The Complaint in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

The complaint is the document that, once filed, starts the plaintiff's lawsuit. Here's a look at the key parts.

The complaint is one of the first documents filed in any personal injury lawsuit. Comprised of separate, numbered paragraphs, each containing one allegation, the legal complaint is a formal announcement of your intention to seek damages for an injury in a court of law.

The complaint identifies the injuries you have sustained, the facts surrounding the injuries, the parties you are suing, the legal basis for your complaint, and the amount of damages your intend on seeking. Legal complaints are subject to relatively strict standards with regard to form and content; these standards can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Let's take a closer look at some of the different parts of a personal injury complaint.

Jurisdictional Issues

Personal injury complaints normally begin with jurisdictional allegations. In these opening paragraphs, your attorney will explain why you are filing your complaint in this particular court or jurisdiction. Jurisdictional allegations are a melding of both fact and law. Where a complaint is filed depends on where an injury occurred, where you live, and many other factors. These factors are normally codified in either state statutes or court rules, which are often cited in the jurisdictional allegations in support of your assertion of jurisdiction.

An example of a jurisdictional allegation would be something to the effect of “Both Plaintiff and defendant reside and do business in the County of X, State of Y, and as such jurisdiction in this court is appropriate.”

Factual Allegations

Factual allegations in a personal injury complaint are your opportunity to tell your version of how your injury occurred. Ostensibly a simple recitation of facts, your lawyer will use the factual allegations to begin advocating in your favor.

Factual allegations can be as vague or specific as you or your lawyer deem necessary. In a personal injury case, it is important that the facts surrounding the actual injury are included in the Complaint, so the facts can be interpreted in the appropriate context. But providing too few or too many factual allegations can act as a handcuff later, as the lawsuit progresses. Factual allegations should tell your story without boxing you in or allowing the Defendant too much breathing room.

An example of a factual allegation would be “Plaintiff Smith, unaware the Defendant ABC Grocery had recently mopped the aisle, slipped and fell in the unmarked wet area.”

Legal Allegations

Legal allegations in a personal injury complaint set out the legal bases for the recovery of damages. The legal allegations in a complaint are normally divided by counts, with each count representing a different theory of recovery under the law.

Most personal injury complaints include, at a minimum, a count of negligence. Often, other counts are included as well, depending upon the circumstances of the injury. For example, in a toxic tort case where a builder failed to protect a new construction home from mold exposure, there could be counts of negligence, nuisance and violation of the local consumer protection law. Each of these counts present a theory under which you could recover for any respiratory or neurological injuries you may have sustained due to mold exposure.

Legal allegations usually take the facts of a particular case, and apply them to the elements of the legal basis for recovery to show how a defendant violated the law. Negligence allegations always set forth a Defendant’s duty under the law, how they breached the duty, why the breach caused your injury, and how you were damaged by the breach.

An example of a legal allegation in a personal injury complaint would be “Plaintiff had a legal obligation to keep the premises free of obstruction, and inspect for any potential hazards that may cause, or could foreseeably cause, injury.”

The formal complaint in a personal injury case is filed with the court and served on the defendant(s). It signals the start of a personal injury lawsuit, and is one of the single most important documents filed in any lawsuit.

To get a better idea of what to expect in a personal injury lawsuit in a more general sense, see this page on the early stages of the injury lawsuit process.

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