Personal Injury

What is included in a personal injury complaint?

By Prathyusha Chowdri, J.D., University of Maryland School of Law

A complaint is divided into sections that contain information about the court, the facts of the incident, the applicable law, and the plaintiff's losses (damages). Within each section are enumerated paragraphs containing a short statement or allegation. Let’s break down the different sections of the complaint in a personal injury case, including some sample language.

The Caption

Located in the top left corner of the first page, the caption will identify the court and the parties, and it may also contain the case docket number. “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” can be written for defendants whose identity is unknown at the time the complaint is filed. (Note: There are time limits for substituting the defendant’s actual name and serving the defendant with the complaint).

Jurisdiction and Venue

A complaint must contain language asserting that the court in which it was filed is appropriate in terms of jurisdiction and venue. Jurisdiction refers to the court’s authority to preside over the case. A case brought in federal court, for example, must contain a statement explaining why there is federal jurisdiction. Venue refers to the appropriate location of the court. It is typically the place where the defendant resides or where the injury occurred.

Here's what the caption and statement of jurisdiction/venue might look like:

------------------------------------------------------------------------------X

Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Suffolk

Sally Sue, plaintiff

v.

John Doe, Jane Doe, ABC Company, Inc., defendants.

Index No.: 12-CV-345

------------------------------------------------------------------------------X

Jurisdiction and Venue

  1. Sally Sue, Plaintiff, is a resident of the state of New York, County of Suffolk.
  2. Upon information and belief, John Doe, Defendant is a resident of the state of New York, County of Suffolk.
  3. Upon further information and belief, Jane Doe, Defendant is a resident of the state of New York, County of Suffolk.
  4. ABC Company is incorporated and located in the state of New York, County of Suffolk.
  5. Upon further information and belief, the defendants regularly visit and are engaged in business in Suffolk County, New York.
  6. This action arises out of a car accident which took place on January 1, 2012 on the exit ramp of I-95 and Fictitious Road. Both are public roads located in Suffolk County, New York.


Statement of Facts

This is where you provide information about the accident and the resulting injuries. Each enumerated paragraph typically contains a short statement of fact. States have different rules about what facts are required. As a general rule, although you don’t need to include every detail of the accident, you do need to include enough facts to put the defendant on notice of what the claim is really about.

Here's an example:

Statement of Facts

  1. On or about July 1, 2011, Sally Sue, plaintiff, was walking to work on Gold Street.
  2. At approximately 2:15 p.m., defendant Doe, operating a motor vehicle bearing license plate 123456, was driving southbound on Gold Street.
  3. Upon information and belief, defendant Doe was an employee of ABC Company, Inc.
  4. At approximately 2:15 p.m., defendant Doe struck plaintiff with the vehicle he was driving.


Legal Basis

This section is divided into “counts” which are also known as “causes of action”. Each count contains a separate theory of liability. In a personal injury case where the defendant's negligence is alleged to have caused the underlying accident, different numbered paragraphs would each contain an allegation spelling out how the defendant’s action (or inaction) caused the plaintiff's injury.

Example:

Count I (Negligence)

  1. Whereas, on June 1, 2011, defendant Doe had a duty to act reasonably and use due care while driving.
  2. Defendant Doe breached that duty by failing to abide by the driving rules set out in the state of New York's Vehicle and Traffic Laws.
  3. Plaintiff suffered damages by way of physical and emotional injuries as a result of defendant Doe’s actions.


Damages

Finally, the complaint will demand money damages from the defendant, to compensate for losses like medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost income. Damages do not have to be itemized or proven in this section. In California, for example, personal injury complaints should not demand a specific dollar amount. In other states, a plaintiff is expected to make a specific demand.

Keep in mind that even if a specific amount of money is demanded, it may not reflect the actual value of the case. In fact, the amount of money claimed in the complaint is often far higher than what the plaintiff could recover even if the plaintiff wins at trial.

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