Liability is one of the central concepts in American personal injury law. In legal terms, liability decides whether a defendant should compensate a claimant. You should understand what liability is, how it relates to the non-legal idea of responsibility, and how it dictates who the defendant will be.
Responsibility vs. Liability
Not all responsible parties in injury cases are liable. Responsibility may inform legal liability, but it's not the only thing that determines if a defendant is liable.
Notably, the person most responsible for an incident isn't always the liable one. Imagine a slip-and-fall accident at a store where a stocker accidentally drops a can of beans and doesn't check or clear the area when they're done stocking. A half-hour later, a customer slips on the can, falls, and cracks several vertebrae in their neck and spine.
Is the stocker the person responsible for what happened? Yes, but they're almost certainly not the liable party. The store employs the stocker, and the store is liable when its employees cause accidents.
Naming the Defendant
As the example illustrates, you want to name the most liable party as the defendant. When a personal injury attorney looks at a case, they have to devise a theory of liability.
The simplest theory of liability is direct. A neighbor owns a dog that has bitten people before, for example. The dog bites you because the neighbor has only tied the animal to a tree with a leash, the dog breaks the leash, and it attacks. There is a direct chain of irresponsible actions that amounts to legally liable negligence.
Conversely, a personal injury lawyer might look at a case with a complex theory of liability. Suppose somebody is shot by another patron at a bar. Usually, the attacker is the liable party. However, the theory of negligent security might hold the bar liable if it has a history of violent incidents and has done little to stop them. Arguably, if there has been a shooting there before, the bar should have been searching coats and bags, scanning with metal detectors, and adding bouncers.
Duty of Care
Liability ultimately comes from a duty of care. A person or business assumes a duty of care most of the time when it invites people. The store and bar in the previous examples accepted a duty of care when they opened their doors to the public.
However, the duty of care can have confounding factors. How long after an ice storm passes is it negligent to not clear a sidewalk, for example? A personal injury attorney might show photos of neighboring properties that were all clear.
For more information, contact a personal injury attorney near you.