Understandably, when someone sustains injuries in traffic or during a medical procedure, the focus is on the victim. Is there permanent damage? Can the person continue with their daily life? However, attention is rarely paid to how the person responsible for the injury is doing after an accident or medical error. Therefore, Femke Ruitenbeek-Bart, a PhD candidate and university lecturer in Private Law at Erasmus School of Law, investigated personal injury cases and their aftermath from the perspective of the person held liable for compensation as the cause of the injury. The research specifically focuses on injuries in traffic accidents and healthcare.
“Healthcare providers want to make people better, and road users want to get from point A to point B. But sometimes things go wrong, resulting in injuries”, Ruitenbeek-Bart writes in her thesis magazine IN PRESS, which contains a research summary. “Suddenly, the person who caused the injury becomes involved in a legal battle. That is quite burdensome, especially because it was never the intention to harm someone else.” Most culprits are willing to do something for the victim, but the victim is not always open to it. An accident with injuries is very traumatic for victims, “but let’s not forget that many culprits also suffer from what happened and, to some extent, are victims of the situation”, Ruitenbeek-Bart continues.
Ruitenbeek-Bart researched the involvement and experiences of individuals held liable in personal injury cases in various ways. She conducted legal research and literature reviews, but the core of the research consisted of interviews with healthcare providers, road users involved in accidents, and personal injury professionals. Based on the findings, she reflected on what personal injury lawyers can learn from the experiences of culprits, incorporating psychological, legal-theoretical, and legal-philosophical insights.
Feelings of guilt and being hurt
The interview study reveals a difference between healthcare providers and road users regarding their level of involvement in handling personal injury cases. Ruitenbeek-Bart explains: “This is because an insurance company usually takes full responsibility for handling traffic accidents resulting in injuries. In most cases, the matter can be assessed based on the accident papers, and there is no need to contact the culprit. However, a healthcare provider is actively involved in the settlement of medical errors. Healthcare providers are obligated to provide full disclosure to patients. Additionally, a hospital lawyer requires the substantive knowledge of the healthcare provider to assess the case.”
The experiences of culprits further demonstrate that they can find themselves in a complex and emotionally intense situation. Ruitenbeek-Bart concludes: “If a patient comes out of treatment worse than better, it deeply affects healthcare providers. Especially when they realize they have done something wrong. At the same time, healthcare providers deal with highly assertive patients who can become quite angry. Healthcare providers feel guilty about what happened to the patient, but sometimes they are also hurt by how patients treat them, all while needing to maintain professionalism.
On the other hand, someone who causes injury in a traffic accident is not held personally accountable to the same extent because the insurer handles the process. That may sound comfortable, but it can also be burdensome. Where can the person causing the injury turn to express the need to apologize or feelings of guilt and shame?”
Therefore, the PhD candidate advocates for more attention to the personal interests of culprits. She believes that insurers and other professionals involved in handling personal injury cases have a responsibility in this regard: “It is now time to shed light on the perspective of the culprits as well. In the best-case scenario, this approach fulfils not only the needs of the culprits but also those of the victims.”
On May 26, 2023, Femke Ruitenbeek-Bart will defend her dissertation titled “And what about the culprit? An empirical-legal research on the position of the culprit in civil personal injury practice.” She conducted her doctoral research under the supervision of supervisors Siewert Lindenbergh, Professor of Private Law at Erasmus School of Law, and Harriët Schelhaas, Dean and Professor of Private Law at Erasmus School of Law.