Four Reasons Why Christians Can Bring Personal Injury Lawsuits
As a Christian, I have heard many misconceptions about Christians and their legal rights. This is especially true when it comes to the question of whether Christians can bring personal injury lawsuits against another person. I’ve met some committed Christians who have suffered injuries because of someone else’s fault. But they have refused to either pursue a claim or accept any type of benefits from the wrongdoer.
I think this is a mistake. Here are the four main reasons why I firmly believe Christians can—and in some cases should—bring personal injury lawsuits.
First, in our fallen world, legal disputes are a God-ordained way of resolving differences. We can see from the early books of the Bible that lawsuits were a reality of the nation of Israel. There are numerous commands in Exodus about how the faithful should act in lawsuits. We are not to be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit, Exodus 23:3, but we must also not pervert the justice due to a poor man in his lawsuit. Exodus 23:6. This same general principle appears throughout the Bible. In fact, this justice system of lawsuits was such a part of the Israelites that one of the Ten Commandments ensures that we not bear false witness against our neighbor, which would obviously forbid false testimony in a lawsuit. Exodus 20:16.
The point of these passages is that the Bible not only recognizes the reality of lawsuits, it sets forth a code of conduct Believers must follow when involved in one. While this does not go so far as to encourage lawsuits as a means of resolving differences, it recognizes that lawsuits and legal disputes have a real and rightful place in resolving certain types of controversies.
Second, one type of dispute that is frequently mentioned in the Bible is what is known as a “tort” claim, which is a claim for injuries or property damage. In Exodus, the Bible examines four different types of situations that could cause injury or damage to someone else, and it set forth laws regarding how to deal with those situations. Those four examples are the foundation of modern tort law. The four examples were: (1) an ox goring a person or another’s animal; (2) the dangers of an open, uncovered pit; (3) a fire that spreads; and (4) and when loose cattle cause damage. Exodus 21:28-36. Interestingly, the Bible required money compensation to measure justice in civil disputes. I’ll dig into these examples in later posts, but it is important to keep in mind that the negligent party in these situations is required to provide monetary compensation for the harm that occurred to others.
For these claims, the Bible does not command that one pursue a legal claim for tort damages. But the Bible certainly does not condemn such actions. In fact, the Bible recognizes that these claims exist and it sets forth what type of compensation a civil wrongdoer is required to provide to the person they harmed.
Third, although Paul warned about lawsuits in 1 Corinthians, his warning appears to be limited to suits by one Believer against another. In 1 Corinthians 6:1, for example, Paul asks, “when one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” Paul goes on to state that it would be better for one to be defrauded by a brother than to have brothers in Christ square off against each other in the courts of Caesar.
I believe this verse needs to be read in light of Christ’s teaching about disputes between Christians in Matthew 18. In Matthew 18, a victim of another believer’s sin is to first confront the offender. If the offender fails to listen, you must return to confront with two or three witnesses. If that doesn’t do the trick, you must bring the dispute to the church. If that doesn’t work, you are to treat the offender as a “Gentile and a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17.
I’ll address these verses in later blog posts, but it is important to keep in mind that these disputes mentioned by Paul and Jesus focus on personal affronts or wrongdoing by one Believer against another, which damages a relationship within the church. This recognizes the reality that fellow Believers suing each other is a terrible witness for the Gospel. It may, after all, irreparably damage that relationship, which will sow division within the Church. Preserving these relationships seems to be Paul’s intention, as he stated that it would be better to be defrauded than to sue. Fraud occurs when one person intentionally deceives another. For that to occur, there must be interactions between the parties that led to a transaction. That type of dispute requires some relationship before the harm occurs.
A personal injury dispute is usually much different than these disputes for a couple of reasons, namely because a personal injury dispute typically arises between strangers. In a personal injury claim, there is usually not a pre-existing relationship and therefore no damaged relationship. That doesn’t create a situation like Paul was discussing, where Believers in the same Church are fighting each other in court. But even more fundamentally, the injured party in a personal injury action is most often seeking compensation not from the offender, but from the offender’s insurance company. In personal injury actions—unlike the disputes both Paul and Jesus referenced—the offender often admits they are wrong. But they are looking for their own insurance company to provide compensation for the harms and losses that occurred. This is much, much different than the situations in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 6.
While these passages certainly are not ringing endorsements of lawsuits, it is important to keep in mind that they do not terminate the tort compensation system that Exodus established. In light of this, I firmly believe that pursuing rights through the tort system is faithful to Scripture.
Fourth, pursuing your legal rights after you have been injured may help others who are powerless and poor. The Bible has many references to our need to seek justice and help the destitute and powerless. The prophet Isaiah often cried out about our need to seek justice, to correct oppression, to bring justice to the powerless, and to plead the widow’s cause. Some Christians get nervous when some of these justice verses are mentioned, as they feel the concepts of justice can greatly liberalize doctrine and the Gospel. Despite this concern, there is unquestionably a current of justice that sweeps through Scripture, and I believe that pursuing certain lawsuits goes to the heart of obtaining justice and helping the destitute and powerless.
The best example of this is pursuing an injury claim for a dangerous product. Say a corporation makes a product that it knows is dangerous. It knows that the product will injure, maim, or kill many people. And the corporation’s officers may know that the company could make inexpensive changes to the product to prevent many of those injuries. But it chooses not to make those changes because it wants to have higher profits. (There is nothing wrong with a corporation seeking profits; my example is of a corporation knowing that it can prevent injuries or deaths in an inexpensive, simple way, but it refuses to because it wants more money.)
Let’s say that you or a family member suffer serious injuries from this defective product. You are now faced with a choice. You can say that you are not the type to pursue a lawsuit, so you’ll spend your savings and maybe obtain governmental assistance to pay for your medical bills or to make up for your lost income. There, you and other tax payers will foot the bill. But, even worse, the company that caused the harm and will continue to harm others is not held accountable. They do not have any responsibility at all for the harms and losses they caused. If they aren’t held accountable, they will continue to do the same thing, over and over. And when that happens, more people will be injured or killed by the defective product.
While there isn’t a Bible verse directly on point saying that Christians are to hold corporations and wrongdoers accountable on the behalf of others, it is consistent with Scripture’s focus on justice to hold that belief. After all, you are helping others from suffering harm or even death, you are protecting their families, and you are doing your part to make your community and society safer. This is not the perfect form of justice that only the Gospel can promise, but it is the best form of justice that can help many families who have suffered injuries or death due to the wrongdoing of another.
If you or a loved one suffered an injury or death due to another party’s negligence, you will have a number of issues you will struggle with. This is especially true if you are a Christian. For guidance and advice on how you can be a faithful Christian while pursuing a personal injury claim, contact experienced Christian personal injury attorney Robert E. Byrne, Jr. at (434) 817-3100. Or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bob will be happy to speak with you without cost or obligation.