A serious car accident tort in Florida is an intentional or negligent act that causes serious injuries in a motor vehicle crash. Florida law defines serious injuries as injuries that substantially increase the risk of death, cause permanent disfigurement or scarring or result in the loss of an important bodily function.
People who file civil lawsuits only prevail if their cases are based on sound legal principles or doctrines. They have to prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care, and then they have to convince the court that the defendant’s failure to meet that duty was the proximate cause of their injury loss or damage. In the business world, lawsuits are usually filed because the terms of a contract were breached or the details of a commercial arrangement were misrepresented, but personal injury lawsuits are filed by people who suffer injuries due to the intentional or negligent acts of others.
Andrew Pickett, a leading personal injury attorney in Florida, is here to discuss serious car accident torts. By the time you are finished reading this guide, you should know exactly what kind of tort you are dealing with and who is responsible for your injuries. He will also explain how to file a lawsuit for compensation for these types of accidents.
What Is a Tort in Civil Law?
In civil law, a tort is an act or a failure to act that causes another person injury or harm. Most civil litigation is brought by people who suffer physical injuries, but causing damage to a person’s property, mental health, financial resources or reputation could also lead to a lawsuit.
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Are There Different Kinds of Torts?
Tort law allows injured parties to hold the parties that caused them harm legally responsible for their actions. It shifts the consequences of harmful action from the injured party to the party at fault, and it sorts torts into the following three basic categories.
- Intentional torts: Lawsuits based on intentional torts are filed against defendants who acted deliberately.
- Negligent torts: Negligence is the basis for most civil lawsuits and almost all car accident lawsuits.
- Strict liability torts: When a lawsuit is based on a strict liability tort, the defendant can be held responsible even if they acted responsibly, didn’t act intentionally and took all reasonable precautions.
Intentional torts deal with actions or failures to act that are deliberate. However, acting intentionally does not necessarily make a person liable for any injuries that their actions cause. To recover damages in an intentional tort case, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant either knew or should have known that their act or failure to act would cause injury.
This is known as the foreseeability threshold. If the defendant had no reason to believe that their behavior would or could cause harm, they would likely not be held liable. For example, a person who goes trick-or-treating in a particularly scary costume would probably not be held responsible if a homeowner has a heart attack after seeing them.
Common Intentional Torts
There are several intentional torts that can form the basis of a civil lawsuit. They include:
- Trespass: Lawsuits based on trespass can be filed against individuals who damage or steal personal possessions as well as people who enter homes or property without permission.
- Battery: This is the legal term for intentionally causing another person physical harm. A battery lawsuit could be filed against a person who started a fight or engaged in an act of road rage.
- Assault: People who menace others and cause them psychological harm can face assault lawsuits even if they do not follow through on their threats.
- False imprisonment: Detaining somebody against their will or restricting their movement could give rise to a false imprisonment lawsuit.
- Defamation: The plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit claims that the defendant made an untrue statement that exposed them to hatred, ridicule or contempt. Published defamation is called libel, and verbal defamation is called slander.
- Fraud: This is the legal term used to describe lying to a person with the intent to deceive them.
- Invasion of privacy: People can be sued for invading another person’s privacy when they intentionally reveal their private or identifying information. This tort is often called doxing.
What are Negligent Torts?
Most civil lawsuits and the vast majority of car accident litigation are based on the tort of negligence. All people are expected to do all that they reasonably can to protect others from harm, and they can be sued for negligence when their failure to meet this duty causes another person injury, loss or damage.
In more basic terms, a person can be sued for negligence when they fail to take proper precautions and somebody else is harmed as a result. Getting behind the wheel after drinking or taking drugs, exceeding the posted speed limit and texting while driving are all examples of negligent behavior that could lead to a lawsuit.
Common Negligent Torts
Negligence is a broad term that can describe acts and failures to act. Getting behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes and bald tires is an example of negligence; so is not putting up a warning sign after mopping a floor. The most common types of litigation based on negligence are:
- Motor vehicle accident lawsuits: Drivers can be sued for acting negligently when they are involved in accidents because they ignored traffic laws, drove while impaired, fatigued or distracted or got behind the wheel of a dangerous vehicle.
- Slip-and-fall lawsuits: Property owners or occupiers are sued when they fail to address dangerous conditions like slippery floors or unlit hallways that they either knew about or should have known about.
