Illinois Personal Injury 101: What is Cause of Action?
In May, we wrote a post asking whether an employer can fire an employee for making a workers’ compensation claim. In it, we explained that Illinois courts recognize a “cause of action” for retaliatory discharge. While it may be obvious from context what the phrase “cause of action” means, we thought it would be helpful to take a closer look at the concept.
In Illinois personal-injury lawsuits, a cause of action is the legal claim that the plaintiff must prove to be entitled to a legal remedy. A lawsuit may include multiple causes of action, which can either be cumulative (“The defendant did A, B, and C”) or alternative (“The defendant did A or B”). If the plaintiff prevails on any of his or her causes of action, then the court will grant whatever remedy is prescribed by law.
What is Cause of Action? Who Defines Causes of Actions?
Some causes of action are defined in statutes. For example, the Illinois Dram Shop Act creates a cause of action against a business for personal injury or property damage caused by an intoxicated person who became intoxicated because the business served him or her alcohol.
Other causes of action have been developed over time by the courts. For example, the tort of battery—which occurs when a defendant, intending to cause a harmful or offensive contact with the plaintiff or a third party, causes a harmful contact with the plaintiff—was defined by Illinois courts, not the General Assembly.
Of course, this distinction leaves important details out. Because courts must interpret the statutes enacted by the General Assembly, even those causes of action that are defined by statute can be changed to some extent by the courts. Fully understanding any cause of action in Illinois requires researching what the courts have said about it.
How are Causes of Action Defined?
To prevail on a cause of action, a plaintiff must prove each of a series of facts known as elements. Consider battery again: If the plaintiff cannot prove that the defendant intended to cause a harmful or offensive contact, then he or she cannot recover for battery. That intent is an element necessary for the plaintiff to win.
But that’s not to say the plaintiff can’t recover at all. As we mentioned, a plaintiff can include multiple causes of action in his or her lawsuit. So, for instance, in addition to including a battery cause of action, the plaintiff might also include a claim of negligence. The elements of negligence are:
- A duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff;
- A breach of that duty; and
- An injury proximately caused by the breach.
Consider this example: Peter hits Paul with a baseball bat, breaking Paul’s arm. If Peter intended to hit Paul, that would be battery. If Peter was just “goofing off” and not paying attention to his surroundings, that would be negligence. If it isn’t initially clear which of those scenarios is correct, Paul could file a lawsuit that includes both causes of action.
Choosing the Right Cause of Action
Choosing the right cause of action is critical to a lawsuit’s success for a whole host of reasons. First, and as should be obvious, what causes of action you allege determine what elements you must prove. If you claim that the defendant committed battery, you know you’ll have to prove his or her intent.
Similarly, your cause of action can determine what types of proof you are alleging. For instance, in most medical malpractice cases, you must provide expert testimony to prove what the standard of care was that the doctor violated.
Your cause of action also limits what evidence you’re allowed to provide if your case goes to trial. If you leave out a cause of action, then you won’t be able to offer evidence that helps to prove it, unless it also helps prove whatever cause of action you actually did allege. As an example, you might have possible claims against your neighbor for trespass and nuisance, two distinct causes of action. But if you only allege trespass, then you may not be allowed to offer evidence of nuisance, too.
Additionally, your cause of action determines what statute of limitations applies to your case. A statute of limitations defines how long after you are injured you are able to sue. If you don’t file your lawsuit in the period defined by the applicable statute of limitations, you won’t be able to file it at all, even if you really were injured by someone else’s wrongdoing.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
Although the concepts of a cause of action and its elements may seem straightforward, in practice they can become quite complex. Lawyers spend years learning to recognize which causes of action might be appropriate in a case based on each client’s specific circumstances. If you’ve been injured by someone else’s behavior, contact the lawyers at Costa Ivone for help understanding your legal rights and pursuing your claims.