What You Should Know about Spinal Cord and Personal Injury Settlements
A spinal cord injury (SCI) is a devastating loss even in the best circumstances. Often, the best you can hope for is re-learning to move, walk, and breathe on your own. But in many cases, survival rates are low. Afterwards, there can be ongoing challenges including respiratory infections and poor muscle tone. A spinal cord injury means life must change.
However, coping with an SCI can be difficult and expensive. Treatment costs for spinal injuries can vary, but enormous medical bills for SCIs totaling hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars over the course of several years aren’t uncommon. When these bills hit, how can you pay them?
If the injury happens on the job, how much money will Workers’ Compensation pay out for a lower back injury? What if it was medical malpractice, an accident, or an act of violence?
In the case of some SCIs, the best option is to file a lawsuit or spinal injury claim against the persons or organizations responsible for the injury to recoup your losses. However, what should you know about back injury settlement awards and how to get them? What’s the average settlement for spinal cord injuries? In this blog, we’ll discuss the causes of SCIs, back injury compensation, and how to find a spinal injury attorney to help you calculate your SCI value and file your claim.
Causes of a Spinal Cord Injury
When a spinal cord is damaged, the bundle of nerves in the backbone that carry the messages to the brain has now been impaired. Because of this, the person that has suffered from this injury may now have partial or full loss of motor control and sensation. The most common causes of spinal cord injury, according to the National Cord Injury Statistical Center, are: motor vehicle accidents, falls, acts of violence, and recreational sports activities.
Injuries can also occur during risky surgical procedures. If that is the case, the medical facility would be responsible for their error. In all cases, your attorney can help you determine exactly who it is that is liable for your condition. Someone has made an incredible error and you should not have to suffer any of the additional consequences than can be managed. The people at fault have a responsibility to you and the situation they have put you in.
For example, what if you were undergoing surgery and the doctor’s gross negligence lead to a severe SCI? Seeking a spinal fusion lawsuit settlement to cover the costs caused by the injury (and remuneration for the pain and suffering caused) is only reasonable.
If someone else is responsible for the accident that caused your spinal cord injury (whether through negligence or malicious intent), then you may be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit.
What to Do after a Spinal Cord Injury?
If you’re facing a life of living with a spinal cord injury, or someone you love is, we understand that this time can be full of uncertainty: What is life now going to be like now for you or your loved one? How are you going to be able to stay focused on your recovery when there is a growing mountain of bills at home? And, what are you going to be able to do for income once you or your loved one is out of the hospital and can’t work?
These are just some of the questions that just about every spinal cord injury survivor and their family faces. With mounting debts, medical bills, and other financial concerns—and the uncertainty of knowing if you or your SCI survivor will ever be able to work again—many in this situation may decide to seek out counsel from a spinal cord injury lawyer about pursuing a spinal cord injury lawsuit. Spinal cord injury victims also face a variety of other legal issues, including discrimination, due to their injuries and may choose to speak with an attorney about their rights.
But, how do you know what lawyer to approach?
Finding the Right Spinal Cord Injury Lawyer
We can’t emphasize the importance of this point enough:Just because someone has a law degree doesn’t mean that they are qualified to handle a spinal cord injury lawsuit.You may have a friend or family member who is a lawyer and who offers their services to help you: Unless they specialize in lawsuits pertaining specifically to spinal cord injuries, they are not qualified to help you. Unfortunately, they may end up harming your chances of receiving justice or compensation for your injuries.
No matter whether you want to pursue a quadriplegia lawsuit, paraplegia lawsuit, or any other spinal cord injury claims, it is imperative to work with a qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable spinal cord injury attorney. An experienced SCI lawyer will help ensure that all of your bases are covered, all avenues of recovery are explored, and that your legal counselor knows the ins and outs of the legal system when it comes to spinal cord injury law.
In addition to providing you with the best legal advice, a spinal cord injury law firm also can help you calculate your spinal cord injury settlement value based on your economic and non-economic damages (loss of function, inconvenience, emotional loss, loss of relationships, psychological or mental issues).
Types of Spinal Injury Compensation Paybacks
Spinal cord injury settlements typically fall into two categories of compensable damages: economic or non-economic.
Economic damages refer to money that you either have spent or will no longer be able to earn as a result of your injury. This compensation is based on the severity of your injury—for example, whether you have a complete spinal cord injury of the cervical spine or an incomplete lumbar spinal cord injury.
