When someone harms another human in our country they become legally responsible for the injury they cause. This is true whether the injury was the result of an intentional act, like an assault, or if it happened because they were just being careless, as in most auto accidents. This personal accountability is the foundation of our tort system. We are all legally responsible for our actions. We inherited this law from the British over two hundred years ago. The act of injuring someone is referred to as a “tort”.
So how much is a tort case worth? Most states separate tort damages into two categories, economic and noneconomic. Examples of economic damages are things like medical bills, wage loss or car repairs. People usually think of noneconomic damages as the pain and suffering in the case. The category does include pain and suffering, but it involves a lot of other items as well. Noneconomic damages can include little things like inconvenience, and very big things like loss of a loved one, loss of life or limb, loss of health or the disruption the injury created in one’s ability to enjoy life. Valuing noneconomic damages can be difficult. If you ever get to serve on a jury in a personal injury case, you will hear other prospective jurors state they have no idea how to put a price tag on a person’s injury. Don’t expect much help from the judge either. Judges routinely respond to questions on how to figure damages by telling jurors no set formula exists. They tell them to use their own personal judgment based upon the evidence. At the end of the case, the judge will read aloud a written instruction on the law concerning noneconomic damages. This written instruction isn’t much help either. In most states, the language from the instruction reads similar to the following:
“In determining an award of noneconomic damages, the law requires a reasonable basis for your computation. With reference to these matters, you must be governed by your own judgment, by the evidence in the case and by these instructions.”
So how do lawyers evaluate a case? How do they advise a client as to the reasonableness of a settlement offer? Lawyers experienced in the field will tell you every case is different. Each needs to be evaluated individually. Usually it comes down to the lawyer’s experience and personal judgment. Sometimes focus groups or mock juries are used. A lawyer may meet with a group of other lawyers with similar skills to discuss cases and get input on value. Lawyers will take into consideration many things when trying to determine value. Fault for the collision is the most important of course, followed by how severe an injury was suffered. Obviously, the more serious injuries have more value. Many other items are considered, some even unfairly so. The type of impression a client makes, what they do for a living, their body type and their state of health before the collision are all factors a lawyer will consider.
There have been many books written on case evaluation and you can find information on the internet on the topic, but there is no substitute for the evaluation skills of an experienced lawyer. Lawyers who specialize in the area are familiar with what verdicts are being won for similar injuries in the community. If anyone tells you some formula exists that you can plug the facts from any case into to arrive at a value, be very skeptical.