- Medical malpractice lawsuits: This kind of legal action is taken when the medical care provided by doctors or hospitals does not meet the generally accepted standards of the healthcare industry.
- Professional malpractice lawsuits: These lawsuits are filed against lawyers, accountants or architects that make mistakes that a competent professional would not have made.
Strict Liability Tort
Plaintiffs can recover damages in lawsuits based on strict liability torts even when defendants took reasonable precautions and were not at fault. A negligent or malicious act is not needed to prevail in these cases because liability is absolute. For example, a sign warning about a dangerous animal would not protect a tiger owner from a lawsuit filed by somebody who was attacked after entering a yard to retrieve a ball. All the plaintiff has to do in these cases is prove that their injuries were suffered as a direct consequence of the tort.
Common Strict Liability Torts
Lawsuits based on strict liability fall into three general categories. These categories are:
- Product liability lawsuits: Manufacturers face these lawsuits when using their products as intended causes injury, loss or damage.
- Dangerous animal lawsuits: Dog owners are usually sued for negligence by bite victims, but they may be held strictly liable if they knew their pets were dangerous. Strict liability always exists when dangerous animals savagely attack people and cause severe injury in these circumstances.
- Hazardous activity lawsuits: Individuals involved in hazardous activities like transporting dangerous materials are responsible for the injuries they cause even if they follow safety regulations and take reasonable precautions.
What Is the Difference Between a Limited Tort and a Full Tort?
Full tort and limited tort are terms that are used to describe the amount of liability coverage a car insurance policy provides. A driver with a full tort policy can recover damages to compensate them for their pain and suffering after an accident. A motorist with a limited tort policy gives up this right. Florida has a no-fault insurance law, which means drivers in the Sunshine State can only recover noneconomic damages in car accident lawsuits if they suffer serious injuries that are not adequately covered by their personal injury protection coverage.
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Damages in Negligence and Intentional Tort Personal Injury Lawsuits
The main difference between personal injury cases based on negligence and personal injury cases based on an intentional tort like assault is the kind of damages that can be recovered. In a case involving an intentional tort, the jury may award punitive as well as economic and noneconomic damages. These are damages that are designed to punish the defendant rather than compensate the plaintiff, and they are awarded to deter others from committing similar acts.
Criminal Liability in Intentional Court Cases
Intentional torts like assault and battery are crimes as well as civil wrongs. This means that the defendants in cases involving these torts can be fined, sent to jail or ordered to perform community service. However, the standard of proof is much stricter in criminal court, and district attorneys may choose not to press charges with evidence that would be strong enough to win a civil lawsuit.
Common Defenses in Intentional Tort Cases
The actions that give rise to an intentional tort claim are not always civil wrongs, and there are several situations where assault, false imprisonment or trespass would be considered justified. Defenses commonly mounted in intentional tort cases include:
- Shopkeeper’s privilege: This defense is used by store owners or managers who are accused of false imprisonment in lawsuits filed by shoplifters.
- Self-defense: The defendant in a case based on battery may claim self-defense when they acted to protect themselves or others from harm. However, their actions would have to be an appropriate response to the threat they faced.
- Recapture of chattels: A person accused of trespass could use this defense if they entered another person’s property to recover stolen goods.
- Necessity: This defense is raised by people who acted wrongfully to prevent greater harm. Breaking a vehicle window on a hot day to rescue a trapped dog is an example of necessity.
- Assumption of risk: This defense is also called volenti non fit injuria, which basically means a willing person can suffer no harm. It is used in cases where the plaintiff knew the risks and chose to accept them. A passenger in a vehicle driven by an individual they knew was drunk could face an assumption of risk defense if they filed a lawsuit after suffering injuries in an accident.
What Is a Serious Car Accident Injury in Florida?
Drivers in Florida are required to purchase car insurance that provides at least$10,000 in personal injury protection and $10,000 in property damage liability coverage, which should be enough to compensate them for their economic losses if they are involved in a minor car accident. Florida residents can only pursue car accident lawsuits to recover noneconomic damages if they suffer serious injuries.
Florida law defines a serious injury as an injury that:
- Substantially increases the risk of death
- Causes the permanent loss of an important bodily function
- Leaves the accident victim permanently scarred or disfigured
- Cannot be recovered from fully
Serious Arm and Leg Injuries
An arm or leg injury would be considered serious in Florida if it led to amputating one or more limbs or left an accident victim unable to perform important bodily functions like walking or lifting objects. What is and what is not a serious injury is determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, a knee injury that would not be considered serious in most cases could be considered serious in a lawsuit filed by a professional athlete who had his or her career cut short.