Economic damages can include:
- Medical expenses: Due to the severity of spinal cord injuries, the most obvious target for damages will be medical expenses, as the potential funds won in court will help pay for some of these costs. Medical expenses may include anything from hospital and doctor’s bills, prescriptions, therapist sessions, rehabilitation, ambulance costs and any necessary assistive devices. Damages obtained for the costs associated with medical expenses are not limited to the costs already paid. Rather, damages for medical care often will include future costs associated with the injury. This is especially true in cases of spinal cord injuries since rehabilitation and recovery from such injuries are fairly certain future medical expenditures.
- Lost wages: Just like damages for medical expenses cover past and future expenses likely to be incurred, damages can also come from lost wages and future loss of those wages. Damages can also cover income you’ve been forced to forego because of your limited mobility from your injury, as well as the ensuing hospitalization and recovery. Chances are that your ordeal has led to missing more than a little of work. So a lawsuit designed to compensate you for the various ways in which you’ve suffered at the hands of your injury wouldn’t be complete without addressing the wages you’ve lost both prior to taking legal action and any you’ll be forced to miss in the future, as you work to return to some sense of normalcy following your injury.
- In-home assistance and renovations: Even when you are able to return home, there’s a very real chance that your lifestyle will undergo some drastic changes following your injury. Spinal cord injury cases can often help compensate you for any assistance you may require at home. This could extend from simple tasks like cleaning, cooking and landscape work, to even transportation services and child care. If deemed necessary, damages could also cover the installation of a wheelchair ramp, widened doorways or any other necessary modifications required to make your home a hospitable environment for your new lifestyle. Granted, every case is different, and the damages you receive to compensate your specific injury will depend on the details of your case and the damages your legal team deems appropriate.
Non-economic damages pertain to non-financial losses or “general damages,” covering a wide range of losses that are difficult to define by a dollar amount. This can include such damages:
- Pain and suffering: Few physical and mental ordeals take as much of a toll on a patient as spinal cord injuries. While no amount of money can truly make up for the suffering that accompanies an injury of this scope, this form of damages attempts to compensate one for their pain and emotional distress -- such as anxiety, depression and humiliation -- that result from the physical damage and the accompanying mental anguish associated with spinal cord injuries. However, some tort reform laws may limit the extent to which you may pursue pain and suffering damages. So consult your attorney for details.
- Loss of consortium: When a life-altering ordeal like a spinal cord injury comes your way, your loved ones are unavoidably affected by it. In fact, your relationships and even your marriage can often suffer during the trying times you’ve endured at the hands of your injury. Loss of consortium damages are designed to compensate them for how they’ve been affected, though the reach of your claims in this regard will again greatly depend on your specific case. It does, however, play an essential role in situations wherein an injury resulted in the death of a loved one, as its scope applies more fully in this case.
- Punitive Damages: This type of damages intends to punish a defendant for its acknowledged behavior and/or actions that caused tangible harm, and while it may or may not apply to your specific case, you and your legal team should at least consider the role that punitive damages may play with regard to your injury.
Factors of a Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuit
A spinal cord injury deals a devastating blow to survivors, even in the best circumstances. As a survivor, you still have to deal with all of the ongoing health challenges, including respiratory difficulties, increased risk of illness, and loss of various motor and sensory functions, as well as the emotional and financial challenges that go along with them.
SCI survivors with high tetraplegia can expect to spend more than $1.06 million in the first year after an injury, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. And for every subsequent year, they can expect to spend an average of $184,891 — not chump change. So how can you figure out what you stand to gain through spinal injury compensation claims?
The spinal cord injury settlement value in many SCI lawsuits is based on a number of factors. A few guidelines for what will be taken into account when calculating your back injury compensation payouts include the following factors:
Severity of Injuries
The severity of your injuries plays a significant role in the value of your settlement. Plaintiffs who suffer serious or life-threatening injuries are far more likely to get large settlements, especially when compared to people who retain all movement or who make spontaneous recoveries. With more severe injuries, your eligibility for pain and suffering-related damages typically climbs higher.
When you sue for a spinal cord injury, you're not just suing for your pain and suffering, or your medical bills. You can also sue for lost earning potential and the loss of your ability to provide for your family. More severe injuries more significantly inhibit your earning power, increasing the potential value of a settlement.
The primary benefit—to both you and the other party—of settling your case is that settling helps you avoid the uncertainties and costs of going to trial. For this reason, the other party will have a stronger incentive to settle the case if your evidence is strong.
Say you're suing a recreational facility for a million dollars. That facility is unlikely to shell out such a huge sum if you can't even prove that the facility was the proximate cause of your injuries. Conversely, if you have an avalanche of undisputed evidence, the other party might be afraid of being harshly penalized by the jury, thereby giving them a strong incentive to settle—even for a large sum.
