duty of care to the other by default. A duty of care establishes that the party covered by the insurance company had some responsibility to the injured party and that the covered party should, in some way, have prevented the incident.

Doctors, for example, bear a duty of care to their patients, including those with whom they have a doctor/patient relationship. However, a doctor with whom you do not have a doctor/patient relationship does not bear a duty of care to you and would not bear liability for injuries you may have sustained.

Likewise, businesses bear a general duty of care to people who visit them and must carefully maintain their premises to prevent the risk of an accident. However, a guest who enters an off-limits area, including a clearly-marked employees-only area or an area intended for maintenance, might step outside the area where the business bears a duty of care to keep that guest safe.

If you suffer injuries in a car accident, whether as a pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcycle rider, or driver or passenger of a motor vehicle, you can usually easily establish a duty of care because drivers all bear a strong duty to others.

2. Did the party covered by the insurance company violate the duty of care to you in some way?

The next step in establishing grounds for a personal injury claim involves showing that the liable party in some way violated the duty of care owed to the injured party. Generally, the violation of the duty of care will occur through an act of negligence, often an unconscious or entirely unintentional one.

Suppose, for example, that you suffered injuries in a car accident. Many drivers regularly engage in potentially dangerous behaviors on the road without thinking about the consequences. Those drivers usually do not intend harm to the other individuals around them, but rather engage in driving behaviors that they find more convenient.

For example, driving while distracted, including texting and driving or looking up information on a cell phone while driving as well as a long list of other potentially dangerous distractions, could cause serious harm to others on the road. The distracted driver, however, usually just intends to quickly take care of something, answer a message, or alleviate boredom.

Likewise, a speeding driver may logically know the increased accident risk associated with high rates of speed, but choose to speed to reduce frustration with slow traffic or to get to their destination faster. The driver usually does not intend to commit a dangerous action, but does so anyway, causing an accident.

Likewise, many businesses take immense precautions to help lower or avoid the risk of an accident, but in some cases, an accident may occur anyway. For example, suppose that a business takes practical steps each year to maintain the premises and keep it safe for visitors. One year, however, the business decides to wait one more year to replace a handrail that still looks relatively sturdy.

On further investigation, someone uncovers that the handrail has become shaky and unsteady, and probably needs sooner replacement. However, the usual maintenance window has passed, and the business chooses to wait a little bit longer to take care of those repairs. When the handrail breaks, it ends up causing serious injury to a guest. The business violated its duty of care by failing to take care of the hazard before it became more serious.

Sometimes, the liable entity may violate the duty of care simply by failing to warn potential victims about a hazard that could cause serious injury. Private property owners, for example, often fail to think twice about known hazards on their property, whether they have work in progress that has left open fall hazards, electrical lines, or items lying around that could fall abruptly. They may not warn visitors to the property about those hazards, assuming that they will see them and avoid them. However, a guest who fails to pay adequate attention could end up seriously injured.

“Duty of care” often has a broad definition, depending on the circumstances that led to the accident. If you have questions about your right to compensation after an incident, always talk to an attorney to learn more.

3. The violation on the part of the covered party led to an incident.

Negligence does not always result in an incident. Sometimes, you may notice negligence, but other than a moment of worry, suffer no ill effects.

Suppose, for example, that you drive down the road and notice a distracted driver texting beside you. You might even observe that driver swerving or see that they fail to look up for several seconds, presenting an immense possibility for an accident. In some cases, you may even have to swerve or exercise defensive driving techniques yourself to avoid a collision. However, you do avoid the collision, and the driver continues down the road without significant incident. As a result, you do not have grounds to move forward with a claim against that person’s insurance company, because you did not have an accident.

Likewise, suppose you observe a spill at a business. You may wait to go through that area, becoming increasingly frustrated because the staff does not clean up the spill, but you do not attempt to go through the dangerous area, so you do not suffer any incident and do not have grounds to file a claim.

On the other hand, if the distracted driver swerves into your vehicle, causing an accident, you may have grounds for a claim. Likewise, if you did not notice the presence of the spill on the floor, walked through it, and fell, you may have grounds for a claim against the business.

4. The incident caused you injury or damages in some way.

Once you have established that the liable party bore a duty of care to you, violated that duty of care, and caused an incident, you may need to show that you suffered injuries in some way from the incident. To file a claim, you may need to show clear damages: usually injuries and the associated medical costs that go along with them, though, in some cases, you might also claim compensation for property damage.

If you managed to walk away from the incident without injury, you likely will not have grounds for a personal injury claim. A personal injury claim serves to provide compensation for the losses you have faced: your medical bills, your lost wages, and the general suffering you faced as a result of the incident. Without those elements, you may not have grounds to move forward with a claim.

Any time you suffer injuries due to the negligence of another party, contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can help you determine how much compensation you may deserve for the incident and how to move forward with your claim.

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