Serious Spinal Cord Injuries
Spinal cord injuries are likely to be considered serious in Florida because there is little that medical science can do to treat them, which means they are usually permanent.
The two most common serious spinal cord injuries suffered in car accidents are:
- Tetraplegia: This injury is more commonly called quadriplegia, and it is a spinal cord injury that causes paralysis of both the arms and legs.
- Paraplegia: This kind of spinal cord injury paralyzes the legs.
Chest injuries are serious in Florida if they cause permanent damage to or permanently impair the function of the heart or lungs. Muscle injuries that permanently limit mobility could also be considered serious. Most of the serious chest injuries suffered in car accidents are caused by impalement or blunt force trauma.
Less Serious Florida Car Accident Injuries
Car accident injuries that do not substantially increase the risk of death or cause permanent impairment or disfigurement would probably not be serious enough to form the basis of a car accident lawsuit in Florida. This is because the PIP coverage that all Florida drivers are required to carry should be all that is needed to compensate road users who suffer minor injuries.
Whiplash is a neck injury caused by the head moving rapidly forward and then rapidly backward. It is called whiplash because this is the same kind of movement that causes a whip to crack. Rear-end motor vehicle collisions are the most common cause of whiplash injuries. The symptoms associated with whiplash injuries include:
- Neck stiffness and pain
- Pain that gets worse when the head is moved
- Limited neck motion
- Tenderness or pain in the shoulders and upper arms
- Tingling and numbness in the arms and hands
Cuts and Scrapes
Even minor car accidents can cause cuts and scrapes. These injuries can usually be tended to by cleaning and dressing the wound, but stitches may be required to treat large or deep cuts. Cuts and scrapes are rarely a cause for concern, but dressings should be changed regularly, and the wound site should be checked for signs of infection.
When bones are exposed to more pressure than they can bear, they crack, split or break. These injuries are called fractures, and they can be extremely painful. When a broken bone penetrates the skin, doctors call the injury an open fracture. Bone fractures are diagnosed with X-rays, and they are usually treated with immobilization provided by a splint or cast that is worn for several weeks.
When doctors talk about soft tissue, they are referring to muscles, ligaments and tendons. Soft tissue injuries are common in car accidents because motor vehicle collisions often cause the body to adopt unnatural positions, but they are rarely serious. Soft tissue injuries are usually treated by resting and applying ice to the injured area. When soft tissue injuries do not respond to rest and ice, the injured area may be elevated and compressed to limit blood flow and reduce swelling.
Risk Factors Linked to More Severe Car Accident Injuries in Florida
Car accidents tend to be more serious when certain risk factors are present. Risk factors that could lead to more serious motor vehicle accident injuries include:
- Distraction: Drivers who are not watching the road ahead cannot apply their brakes or take evasive action. This means they crash at higher speeds and cause more serious injuries.
- Fatigue: A driver who has not slept for 20 hours is as impaired as a motorist with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%. A BAC that high would lead to a drunk driving arrest in Florida.
- Drugs or alcohol: Drunk driving accidents kill more than 10,000 people each year in the United States.
- Teen drivers: Drivers under the age of 20 are more likely to be involved in car accidents than any other demographic group.
- Extreme weather: Heavy snow or rain greatly increase the chances of an accident because they reduce visibility and make motor vehicles more difficult to control in emergency situations.
Why Lawmakers in Florida Created the Serious Injury Threshold
One of the reasons lawmakers in Florida passed a no-fault insurance law was to ease the burden on civil courts. When motorists are required to purchase PIP insurance, they do not have to file personal injury lawsuits over minor accidents because their car insurance policies will provide adequate compensation without assigning blame. However, to ensure that car accident victims who suffer serious injuries are not denied legal remedies, lawmakers created what is called the serious injury threshold.
What Is the Serious Injury Threshold?
The serious injury threshold is a tort standard that allows seriously injured car accident victims to seek noneconomic damages in personal injury lawsuits. Mental anguish, pain and suffering and loss of companionship are kinds of noneconomic damages.
The law provides guidance to help attorneys, insurance claims adjusters, and judges determine what is and what is not a serious injury, but every case is decided on its merits.
