Liability is, in general, when someone owes somebody something, usually money. It can also refer to one's legal responsibility for a risk. In personal injury claims, liability refers to a person or entity's legal responsibility to financially compensate another party for an injury and the resulting damages caused by negligence. In a civil case, being found "liable" is similar to a defendant in a criminal case being found "guilty."
There are numerous ways one can be found liable for your injuries:
- Due to their actions, for example if they run a red light and injure you in a car accident.
- Due to their inaction, for example if a store manager fails to fix or warn of a dangerous condition on their property, leading to a slip and fall.
- Due to the actions of people or animals which they are legally responsible for, such as a dog owner who does not leash their dog, leading to a dog bite, or someone who allows their friend to drive their car drunk in a negligent entrustment claim.
- Due to the doctrine of strict liability, common in product liability claims, where an entity is legally responsible for injuries, regardless of their intent or whether they acted negligently.
In most personal injury cases, while a negligent person such as a drunk driver or negligent doctor may be liable for your injuries, their insurance company is actually liable for compensating you with monetary damages.
In order to hold a party liable in a personal injury claim, you must be able to prove the five elements of negligence:
- Duty of care — The other party had a responsibility to protect you from an unreasonable risk of harm
- Breach of duty — They failed in that duty
- Cause-in-fact — The accident or incident caused your injuries
- Proximate cause — The other party's negligence directly caused or contributed to the accident or incident
- Damages — You sustained financial losses as a result
Several Liability Vs. Joint Liability Vs. Joint and Several Liability
Different states have different rules for claims in which more than one party is liable for your injuries. In several liability, each party pays for whatever percentage of your injuries are to blame for. Say there are two parties responsible for your accident, and your damages total $50,000. If Party A is responsible for 80 percent of the accident, they would pay you $40,000, while Party B would pay you $10,000. If Party B does not have $10,000, your compensation would only be $40,000.
In joint liability, all liable parties together are liable for all of your damages. In the above example, if Party A dies or declares bankruptcy, Party B would be responsible for paying the entire $50,000.
Both Missouri and Illinois are joint and several liability states, which is a modification of the two theories. In Missouri, under Missouri Revised Statute §537.067, any defendant who was found to be 51 percent or more responsible for your injuries can be forced to pay all of your damages. Anyone who bears less than 51 percent of the fault is only liable for the percentage of the judgment for which the trier of fact deemed them responsible.
In Illinois, 735 ILCS 5/2-1117 stipulates that anyone with less than 25 percent of the blame for an injury is only severally liable, meaning they only have to pay their percentage. All defendants who bear 25 percent or more of the blame are liable for all of your damages.
If more than one defendant is liable for 25 percent or more of your damages, they can argue with each other about how much each one will pay.