As you probably know from watching television, many lawyers spend much of their time representing people who have suffered injuries. They are seeking compensation for their injuries from someone else (who hopefully has insurance), and lawyers help with that, usually for a share of the recovery.
As a broad overview of personal injury law, personal injury claims fall mainly into three legal areas - negligence, workers' compensation and product liability.
Negligence law is based on the idea that a person whose carelessness causes injury should be financially responsible for the injury. This includes medical malpractice in addition to auto accidents, icy sidewalks, dangerous dogs, errant golf balls, unsupervised children and many other injury-causing circumstances.
Workers' compensation, on the other hand, is a no-fault system providing medical care and other benefits to people suffering work-related injuries. Although employers regularly complain about the system, it was invented by employers in an effort to reduce costs from workplace injuries. It does this by eliminating the need to fight about fault and by controlling medical expenses. ("No, you can't have another MRI, no matter how much you want it.")
Product liability law is harder to explain. The theories most frequently used to bring product liability claims (in addition to negligence) are breach of warranty and "strict liability." In a breach of warranty case, the plaintiff claims the manufacturer made contractual promises about a product and the product failed to live up to those promises. In some situations, plaintiffs can also rely on implied warranties. These are warranties the law imposes on products and, in a circumstance of bodily injury, cannot be disclaimed.
In a strict liability case, a plaintiff must prove a product was "defective" and, because it was defective, it was unreasonably dangerous to people who might be expected to use it. A product can be defective either as a matter of design or manufacture. Strict liability cases often involve allegations the instructions for the product were deficient and/or the manufacturer didn't put adequate warning labels on the product about risks inherent in its use.
What a plaintiff doesn't have to prove in a strict liability case is that the defect resulted from carelessness.
As you might expect, running around in the background of product-liability law is the dumb-user defense. If a product is used for a purpose for which it was obviously not intended (chain saw to slice turkey) or a user disregards an obvious risk inherent in the misuse of a product (drinking six martinis when the recommended dosage is two), the manufacturer or seller can escape, or at least reduce, liability.
Also at work in product liability law is the notion that, although a product involves risks, the benefits the product provides may outweigh the risks. The public policy behind product liability law is that manufacturers are required to work diligently to balance risk and benefit in the products they produce; they should carry product-liability insurance to help people injured by their products; and the cost of that insurance will be passed on to their customers in the form of higher prices.
In Colorado, Ford Motor Co. is deep into a product-liability lawsuit involving a claim that the driver's seat in a 1998 Ford Explorer was defectively designed. After a $3 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Ford recently prevailed on an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, and the case, which began in 2011, is now back in the trial court for another trial.
Jim Flynn is with the Colorado Springs firm of Flynn & Wright LLC. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website, jtflynn.com.