Declaratory Judgments in Personal Injury Lawsuits

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When most people think of the recovery or compensation possible through a personal injury lawsuit, they think of compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, lost future earnings, and pain and suffering. This is a natural and accurate conclusion – most successful personal injury lawsuits end with the plaintiff recovering monetary damages to meet one or more of these losses. It would seem absurd to some to think that litigation surrounding a personal injury incident would be deemed “successful” if the court simply affirmed or negated the legal contention or position of one of the parties without awarding or denying monetary damages. Yet when one party asks the other for a declaratory judgment, this is exactly what happens. So what role might a declaratory judgment play in a South Carolina personal injury accident?

Defining a Declaratory Judgment

First of all, it is helpful to describe and understand what a declaratory judgment is. A declaratory judgment is a judicial order issued at the end of a court case that sets out the legal obligations and/or rights of the parties. As one Georgia court described them, declaratory judgments are akin to allowing a person walking in a dark room to turn on the light before he or she stubs his or her toe as opposed to requiring the person to first fall into a hole. Although a declaratory judgment may be combined with other forms of legal relief like monetary damages, a declaratory judgment in and of itself may be the only relief “awarded” in the action.

Are Declaratory Judgments Appropriate in Personal Injury Cases?

Declaratory judgments are common in contract and business disputes but most personal injury lawsuits filed by plaintiffs will not ask the court for a declaratory judgment. This is because an essential element of a personal injury case is that a plaintiff must show that he or she was injured in some compensable manner, even if nominal damages are all that are requested. In other words, it is unlikely that a personal injury plaintiff would file a lawsuit requesting a declaratory judgment without any other form of relief.
However, an insurance carrier involved in a personal injury lawsuit (for example, the homeowner’s insurance company in a slip and fall accident) may seek a declaratory judgment regarding its rights or obligation to cover its insured under the facts and circumstances of the accident incident. While the injured plaintiff may not necessarily need to participate in such an action between an insurance company and its insured, it can result in a delay to the resolution of his personal injury case, and the injured plaintiff certainly has a stake in the matter to the extent it may determine whether the insurance company is responsible to pay for his damages against their insured.  Similarly, an injured plaintiff may have his own first party insurance policy that may potentially have coverage for his injuries.  Occasionally, an injured plaintiff may be forced to litigate a declaratory judgment action against his own insurance company to resolve questions related to coverage under his first party policy for his injuries caused by a third person.  This scenario most often arises in connection with underinsured motorist coverage.

Contact an Attorney Today

Greenville personal injury attorney David R. Price, Jr. represents injury victims who have been injured by the carelessness of another. He is committed to helping his clients understand the civil court process, keeping them apprised of the status of their suit, and helping his clients obtain full and fair compensation for their injuries as quickly as possible. Contact the law office of David R. Price, Jr., P.A. today by calling or complete the firm’s online contact form for prompt assistance.

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