The Complaint In a Personal Injury Lawsuit

When it's filed in court, the "complaint" is the document that starts a personal injury lawsuit.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

The complaint is the first document filed in civil court in a personal injury lawsuit. It lets the court—and soon after, the "defendant" who is being sued—know that the injured person (now the "plaintiff") intends to seek a legal remedy for his or her losses. In this article, we'll look at the different parts of a personal injury complaint.

What Does a Complaint Look Like?

Typically comprised of separate, numbered paragraphs, each containing one allegation, the complaint usually identifies:

  • the specific injuries you have sustained
  • the facts surrounding the injuries
  • the person or entity you are suing (the "defendant")
  • the legal basis for your complaint, and
  • the amount of compensation ("damages") you intend to ask for.

Civil complaints, like most court filings, are subject to relatively strict standards with regard to form and content, although these standards vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

In some civil courts, even in personal injury cases the plaintiff can utilize a "form" complaint put out by the court or a judicial council in the state. These forms let the plaintiff check off certain boxes (including some that contain pre-printed allegations) while supplying specific information like the date of the underlying incident and the defendant's name.

Jurisdictional Issues

Personal injury complaints normally begin with jurisdictional allegations. In these opening paragraphs, your personal injury 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 spelled out in 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 when it comes to fault for the underlying accident.

Factual allegations can be as vague or specific as you or your lawyer deem necessary. In a personal injury case, it's important that the facts surrounding the actual injury are included in the complaint, so those 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 should be held liable for the plaintiff's injuries. Negligence allegations always set forth a defendant's duty of care under the law, how they breached the duty, how the breach caused the injury, and how the plaintiff was 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."

What Comes Next?

After the personal injury complaint is filed with the court—and served on the defendant along with a summons—the defendant will file an "answer" to the plaintiff's complaint, and the lawsuit will proceed from there. For more details on this process, see our article on stages of a personal injury lawsuit. For information that's tailored to your situation, it may be time to contact a personal injury lawyer.

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