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Last Modified: December 30, 2022

A History of Personal Injury Law

Published on July 2, 2014 • Last updated December 30, 2022 by Ken Christensen
Topics: Uncategorized

history of personal injury

While forms of law or legal systems have been in place for thousands of years, personal injury law as a specific branch of the law only goes back as far as the late 1970s. Prior to this time, personal injury law and lawyers still existed, but under the bigger umbrella of more a general form of law. Below, you will find a timeline inspired by the infographic shared by The Law Offices of Kevin P. Landry. Because the history of personal injury law itself is brief and relatively recent, this timeline offers a broad backbone that gives personal injury law more context.

10,000 to 500 B.C.

Civilizations during this time period generally followed the idea of lex talionis, or the “law of retribution.”  This law ensured that the offended party be repaid by the offender the same amount and in the same way that the offender committed his crime. This type of law is commonly associated with Mosaic Law (“an eye for an eye”) and was also found in The Code of Hammurabi. The laws were understood by the people, and witnesses were responsible to bring the offender to court, where they were judged according to their crime.

500 B.C. to 500 A.D.

In the beginning of this period, offenders were able to bring a friend to court who could help advocate for them before the judge or the people. The law prohibited the companion from making any money for accompanying his friend to court. The legal profession was officially born when the Roman Emperor Claudius was the first to legalize advocacy as an official profession in the first century, striking down the ban on legal fees. Ancient Greek and Roman lawyers were trained in rhetoric—not law. This would change, however, as the Roman lawyers would soon dedicate their full time learning and practicing dealing with the intricacies of the law. By the 4th century, Roman lawyers even had a bar exam they had to pass!

500 to 1500

The period of the Middle Ages saw a step back in regards to the legal profession. In the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms of Western Europe implemented canon law with the effort to regulate the Church. The marriage of Church and State during this time created a need for lawyers who understood the body of laws and regulations made by Church officials.


During the 1600s, England’s common law spread to the United States. The part of the law that we know as “personal injury law” evolves from the idea of Res Ipsa Loquitur (latin for “the thing itself speaks”).  This idea essentially requires that incidents that do not naturally occur must be blamed on someone. By this time, plaintiffs or claimants were beginning to be compensated for wages lost due to injury.

1700s -1800s

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, personal injury and the law began to merge more because of the working class conditions—though the legal system did not allow for much to be done for those workers who were injured. When cases were considered, plaintiffs were only compensated for clear physical injuries that were inflicted by another. Some bizarre claims reported that received successful compensation in England include: an artist blown down by a gust of wind, a man who was injured jumping out of bed, and a man who swallowed a fish bone.

Early 1900s

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a rise of cases stemming from the second Industrial Revolution. Laws were created at this time out of the interaction between the “Robber Barons” and the working class, which allowed lawsuits to be filed against companies if a worker was injured at work. This became the precursor to today’s Worker’s Compensation and personal injury laws. This is also where the term “ambulance chaser” began to be used, a derogatory term for attorneys in general who solicit injured clients.


The famous case Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. helped establish the idea of “proximate cause.” Proximate cause is defined by The Free Legal Dictionary as “an act from which an injury results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred.”


The Donoghue v. Stevenson case became a foundational court case because it established the modern concept of negligence, defined as a civil wrong that causes injury or harm to another person or to property.


Slip-and-fall cases and car crashes are currently the general mainstays for personal injury attorney practices. Most practices are dealing at this time with a large volume of small cases. The claims are generally small. One law firm reports that their biggest personal injury claim in 1961 was $200,000, and that was reported as being rare.

1970sstack of newspapers

Personal Injury law, though practiced prior to this decade, becomes advertised with its official name. In 1979, Jacoby and Meyers became the first attorneys to advertise Personal Injury legal services on television. Prior to that year, no law firm had advertised at all save for in the Yellow Pages.


This decade became famous for personal injury cases involving breast implant technology. Thousands of breast implant patients who were injured by ruptured or leaky implants filed lawsuits against doctors, and millions of dollars were paid in compensation.


Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants, a case involving a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns from accidentally spilling coffee on her lap, became one of the most famous personal injury cases in U.S. history. The plaintiff was awarded $2.9 million. This case would become a major example used by some to argue against frivolous lawsuits.


The American Bar Association (ABA) conducted a study that showed that advertising for personal injury law was particularly successful in bringing legal services to the poor. This study helped to enhance the image of personal injury attorneys.


The idea of “Frivolous Litigation” or frivolous lawsuits is established and prohibited in the U.S. Federal Rule 11, which prevents cases being taken to court that will have little or no chance of winning based on lack of legal merit.

1998old computer vs new computer

The emergence of the internet and search engines like Google gave personal injury attorneys the chance to find people who were searching for their assistance. The internet also allowed for personal injury lawyers to improve their image by creating attractive and informative websites that instill confidence and assurance in their clients’ minds.


Social media makes the world smaller and connects more people together than ever before. This close connection gave personal injury attorneys the opportunity to reach a greater number of people and to maintain more personal connection. Social Media has also become an important outlet for advertising legal services.

2009 to the Present

Famous television personality Dr. Phil McGraw is currently involved in one of the most famous present personal injury cases. Janet Harris, a neighbor, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Phil, alleging that a his dog bit her and caused her a grievous injury. The case has not yet been settled.

Other famous personal injury cases:

  • In 1990, Gloria Estefan was involved in an accident when a jack-knifed tractor trailer caused her tour bus to be rear-ended. She filed a lawsuit against the company who owned the tractor trailer and she was subsequently awarded $8.9 million.
  • In 1993, Residents of Hinkley, California filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) alleging that hexavalent chromium leaked into the community drinking water from a compressor station in the town. Erin Brockovich, the legal clerk to attorney Edward L. Masry, investigated the illnesses in the community that were linked to the hexavalent chromium leak. Her efforts and the plight of the Hinkley residents were made famous in the movie named after the legal clerk and starring Julia Roberts. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million.
  • Former US Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards helped lead a product liability case against Sta-Rite. The case involved a young girl who was disemboweled from the powerful suction of a community pool drain. Edwards was successful in suing the manufacturing company, who awarded $25 million in compensation.
  • In 2007, when the Interstate-35 W bridge collapsed in Minnesota, it was determined by the National Transportation Safety Board that the bridge had design flaws that contributed to the bridge’s collapse. As a result, Jacobs Engineering paid Minnesota $8.9 million. Over $37 million was paid in compensation to the families of those who were injured or killed in the collapse.
  • Bret Michaels, member of the metal band Poison, filed a lawsuit against Columbia Broadcasting Systems (CBS) for an injury that he suffered during the 2009 Tony Awards when a set piece fell and hit him in the head as he was exiting the stage. The lawsuit was settled in 2011.

Whether it affects the famous, infamous, celebrities, or average citizens, personal injury has no bias. None one is immune to injury, and as time goes on, personal injury law continues to evolve. With the growth of technology, there is more information to consider and more steps and procedures to follow when building a case. If you or someone close to you has been injured due to another’s negligence and are wondering if a personal injury attorney is right for your unique situation, please do not hesitate to schedule a free, initial consultation. At Good Guys Injury Law, our lawyers are experienced in their field, committed to working and concerned with helping you receive the help that you deserve.

Photo (1) copyright to Vinoth Chandar

Photo (2) copyright to [BarZaN] Qtr

Photo (3) copyright to Hisakuni Fujimoto

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