According to Florida law, a car accident injury is serious when it:
- Causes total or partial paralysis
- Leaves accident victims permanently scarred or disfigured
- Causes the loss of an important bodily function
- Causes death or substantially increases the risk of death
Evidence That Could Be Used to Meet the Serious Injury Threshold in Florida
Meeting the serious injury threshold in Florida is usually done by providing medical records that reveal the extent of an injury and the actions taken to treat it. Doctors may also be called upon to verify that the injury was serious and that the car accident victim has reached the point of maximum medical improvement. This fact means that further treatment will unlikely lead to recovery or improve the car accident victim’s situation.
Serious injuries are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and what would be considered a serious injury for one plaintiff could be viewed as a minor injury for another plaintiff.
Scarring and disfigurement are considered to be more serious when car accident victims are young, and injuries that impede mobility are seen as more serious when car accident victims lead active lifestyles. If you suffered injuries in a car accident that affect your day-to-day activities and reduce your quality of life, they are likely to be considered serious.
The Benefits of Meeting the Serious Injury Threshold
Car accident victims in Florida who suffer injuries that meet the serious injury threshold are able to file personal injury lawsuits to seek compensation for their pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of companionship.
This benefit is important because the noneconomic damages awarded in cases involving serious car accident injuries can be significant. Florida law limits noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, but pain and suffering damages in car accident lawsuits are not capped.
Pain and suffering, and mental anguish are intangible, which makes calculating noneconomic damages difficult. Courts and insurance companies do this in two ways. They either multiply the economic damages by a figure ranging from 1.5 to 5 depending on the severity of the injuries, or they calculate a daily figure called a per diem and then multiply it by the number of days the plaintiff experienced discomfort.
All Road Users Have a Legal Duty
In all personal injury lawsuits, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed them a duty of care and failed to meet that duty. This is usually quite straightforward in car accident cases because all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, owe all other road users a duty of care.
What that means is that they are expected to do all that they reasonably can to avoid accidents and protect other road users from injury. Motorists should remain vigilant at all times and ensure their vehicles are properly maintained, and pedestrians should cross streets at marked crosswalks whenever possible and look both ways before stepping into the roadway.
Driver Responsibilities Under Florida State Law
In addition to the duty of care that applies to all road users, drivers in Florida are required to obey all state laws pertaining to motor vehicles. The Florida Motor Vehicle Code requires drivers to obey traffic laws and observe speed limits, and it prohibits drivers from using mobile electronic devices when their vehicles are moving.
Drivers in Florida can also be charged with crimes after an accident. They can face DUI charges if toxicology tests reveal that they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they crashed, and they could be charged with battery after a road rage incident that caused an accident.
Criminal convictions are very powerful evidence in civil cases because they show that the defendant’s negligent or reckless actions have been established beyond a reasonable doubt.
Common Defenses in Personal Injury Lawsuits Based on Negligence
The defendants in car accident lawsuits based on negligence generally rely on one of three arguments when they contest the claims against them, but only two of these arguments can be made in Florida. The common defenses to a negligence claim are:
- Contributory negligence: This argument asserts that the plaintiff should not be allowed to recover damages because their actions contributed to the accident.
- Comparative negligence: Defendants who use this defense argue that the damages awarded to the plaintiff should be reduced because they also acted negligently.
- Assumption of risk: This argument claims that the defendant should not be awarded damages because they knew that an accident was likely and chose to accept the risk.
What if You Are Partially to Blame for the Auto Accident?
That depends. If you are entirely to blame for the auto accident and another person was injured, your insurance policy will compensate the other person for losses like medical bills, and lost wages that resulted from the wreck.
However, if you are only partially to blame for the auto accident, then Florida’s pure comparative negligence doctrine comes into play. So, if more than one person is responsible for the wreck, the damage award is decreased by an amount that is equal to both parties’ level of blame.
How might a scenario like this come into play? Say a motorist runs a red light and T-bones your vehicle. At first glance, it may seem like the driver that hit you is 100 percent to blame for the accident. However, their attorney may counter that in court by saying you were speeding and were 20 percent to blame for the accident.
If the details of pure comparative negligence sound a little confusing, let’s look at an example to clear things up:
- You share 40% of the fault for the accident. Then, under the Sunshine State’s pure comparative fault rule, you’ll find your damages decreased by 40%
- Say your damage award was $40,000, and you were 40% to blame. It would then be reduced to an amount of $24,000, or:
$40,000 X .40 = $16,000. Then, $40,000 – $16,000 = $24,000 total damages awarded to you.
