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A Brief History of Personal Injury Law

Catastrophic Personal Injury

Extreme or unexpected events occur much more frequently than most of us like to admit. Car wrecks, workplace injuries, or even major trucking crashes occur every day. It is often the case that these tragedies – though unexpected – could have been prevented if someone had been more diligent by putting their phone down while driving, by promptly addressing a workplace safety issue, or by performing their required duties. In the eyes of the law, if someone fails to act in a manner that a reasonable person would in the same situation, they may be held responsible for any injuries that result from their actions (or lack of action).

This common-sense approach to assigning responsibility for harm done to others is essentially an example of res ipsa loquitur, Latin for “the thing itself speaks.” The phrase became popular in the 1600s and has come to be a guiding principle within the history of personal injury law.

The actual history of personal injury law dates all the way back to ancient history with “eye for an eye” laws that required equal punishment for harm done to individuals within a society; however, personal injury lawsuits as we think of them today were quite uncommon until the dawn of the 20th century, and the first TV ad for a personal injury lawyer didn’t appear until as recently as 1979.

The prevalence of personal injury suits changed drastically with the 1932 British case of Donoghue V. Stevenson. The defendant, Mrs. Donoghue, experienced personal injury when a bottle of ginger beer she consumed was found to contain a dead snail, causing her to become ill. This case essentially set a standard by ascribing negligence to the manufacturer, Mr. Stevenson. Stevenson was found negligent for the quality of his product. This led to a basic set of standards put in place to protect consumers from negligence.

Over the subsequent years, the practice of personal injury law has been modified and modernized. The results of that modernization have been both good and bad.

On the one hand, the later-half of the 20th Century has brought the phrase “ambulance chaser” to the forefront of the English language and has perpetuated the negative stereotype of personal injury lawyers hunting down injured people to urge them into hasty lawsuits in an effort to get paid.

The image of personal injury lawyers also hasn’t improved with the satirizing of seemingly frivolous lawsuits over the past 30 years. Most famous perhaps, was the mid-1990s claim made against the McDonald’s fast-food chain wherein a customer spilled scalding hot coffee on their person and suffered third degree burns. While the media – and sitcoms like Seinfeld – made a farce of the trial, evidence showed that McDonald’s was not only aware of the potential for severe burns from their coffee but did nothing even after over 700 other similar incidents had occurred. Ultimately, the jury saw the evidence and sided with the burn victim. They awarded $200,000 in favor of the plaintiff in 1994 as well as imposing $2.7 million in punitive damages on McDonald’s. In appeals those amounts were reduced, and the case actually ended up being secretly settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Despite the negative stereotypes, though, personal injury law is a standard practice in the present day, and it protects consumers and seeks justice for injured victims. Bringing to light defective products and drugs, helping individuals and families who have been affected by tragedy, and righting wrongs suffered by innocent victims are all par for the course in modern, reputable personal injury law offices.

Of course, even with all the changes and advancements in the personal injury field – and the legal profession in general – over the last century, the guiding principles remain rooted in centuries of tradition and legal precedent: when someone is injured by the negligence or wrongdoing of others, a party must be determined to be in the wrong in order to serve justice and alleviate the suffering of the victim.

Res ipsa loquitur.


Coleman, C. (2009, November 20). The legal case of the snail found in ginger beer. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8367223.stm

Consumer Attorneys of California. (1996). The actual facts about the McDonalds’ coffee case. The ‘Lectric Law Library. Retrieved from http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm

Wallace, I. (2013, November 27). The history of personal injury law [infographic]. Infographic Journal. Retrieved from http://infographicjournal.com/the-history-of-personal-injury-law/

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