Personal Injury

What is a Personal Injury Complaint?

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you're taking your personal injury lawsuit to court, here's what you need to know about the legal document that starts (and defines) your case.

It's true that most personal injury cases settle, but there are a number of reasons you might decide to take your personal injury claim to court. Maybe the other side isn't offering a fair settlement, or perhaps you just want their liability made official by a court judgment. (Learn more about injury-related insurance claims versus personal injury lawsuits.)

If you do choose to go to court, your personal injury lawsuit will get started with you (or your attorney, in most instances) filing a legal document known as a "complaint." This document contains some basic facts about you and your case, and it usually also provides some legal basis for why you believe that the defendant (the person or entity you're suing) should compensate you.

Specifically, a complaint is usually 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 a typical complaint in a personal injury lawsuit, 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 (the injured claimant, now the "plaintiff" filing the lawsuit, and the defendant(s) being sued). The caption 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. In a personal injury case, this is typically the place where the defendant resides or where the injury occurred. (Learn more about where to file a personal injury lawsuit.)

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

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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 19, 2018 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 or incident, and your 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 what happened, 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 January 19, 2018, 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 January 19, 2018, 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 your personal injury claim. In fact, the amount of money claimed in the complaint is often far higher than what the plaintiff could recover even if the plaintiff were to win at trial.

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