One of the primary purposes of a lawsuit is to recover your out-of-pocket expenses, while funding those that have not yet occurred. For this reason, the current value of your medical expenses, as well as the future medical costs you are likely to incur, are key in the settlement negotiation process.
In many spinal cord injury cases, medical bills constitute the bulk of a settlement or jury award, so high medical bills, as well as severe injuries that make costly future bills likely, both increase your case's value.
Like it or not, the person the patient is now and was before the injury matters in court. When determining whether to settle, the other party will assess how sympathetic the jury is likely to feel toward the injured patient, how believable the testimony is, and how tragic the injuries will seem to outsiders.
The defendant's lawyer will be interested in crafting a narrative that emphasizes the loss to the injured patient, society, and their family resulting from the injury. The more compelling that narrative is, and the more damage of any sort the patient has encountered, the more likely they will be to get a large award at trial. That translates into a significantly higher likelihood of a large settlement offer from the other party.
Age and Health
Younger plaintiffs can typically expect to get higher settlements, since they have more years of life ahead of them and therefore more medical bills. A longer life span also means that the injury has been a greater loss. After all, is depriving you of 5 years or 40 years of physical activity more damaging?
Likewise, juries may look at overall health when deciding a case. A young person who was in excellent health may have lost more than an older person whose health was already deteriorating. Defense lawyers are keenly aware of this fact. For this reason, they sometimes offer young, healthy plaintiffs higher settlements.
One of the primary benefits to defendants of settling cases is that it protects their reputation. They can seek a sealed settlement, and avoid a long and ugly courtroom battle that gets them nothing but bad press. For this reason, the more damaging your case might be to the other side's reputation, the more compelled the defendant will be to settle.
A doctor whose negligence caused paralysis, for example, generally has a much stronger incentive to settle if there is evidence that he or she made the same mistake before.
Many plaintiffs are surprised to learn that facts, evidence, and eyewitness testimony don't come into play until relatively late in the SCI lawsuit process. Early on, your lawyer and the other side will fight about jurisdictional issues, legal precedent, and your eligibility for certain types of damages.
If there are legal issues in contention—such as whether your case was filed within the statute of limitations, or the possibility that the defendant is entitled to some form of immunity—you might not get a settlement offer until the lawyers in the case have submitted a number of motions. This process can take anywhere from a few months to several years, and its length is partially dependent on the complexity of your case and the amount of evidence involved.
When the law is clearly on your side, as well as when the judge has repeatedly ruled in your favor on issues that were in contention, the other party is more likely to award a high settlement value in a spinal cord injury case.
Cause of Injury
A major component of any spinal cord injury case is the cause of the injury—and especially if that cause involved the malice or negligence of another. Typically, a lawsuit seeking spinal cord injury damages belongs to one of two basic categories:
- Negligence: The most common basis for personal injury claims are negligence. Negligence occurs in situations where a person owes a duty to act in a reasonable way but fails to do so, and an injury results from that failure to act accordingly. To prove successful in such a case, you must be able to show a demonstrable obligation and a correlation between the negligent action (or inaction) and the injuries. If a person or business is consistently negligent, then they may be facing a class action lawsuit—for example, a back surgeon with a lot of botched surgeries may be part of a class action lawsuit for spinal fusion malpractice.
- Faulty (or defective) products: Products liability is a major tenet of consumer law and applies in an injury case where a design or manufacturing flaw in a product leads to a harm of some kind. Moreover, the defect could be tied to inadequate instructions or warnings for the product in question, rendering adequate use far more difficult or harmful than anticipated. As with negligence, in order to have a valid claim against the manufacturer and/or the seller of a product, you must be able to establish an undisputed connection between the defect and the injury itself.
Active malice is a rarer cause, as only a small portion of SCIs are caused by violence and other actions with clear malicious intent compared to accidents.
Being able to establish that the cause of the injury lies with the negligence of another, a company’s faulty products, or someone’s malicious actions can play a major role in the ability to get a favorable settlement.
What Is the Process for a Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuit?
Spinal cord injury victims also face a variety of other legal issues, including discrimination, due to their injuries and may choose to speak with an attorney about their rights.
But, how do you know what lawyer to approach? What are the general steps involved in a spinal cord injury lawsuit? And, in such cases, what is the value of agreeing to a settlement versus going to trial?
