Suffering a spinal cord injury can lead to debilitating, life-long challenges, sometimes requiring extensive rehabilitation and constant medical care. Most spinal cord injuries are irreversible, meaning that the victim may be saddled with permanent disabilities. As a result, it is extremely important for victims of these injuries to obtain appropriate compensation. Most frequently, spinal cord injuries are the result of a car accident, or an accident on the job. Occasionally, slip and fall accidents, defective products, sporting injuries, or assault and battery can also lead to spinal cord injuries.
The majority of spinal cord injuries occur as a result of a car accident. These cases are evaluated using negligence principles common to many car accidents, however spinal cord injuries add complexity to the resolution of these cases due to the nature of the injury. In general, the injured party must prove four distinct elements: that the at-fault driver at fault had a duty, that the driver breached his duty, that the breach of the duty was the cause of the spinal cord injury, and that there were actual, physical damages.
In car accidents that result in a spinal cord injury, the existence of a duty is usually quite clear. In California, all drivers have a duty to drive in a reasonable manner and at a reasonable speed, to maintain their vehicles in a reasonable manner, to be alert and to be aware of their environment, to maintain control of their vehicle, and to fulfill any other duty imposed by state or local traffic laws. Essentially, anyone who is operating a vehicle in California has a duty to drive as a safe and reasonable driver in a safe vehicle.
Second, the victim of a spinal cord injury must show that the at-fault driver breached this duty. Common examples of breaches of duties that result in spinal cord injuries include excessive speed, resulting in a driver rear-ending another driver, or drivers driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, causing them to ignore traffic rules. In general, if a driver is violating the law, for example, by driving above the speed limit, driving while intoxicated, or making an illegal U-turn, a presumption of negligence, known as “negligence per se” is created. This presumption can be of great help to victims of spinal cord injuries, because it shifts the burden of proof onto the at-fault driver to show why he or she was not, actually, at fault for the accident. Instead of the victim being forced to prove all elements of negligence, the at-fault driver is put into a position where he or she must rebut (or dispute) this presumption at trial.
Third, victims of spinal cord injuries resulting from car accidents must show that the spinal cord injury resulted from the car crash. Again, this is usually a quite straightforward inquire to show that the spinal cord injury resulted from the accident, and not from a different or prior accident.
Finally, the victim must show actual, physical damages. Spinal cord injuries are, by their nature, physical. Once physical damages are shown, however, the victim of the spinal cord injury can recover for other compensatory damages (such as lost wages, or lost earning potential), and for pain and suffering resulting from the accident.
Oftentimes, spinal cord victims, due to the debilitating nature of the injury and potential for lifelong disability, will have claims that exceed the insurance policy limits of the at-fault driver. For example, if the at-fault driver’s policy for bodily injury coverage is $50,000 per person, and a spinal cord victim’s damages are calculated at $100,000, the at-fault driver will be personally liable for the difference ($50,000). If the at-fault driver has significant independent assets, the spinal cord victim may be successful in collecting this difference. Quite frequently, however, at-fault drivers will lack the assets to compensate for the injury and, as a result, many attorneys will advise their clients to settle for the policy limits of the insurance policy, instead of to pursue costly and time consuming litigation that may not result in a financial recovery. As a result, although the damages resulting from a spinal cord injury may be large, functionally it may only be possible to recover compensation for the maximum of the insurance policy held by the at-fault driver.
Spinal cord injuries also occur as a result of an accident at work. Frequently, construction workers, warehouse workers, or factory workers will be tasked with lifting or moving heavy objects, any of which, if treated improperly, has the potential for causing significant injuries.
In California, injuries at work are a complex subject. However, generally, an injured worker is mandated to file a claim under his or her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. Importantly, this insurance covers claims regardless of whether the employee was at fault for the spinal cord injury. This means that, even if the employee accidentally caused his or her own spinal cord injury at the workplace, he or she can still obtain financial recovery. The tradeoff of this system is that California law mandates that the employee be unable to sue his or her employer for these injuries. That means that, if workers’ compensation does not provide financial compensation for a needed expense—like pain and suffering caused by the spinal cord injury, or more robust loss of wages due a long-term disability—the employee will be unable to recover against his or her employer, except in rare circumstnaces.
For cases in which a spinal cord injury victim requires additional compensation as a result of a work accident, the victim may have a limited set of options. If another employee caused the accident the led to the spinal cord injury, the victim may be able to sue that employee directly for ordinary negligence. Essentially, the victim will be required to prove the elements of negligence, suggested previously, in the context of the workplace. Similarly, if unsafe conditions at the jobsite resulted in a spinal cord injury, the victim may be able to sue the owner of the building or jobsite (provided this owner is not the victim’s employer) for failing to maintain a safe jobsite. The victim may even be able to obtain compensation via a product liability action, such as if a tool the victim used malfunctioned and led to the spinal cord injury.
Other, less common, reasons for spinal cord injuries, such as slip and fall accidents, sporting injuries, or assaults and batteries, are each complicated areas of laws in their own rights, that require the expertise of an attorney to assist the victim in learning his or her rights and potential for full compensation.
Spinal cord injuries are catastrophic, debilitating injuries requiring immediate and extensive medical care. Depending on the unique facts of the injury, a victim may be able be able to easily—or only with great difficulty—obtain compensation for the injury. Only a skilled attorney familiar with the myriad of laws at play can help to determine the best course of legal action.
At the Thompson Law Offices, we understand that your ability to receive the medical care you need, your ability to support your family during your recovery and beyond, and even your peace of mind may depend on receiving the compensation you deserve. Our goal is always to recover the full value of your claim.
If you’re ready to start fighting for your rights, request a free consultation.