When a Defendant Admits Fault, That’s Only Half the Battle

Defendant Admits LiabilityDon’t start celebrating a victory in your personal injury case just because the defendant admitted being at fault (admitted liability, in legalese) for your accident. Plenty of “admitted liability” cases still go to litigation, or even to trial. This is because proving fault is only half of your burden in a standard negligence case. While it’s definitely a positive to not have to prove half of your case, it does not mean that the defendant has agreed to pay you everything you think you deserve.

When a Defendant Admits Liability, It Has Only Conceded Two of the Four Elements of a Negligence Case

As any first-year law student can tell you, a standard negligence case consists of four elements:

  • Duty,
  • Breach,
  • Causation, and
  • Damages.

In most personal injury cases, “Duty” is not a hard-fought issue. Generally speaking, it refers to everyone’s responsibility to use “due care” to not put others at risk of injury. So, a driver has a duty to maintain a proper lookout for pedestrians and other vehicles, and to operate his vehicle in a safe manner. A store owner has a duty to maintain a safe premises, including cleaning up spills in a timely manner (or warning of a wet floor) and stocking merchandise so that it doesn’t fall on customers. Most duties arise from common law (and common sense), though some may be the result of a specific statute, regulation or ordinance.

Once a duty is determined, a “breach” of that duty must occur. Examples would be a driver who gets distracted and rear-ends someone, or a store owner who allows a spill to sit for hours until someone slips on it. If a defendant disputes liability, most often it will be a dispute that he breached a duty (e.g., “I had the green light”) and not a dispute that a duty existed at all. When a defendant admits liability, he is admitting that he both had a duty and breached it. This still leaves the plaintiff to prove the remaining two elements of negligence: causation and damages.

Admitting Liability is Not the Same as Admitting Causation

Causation can refer to either (1) the cause of an accident or (2) the cause of an injury. When a defendant admits liability, he is admitting only that he caused the accident, but not necessarily that the accident caused your injuries. You still bear the burden of proving that all injuries you claim were caused by the accident.

The nature of some injuries makes causation relatively easy to prove. For instance, if you slipped and fell on a spill at the grocery store and broke your arm when you awkwardly landed on it, it would be near impossible for the defendant to claim lack of causation. What would he say, that you broke your arm beforehand and decided to go grocery shopping before seeking treatment?

Unfortunately, most personal injury cases involve injuries which could be caused by things other than the accident. A herniated disc in your back or neck might be caused by a fall or a car accident, but it could also be caused by any number of other things, such as degenerative disc disease (wear and tear over time). If you have any history of treating for pain in the area of your body you now allege was injured in an accident, expect a pre-existing condition defense to be raised. Even though you may know that your condition now is different or worse than it used to be, you’ll still have to convince a jury of that.

Because most people don’t routinely have their bodies scanned for abnormalities while they are feeling healthy, it’s unlikely that you’ll have definitive medical evidence showing that your injuries were caused by the accident. It will be your word, and hopefully the word of your treating medical providers, against the word of the defendant’s medical experts. Plaintiffs don’t always win this battle, so don’t be overconfident in your causation evidence. The more medical treatment you’ve received in the past to treat pain or injury that seems similar to the injury for which you are now seeking damages, the harder it will be to prove causation.

Other issues can also cloud a causation argument. For instance, if you do not immediately seek medical care after your accident, you leave open the argument that you actually suffered injury between the date of the accident and your first complaint to a medical provider. The longer you wait to treat, the harder it gets to prove causation.

As a subset of this particular problem, sometimes plaintiffs fail to report all of their symptoms at their initial doctor’s appointment (or the doctor fails to document them). If your back pain is excruciating, and your knee pain isn’t nearly as bad, you still need to make sure to report both to the doctor as soon as possible. If you only report the back pain, it could turn out that it’s just a soft tissue injury. Meanwhile, your knee could turn out to be a much more serious injury which requires surgery to repair. Failure to timely report the knee pain could cost you the lion’s share of damages in your case.

The best way to preserve your causation arguments in a personal injury case is to seek treatment early (immediately is always best) and to be sure to report all of your problems at the outset, not just the one that seems the worst.

