If you're involved in a personal injury lawsuit or an injury-related insurance claim in Alabama, you should be aware of the legal rules that might apply to your case. This article provides an overview of key Alabama laws applicable to personal injury cases.
Alabama, like all other states, has a law called a "statute of limitations," which sets a lime limit for filing different kinds of lawsuits. For personal injury cases, the time limit in Alabama is two years, meaning you must file a lawsuit against any potential defendant within two years of the date of your accident. (See Ala. Code. Sec. 6-2-38.) If a minor is the injured party, this time limit does not begin to run until he or she turns 19.
What if you do not file your claim within the two-year period? In most cases, your claim will be time-barred, meaning you will be unable to recover anything from those who are responsible for your injuries. So, it's crucial to understand and abide by the statute of limitations.
Once your lawsuit it underway, it is possible that the defendant will claim that you are at least partially responsible for the accident. Each state has a rule that governs cases where both sides of a lawsuit (plaintiff and defendant) share some degree of legal blame for the accident. Unfortunately, Alabama is one of the few states that still follows the "contributory negligence" rule, which can result in some pretty harsh consequences for plaintiffs who bear any amount of responsibility for the accident that underlies their claim.
In essence, if a jury determines that you are at all responsible for the accident that brought you to court, you may not recover anything at all from anyone else. Even if the jury determines that the other person is 95% at fault and you were only 5% at fault, you will still be unable to recover compensation for your injuries.
For this reason, if you are concerned that another party may claim you are to blame, it is especially important to discuss the matter with an experienced personal injury attorney. This may be another factor to consider when you are deciding whether to settle your injury claim with an insurance adjuster without going to trial -- although you should be prepared for the adjuster to bring up Alabama's contributory negligence rule too, even if just to gain leverage for settlement negotiations.
At one time, Alabama's legislature passed a law limiting damages in injury cases, most notably in medical malpractice claims. However, the Alabama Supreme Court later determined that the law was unconstitutional. So, there are no limits on compensation for damages in injury cases against private individuals, except for punitive damages.
To get punitive damages in an injury case, a plaintiff typically has to show that the defendant(s) acted with malice, or ill will, going beyond mere negligence. In Alabama, you must show by "clear and convincing evidence" (a tough standard to meet) that the other party acted with "deliberate or conscious malice." This probably would be hard to establish in a typical personal injury situation, such as an automobile accident case. But, if it turns out that you are eligible for punitive damages, the limit on recovery is the larger of three times compensatory damages or $1,500,000.
There is one other recovery limit to bear in mind, and that is that Alabama sets a limit of $100,000 for municipal (city, town, or county) liability in personal injury cases. This is an absolute limit, so there is no departure from the rule in any circumstance. This issue has been discussed recently in the media in Alabama in the context of a police officer who allegedly ran a red light while responding to a call in May 2011, resulting in an automobile accident that left another driver seriously injured, including possible brain injury.
In many states, dog owners are protected (to some degree) from injury liability the first time their dog injures someone if they had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous. This is often called a "one bite" rule. In Alabama however, a specific statute (Ala. Code § 3-6-1) makes the owner "strictly liable", meaning regardless of the animal's past behavior, the dog owner is responsible for a personal injury caused by his/her dog.
If the party that injured you was acting in the capacity of an employee or agent of a governmental body (whether at the municipal, state or federal level), different time limits and procedures will apply if you want to get compensation. In Alabama, a formal claim against a municipality must be filed within six months of the accident, and a claim against a county must be filed within one year of the accident. It is important to ask an attorney what constitutes a formal claim. Typically this is an administrative process that precedes the filing of a lawsuit, and if you do not properly file a notice of claim, you may not be able to file a lawsuit later.
If your claim is against the federal government, you have two years in which to file a formal notice of claim. If your claim is denied, you then have six months from the date of denial to file a lawsuit.
To learn how to file an injury claim against a city, county, state, or even federal government representative, see our page on injury claims against the government.