In America, our legal system is a collection of federal, state, and local laws often called the “body of laws”. There are two fundamental types of laws: statutory law and common law. Statutory law is the body of law created and enacted by the federal, state, and local governments. Common law, on the other hand, is that body of law based on judicial decisions of courts and similar tribunals. In this article, we are going to examine how these two types of law may apply to your personal injury lawsuit.
In general, statutory law is written law that states what you cannot do. This law is enacted by a governing body such as a state legislature or the United States Congress. It is written as part of a larger body of law or “code”. Statutory law is enforced by federal, state or local governments or their agencies. Violators of statutory law may be subject to punishment ordered by a court. Statutory law is commonly referred to as legislation.
The following example may help explain statutory law. Texas law makes it a crime to embezzle money from your employer. This law is written down and is thus known to everyone. If you’re caught embezzling from your employer’s bank account, you can be tried in criminal court for embezzlement. If found guilty, then based on the amount that stolen, you could be (1) fined, (2) given a prison term and/or (3) required to make restitution of the amount that you stole.
Common law is founded on the principle of equity. That is, it seeks to restore one or more parties to their status of well-being that existed prior to their injury. The defining characteristic of common law is that it arises from legal precedents derived from court decisions.
Common law was developed in pre-industrial England. The goal was to deal with common situations such as disputes over contracts, land use, and accidental injuries. Over time, the practice of using prior court decisions as guidelines or precedent in rendering decisions on cases with similar facts evolved into what we now call the common law.
In a common-law case, the court sees its duty to be the restoration of an injured party to their condition before some injury or other loss. To render restitution the courts would apply decisions from previous cases as long as the cases are similar. This practice is called “stare decisis”, which means let the decision stand.
Can The Laws Overlap?
While common-law deals with non-criminal matters, there are instances where the two types of law will overlap. For instance, in every state, it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. So, if an intoxicated driver causes an accident that driver will face criminal charges (statutory law) and run the risk of being sued by other persons for any damages due to injuries (common law) caused by the accident.
One key to common law is that it is more malleable than statutory law. First, common law courts are not absolutely bound by precedent. They are able (when extraordinarily good reason is shown) to reinterpret and revise the law. Second, the common law evolves through a series of gradual steps. This allows an experienced personal injury lawyer the room within the law to seek different restitutions.