Even a Defendant Who Admits Liability is Likely to Challenge Your Alleged Damages

“Damages” in the context of a negligence case refers to both economic (medical bills, lost wages, etc.) and non-economic (pain and suffering, mental distress) elements. Even in cases where the defendant concedes both liability and causation, it will almost surely dispute the amount of damages you claim.

Defendants can attack your economic damages in many ways. For medical treatment, they can claim that your treatment was unnecessary or excessive. Expect this in cases where you saw a chiropractor for a soft-tissue injury. Such a defense is also often raised in cases where a large portion of your medical treatment consists of pain management. For this reason, you need to be vigilant in ensuring that you don’t “overtreat” for your injuries. Treatment isn’t automatically reasonable just because a medical provider suggested it. Overtreating for injuries is a sure way to price yourself out of a reasonable settlement — your medical bills will eat up so much of the settlement that you will personally receive almost nothing. Don’t just “go with the flow” if your chiropractor wants to see you five days a week, or if your pain management doctor wants to continue giving you trigger point injections after past ones provided no relief. Use your common sense when self-regulating your medical costs.

Non-economic damages will always be contested by the defendant, for the simple reason that plaintiffs will almost always value their own pain higher than most third parties would. If you want $100,000.00 for your whiplash pain, expect to have to go to trial (and not get that kind of award, anyway). You need to be reasonable in determining a fair value to compensate you for your pain and suffering, keeping in mind that a jury can do pretty much whatever it wants with these kinds of damages. While you may get lucky and pick a jury that wants to shower you with money for all the pain you’ve endured (and will endure in the future), you could just as likely pick a jury that thinks you are a malingerer (i.e., you exaggerate your symptoms).

Settlement tip

Defendants know that non-economic damages have more “wiggle room” than economic damages because there is no hard evidence or formula a jury can use to determine a fair award. They will always contest the amount of these damages, even in cases where they challenge nothing else.

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The Added Danger of Going to Trial in an “Admitted Liability” Case

Plaintiffs may feel emboldened to take admitted liability cases to trial because they feel guaranteed of some kind of victory. Don’t fall into this way of thinking. A defendant doesn’t admit liability out of the goodness of its heart, or just to avoid the added defense costs. There is a very sound strategic reason for admitting liability.

A defendant who goes to trial on an admitted liability case automatically gains some credibility points with the jury. It can argue, “Look, we’re not trying to dispute that we caused the plaintiff’s accident. We just want to pay for what’s reasonable and related to the accident, and no more.” That little bit of honesty that a defendant shows in admitting liability could sway jurors to believe that you forced a trial due to an overinflated damages claim and simple greed. After all, the defendant was reasonable when it admitted that it was at fault. Why would it be unreasonable when it came to causation and/or damages?

While you and I may know that the defendant really had no choice but to admit liability, a jury will probably still give it credit for doing so. A defendant that denies liability when it is clearly liable can outrage a jury enough to award more damages than a plaintiff hoped for, but a defendant that admits liability not only diffuses that risk, but also paints itself as being reasonable and fair. So, if the jury thinks that the defendant is reasonable and fair, who do you think it will blame for forcing a trial?

Don’t Expect a Quicker Resolution Just Because the Defendant Admitted Fault

If you think that just because a defendant admits fault that it will settle your case quickly, think again. While some personal injury cases involve hotly contested liability issues, most do not. It is common for liability issues to take up a fraction of a case’s time when compared to causation and damages issues. A defendant who admits fault is not saving you much litigation time in most lawsuits. You will still need to deal with the most time consuming parts of your case. Any plaintiff who’s been deposed can tell you that only a very small amount of his or her time was spent answering questions about how the accident occurred — the vast majority of the time was spent on causation and damages questions.

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Don’t get upset if I’ve burst your bubble about how great it is that the defendant admitted fault. Lawyers would still rather have a case where the defendant admits liability than one in which it doesn’t — which is why in many states where lawyers offer a split contingency fee, “admitted liability” cases stay at the lower fee percentage even after a lawsuit is filed (check your fee agreement about this). Just temper your enthusiasm about such a development with the knowledge that your fight is still only half over.

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