Spinal cord injuries can be devastating and cause permanent disabilities that require a lifetime of medical care and assistance. The cost can be astronomical, which is why personal injury lawsuits for spinal cord injuries often garner high settlements. In fact, it isn’t unusual for lawyers to recover $1 million or more for the plaintiff (the injured person) in spinal cord injury cases.
Medical malpractice during surgery, car accidents, diving accidents, sports accidents, assaults, falls, construction accidents, and more can result in spinal cord injuries. Motor vehicle accidents cause nearly 50% of these injuries, while falls come in second. Gunshot wounds and other violent acts are third, and sports are fourth.
What is the spinal cord, and why is it so vital? It consists of nerves that carry impulses between the brain and the body. When the nerves of the spinal cord are damaged, people lose the ability to move or to feel certain parts of the body. The vertebrae, which make up the back bone, envelop the spinal cord. Sometimes, the vertebrae are injured, but the nerves are not. In that case, people have a better chance of recovery without significant loss of mobility.
These injuries are categorized as complete or incomplete. Complete spinal cord injuries render the person unable to move or feel below the level of the injury on the spinal cord.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries mean that the patient maintains some ability to function below the level of the injury on the spinal cord.
These “levels” can occur in any of three areas of the spine:
• Cervical spine, which refers to the neck. These injuries usually result in total paralysis and quadriplegia, which means loss of use of all four limbs.
• Thoracic spine, which refers to the chest region. These types of injuries often result in paraplegia so that the lower body is immobile while the upper body remains functioning to at least some degree.
• Lumber/Sacral spine, which is the lower spine. Injuries in this region result in loss of some movement and function and may have an impact on some organ systems.
Spinal cord injuries are further classified as a, B, C, or D by the American Spinal Injury Association and the International Spinal cord Injury Classification System. Complete spinal cord injuries are classified as a. Incomplete injuries are categorized as B, C, or D based on the amount of function that is maintained and the degree of damage to the muscles.
Spinal cord injuries cause all sorts of other problems with the body, some of which can be life-threatening. Actor Christopher Reeve, who suffered a spinal injury after being thrown from a horse, eventually died from his complications. Even though he had the best care available, he suffered pressure/bed sores from sitting in a wheelchair all the time. These sores, over time, break down the skin so that bacteria can enter the body. In his case, the bacteria became systemic in the blood stream-a condition called sepsis-and he died from the infection.
The other potential complications are many, including:
• Breathing dysfunction, necessitating a ventilator
• Lack of bowel and bladder control
• Sexual dysfunction
• Muscle atrophy
• Inability to regulate body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure
• Gall stones and kidney stones
Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuits
Because spinal cord injury lawsuits can be costly for the insurance company of the responsible party, experts are usually required to attempt to prove causation and fault. Some of the experts that might be called upon to provide reports include medical personnel, as well as experts in the type of accident that caused the injuries, vocational experts to show that the injured party can no longer perform his or her job, and life care planners to evaluate the ongoing cost of living with debilitating injuries. Witnesses may also be questioned in order to gather evidence in support of the claim.
In order for fault of another party to be proven, someone has to have been negligent in a way that brought about the injuries-for example, a driver of a vehicle or a surgeon. The responsible party also has to have owed the injured person what is called a “duty of care. ” For example, the driver of a vehicle on the street owes all other drivers a duty of care to drive safely and obey the rules of the road. A surgeon has a duty of care to provide a safe procedure without damage to the patient’s body.
The injured person is sometimes found to have been careless or to have engaged in a dangerous activity that contributed to the injuries. In this case, the patient may bear at least some of the fault for the accident. This is called “contributory negligence, ” and it can result in a reduced settlement amount.
This settlement may be negotiated out of court or may be awarded by a judge or jury if the case proceeds to trial. Lawyers for all parties will try to avoid court if at all possible since it is more expensive, but if they cannot agree on a settlement amount, court may become necessary.
People with these injuries typically claim medical expenses, as well as loss of earnings (current and perhaps future if the injury has resulted in paralysis or even partial loss of mobility), and the costs of long-term care. Those costs might include wheelchairs, altering the home so that it is equipped for people with disabilities, and the services of caretakers such as nurses, physical therapists, and housekeepers.
Even if the person with a spinal cord injury is a stay-at-home parent who is not employed, he or she may obtain a settlement that covers the cost of hiring help to care for the children. The spouse and children might also have a claim for money damages because of their losses when an injured person can no longer perform spousal and parental duties. This is called “loss of consortium. ”
In some states, payment is also made for pain and suffering. This is based on emotional rather than financial loss. An expert may even testify regarding the injured person’s loss of enjoyment of life in order to achieve a larger settlement.