The State of Florida’s Seat Belt Defense
Florida law may allow car accident victims to sue over accidents they cause, but it also makes it easier for defendants in personal injury cases to make comparative negligence arguments. That is because Florida is one of only 15 states that allow what is called the seat belt defense.
This fact means that the damages you are awarded in a car accident lawsuit could be reduced if you were not wearing a seat belt when you were injured. However, this argument would only be persuasive if the defendant could prove that being properly restrained would have reduced the severity of their injuries or prevented them from being injured.
What Happens if Car Accident Injuries are Fatal?
When road users in Florida are killed in car accidents, their dependent family members can pursue wrongful death lawsuits if the person who caused the accident acted negligently, recklessly or maliciously.
These lawsuits are usually filed by the decedent’s representative or executor on behalf of family members. Damages can be recovered in wrongful death lawsuits by parents of minor children, spouses and children if there is no surviving spouse. Noneconomic damages cannot be recovered in wrongful death cases, but the economic damages awarded can be significant.
Most of the damages awarded to wrongful death plaintiffs compensate them for their loved one’s lost income, and that can be a lot of money if the car accident victim was young and had many earning years to look forward to.
Parties That Could Pay Damages in a Florida Car Accident Lawsuit
Determining who should pay damages to the plaintiff in a car accident lawsuit is not always easy in Florida. Parties that could be ordered to write a check include:
- The negligent driver: One of the primary roles of civil courts is holding negligent or reckless parties responsible for their actions.
- An insurance company: While negligent drivers may cause motor vehicle accidents, it is usually their insurance companies that pay damages.
- The vehicle owner: Florida law allows car accident victims to recover damages from vehicle owners even if they were not behind the wheel at the time of the crash, but it caps damages at $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident if the vehicle was insured. If the vehicle was not insured, the damages limit is increased to $600,000.
Suing Defendants Who Had No Insurance or Minimal Insurance
Not all drivers in Florida obey the law and have insurance policies that provide the required $10,000 in PIP coverage, and $10,000 may not be enough to cover economic damages in a case that does not meet the serious injury threshold. In these situations, plaintiffs must try to recover damages from the negligent driver. This is often a challenge because people who drive without insurance or with only minimal insurance rarely have a lot of money.
However, that does not mean that pursuing a lawsuit against an uninsured or underinsured driver is always a waste of time. The Florida homestead exemption protects a negligent driver’s residence from lawsuit plaintiffs, but writs of garnishment can be used to collect money from their paychecks and bank accounts. Garnishments can take up to 25% of a negligent driver’s net earnings, and they can remain in place for up to 20 years.
How to File a Lawsuit for Compensation After a Car Accident in Florida
If you have been injured in a car accident, your first step should be to seek medical attention and then contact an experienced Florida car accident lawyer. This is important because the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits after motor vehicle accidents in Florida is four years from the date of the crash. The sooner you get legal advice, the sooner you will know whether a lawsuit is an option. Your car accident lawyer can also help you collect evidence and build your case if it turns out that a lawsuit is in your best interests.
You can contact the Andrew Pickett Law Firm for a free consultation if you have been injured in a car accident in Florida. Our experienced legal team is dedicated to helping victims of negligence get the compensation they deserve. We will fight for your rights and work with you to make sure that every responsible party is held liable. Contact us today at 321-415-8053 to learn more about how we can help.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Serious Injury in an Accident?
A serious car accident injury in Florida is an injury that causes total or partial paralysis, substantially increases the risk of death, causes permanent scarring or disfigurement or causes the loss of an important bodily function.
What Kind of Tort Is Negligence?
Negligence is a tort that forms the basis of a lawsuit brought against a party that owed the plaintiff a duty of care and failed to meet that duty. Negligence can be either a reckless act or a failure to take reasonable precautions to prevent harm.
What Are the Four Types of Intentional Torts?
The four main types of intentional tort are battery, assault, the deliberate infliction of emotional harm and false imprisonment. Less common intentional torts include trespass, defamation, fraud and invasion of privacy.
What Are the Four Elements of Tort Law?
A tort exists, and damages can be recovered in a lawsuit when the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney can establish that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care
- The defendant failed to meet their duty
- The plaintiff suffered injury, loss or damage
- The breach of duty was the proximate cause of the injury, loss or damage