Personal injury lawsuits take many forms in today’s legal landscape. From road accident claims to medical malpractice lawsuits, the legal recourse after an accident or intentional injury is as diverse as the causation of harm! How you might wonder, did we get here?
The checks and balances that the modern legal system ensures did not spring up overnight. Instead, they are a culmination of a development process that goes back almost as far as human history itself.
Compensation was a concept that existed before the idea of money as we know it today. The money that is received in compensation cases is often still representative of a deeper compensatory justice that aims to punish wrongdoing.
Profit is not the aim of the game. Courts will not settle on disproportionate injury claims, but will instead decide on what the appropriate compensatory exchange is in relation to the letter of the law and the injustices suffered by the victim.
One fascinating element of injury compensation history is the way in which it mirrors the development of finance, justice, and attitudes towards the sanctity of life in society as a whole. It is possible to read a great deal into a society’s attitude towards compensatory justice and the responsibility of the individual to keep themselves out of harm’s way.
This article is a very brief history of personal injury law development. Some notable emissions in our chronology include ancient Chinese legal practice and a deep dive into the laws set down by the ancient Hebrews.
Personal injury compensation is an ever-evolving field. The best way of determining whether you have a case for compensation is to talk to a qualified lawyer at an established law firm. They will be able to advise you on the realistic outcomes of any potential litigation. Just be sure to ask about the payment terms.
Ancient Origins of Personal Injury Law
Compensatory justice has its roots in ancient laws and customs. Lex Talionis – which translates as the law of retaliation – is an ancient concept that was first codified into law by the Babylonians, who were the inhabitants of ancient Iraq.
Essentially, it determines that if a person is injured or robbed then they will be able to exact revenge upon the perpetrator. It is most famously incited in the old testament, where it is mentioned as taking ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth from a tooth’.
The Romans and Hebrews inherited Lex Talionis from the Babylonians, and Moses even included it in his teachings. This has meant that the concept of proportional retribution took root in Western and Middle Eastern social attitudes towards injustice.
Although physical retribution may sound barbaric, it is the proportional nature of the retribution rights granted to ancient peoples that have stuck with us through the ages. We no longer trade in teeth and eyes, but proportionality is still a standard that all compensatory justice should adhere to. You only have the right to sue for compensation proportional to your injury.
This quick BBC introduction to proportional justice, narrated by Stephen Fry, will give you a basic understanding of why the ancients developed such a code of legal conduct.
Anglo Saxon Compensation
The Anglo Saxons were a post-Roman civilization that gained a hold over the British Isles. In popular culture, the Anglo-Saxon age is thought of as a wild and dark era, but in actual fact, they had a developed justice system.
Of particular importance is the Law of Æthelberht. Dating from the 7th Century, it is thought to be the earliest document written in English. This fascinating document sets out a series of compensatory laws that are to be abided by lords, bishops, and common people alike. They include a framework for claiming compensation from injury.
The Feudal system was inherently stratified and unfair, but it did give birth to some important developments in injury compensation law and practice.
The most important development from this time was the stratification of courts. Local communities would typically use common law and public opinion to decide on minor cases, but if disagreement persisted then knights and lords could be enlisted to offer a higher level of non-ecclesiastical justice.
The Age Of Enlightenment
The 1600s saw a great advance in the codification of legal compensation for injury. This was the codification of Res Ipsa Loquitur. Translated from Latin, this reads as The Thing Speaks For Itself.
This is a doctrine of law that deals with the responsibility of a negligent party. As simply put as humanly possible, it means that if a person or organization has responsibility for something, then any accidents that occur within their area of power can be blamed on them.
This doctrine is still relevant today. Hiring yourself a lawyer with the aim of getting medical, workplace, or premises injury compensation is usually an implicit recognition of this convention. Res Ipsa Loquitur is the basis for almost all compensation claims of this kind.
The industrial revolution completely changed the way in which people were employed. As well as traditional small employers that had personal relationships with their employees, large corporations started to hire thousands of staff.
The incidence of injury in cotton mills and factories was very high, and industrialists were very reluctant to pay any compensation whatsoever for injuries while at work. This led to two developments.
Firstly, unionization by factory workers helped pool money and power to pressure industrialists into giving workers compensation. Secondly, private lawyers began to realize that they could make a great deal of money by specializing in workers’ compensation.
Snails, Rails, and Automobiles
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Conditions were still poor and workers would often get no compensation when injured on the job. Consumer culture was also just beginning to flourish, alongside consumer rights.
An unusual case involving a snail would kickstart a new chapter in legal history. Donoghue VS Stephenson (1932) was a landmark legal battle about the duty of negligence, and the right to compensation. On the 26th of August, 1928 a lady named Mrs. Donoghue drank a ginger beer at a café in Paisley, Scotland. So far, so good.
Presumably, she noticed something strange about the taste of the beer after drinking half of it directly from the bottle. She elected to pour the second half of the drink into a glass. To her shock, the decomposing remains of a snail dropped into her glass!
Mrs. Donoghue claimed that the rotting snail gave her severe gastroenteritis, and wanted to claim some injury compensation. The problem with this was that in order to claim injury compensation in the UK at the time, you had to have a contractual relationship with the injuring party.
Of course, Mrs. Donoghue did not have a contract with Stephenson (the drink manufacturer) – she had simply bought the product that they were selling. She took the case to court, and after several elevations – including to the house of lords – it was determined that the drink producer had a duty to provide a safe product to their customers and that Mrs. Donoghue was legally entitled to seek compensation for her unwanted slimy protein snack.
The dangers of late 19th and early 20th Century transport also ushered in a new age of litigation. Railways and automobiles were dangerous objects, and many preventable injuries stemmed from these novel machines. Ohio City has the dubious honor of hosting the first petrol-powered car crash in 1891.
As automobile insurance started to take off, so did car crash compensation. Today, automobile personal injury claims are the most widespread form of compensatory justice in the United States.
The insurance system means that if a person has a case for compensation, they are guaranteed to receive the money that they are awarded during litigation. Many lawyers specialize entirely in auto injury claims, and will often be able to settle them without stepping foot in a courthouse.
Personal injury claims are now a major part of how civil responsibility is enforced. Employers, corporations, and private citizens live under the assumption that they have a responsibility of care when they produce, employ or endanger any other person.
Financial leverage certainly isn’t the most desirable way in which to enforce moral norms, but it has enabled people who have been unfortunate enough to be injured to live without fear of being made bankrupt by their injuries.
Personal injury claims are far more common in countries without state healthcare for all. In the USA, for instance, many people rely upon litigation to pay for their medical bills. In countries with socialized healthcare, medical costs are covered by taxation, so individual retribution does not need to be sought as often.
Because of the sheer number of personal injury cases in the USA many legal firms specialize in delivering only one kind of litigation. Medical malpractice lawyers, for example, help people recoup losses from injuries caused by irresponsible medical treatment.
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