General Steps in a Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuit
It is critical to keep in mind that every spinal cord injury lawsuit is different and the circumstances surrounding each case will be unique. Your injury, the facts surrounding the case, how the case is handled, and a variety of other factors will differ on a case-by-case basis. However, there are a few basic steps that often remain the same:
- Contact and Meet with a Spinal Cord Injury Lawyer. This first step in a spinal cord injury lawsuit is vital to your ability to seek out maximum recovery for your injuries. This first meeting with your spinal cord injury lawyer will focus on discussing the grounds for your potential case (determining whether negligence was involved). This will involve a detailed conversation and questions about you or your loved one, your/their injury, the circumstances, and how your/their life has been impacted by the injury.
- Review the Contract with Your Spinal Cord Injury Lawyer. Attorneys will review what your legal representation contract looks like. It is standard for SCI lawyers to use a contingency fee agreement, meaning that the lawyer doesn’t get paid unless there is recovery through either a trial or a settlement. This will be an opportunity to discuss the possibility of having your spinal cord injury attorney recover their fees from the adverse (negligent) party rather than from your awarded spinal cord injury settlement or trial payment.
- Your SCI Lawyer Will Begin Research. Once you have signed a contract with your attorney, the investigation period of your spinal cord injury lawsuit begins. During this investigation, your lawyer will try to gather as much evidence as possible concerning your case. They also will identify all potential avenues of recovery, including individuals, corporations, and insurance policies that are available. This could also include your own insurance policy should you have an uninsured motorist (UM) policy. In the case of a car accident in which another person caused you or a loved one injuries due to negligence, for example, your attorney would look at:
- The insurance policies of both the driver and the owner of the vehicle (if they are not the same person or if it is a company),
- The company they work for if they were driving as part of their job, and
- Other factors and parties who may be potentially liable for your injuries.
An Example of a Successful Spinal Cord Injury Lawsuit
Swope, Rodante P.A., a spinal cord injury law firm based in Tampa, Florida that serves clients throughout the United States. The firm, in just the past decade, has recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for clients with catastrophic injuries and who face bad faith claims.
An example of a recent successful spinal cord injury lawsuit is of a U.S. Army veteran who became a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic after his minivan was T-boned by a dump truck. He received a $12.5 million settlement for his injuries, positively impacting his and his family’s financial stability. This was a case in which the insurance company’s highest prior offer was limited to what it claimed was a $300,000 policy limit*.
Remember: A spinal cord injury lawsuit is typically calculated in years, not months. Some cases can be resolved quickly when all of the parties involved can come to an equitable agreement. However, some cases could take longer because of negotiations or insurance companies acting in bad faith. Having a caring, compassionate, knowledgeable, and experienced spinal cord injury lawyer can make the difference between getting the justice and compensation settlement you deserve and just settling.
*Note: This example is only used to highlight the difference having an experienced spinal cord injury lawyer on your side could potentially make. It should not be interpreted as a guarantee of increased remuneration for injuries, nor as a promise of how much your own spinal injury case may be worth. There are many variables that may influence whether or not a case is successful, and what the settlement/judgment amount will be.
Pain and Suffering for Personal Injury Lawsuits
When you’re seeking traumatic injury compensation in court, one of the hardest things to do is try to calculate the pain and suffering your injury has caused. How can anyone put a dollar value on human suffering? The truth is that there’s no hard rule or personal injury calculator for measuring the value of pain and suffering.
However, pain and suffering remains an important part of personal injury cases, and needs to be considered when seeking compensation for a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or spinal cord injury.
What Does Pain and Suffering Mean in Court?
Before you calculate pain and suffering for your traumatic injury compensation, it’s important to know what the phrase means in court. Pain and suffering is a kind of umbrella term for a range of physical and psychological effects that occur as a result of an injury. It could include:
- Actual pain from injuries.
- Development of phobias and other mental disorders.
- Loss of function.
- Grief/emotional distress.
Any of the above (and more) could be considered part of a pain and suffering claim in court. Because pain and suffering is so broadly defined, it can be difficult to fully account for in court. Another complicating factor is that the pain and suffering you experience is subjective—nobody can take a look at you and know all of the hurt and loss you’ve experienced and express it as a set number on a scale. Back injury settlements calculated at one value in one case can be very different in another case because of this fact.
If There’s No Standard, Then How is Pain and Suffering Calculated?
Different lawyers and insurance companies might try to calculate pain and suffering in different ways.
One common method for establishing pain and suffering damages is to take the direct losses that have been incurred—such as medical bills and lost earnings—and apply some multiple of those losses. The multiplier can be any number, but is usually less than 4 times the value of your damages.
The issue with this method of calculating pain and suffering is that it is, at best, a rough estimate. Also, this may not apply in all cases—some pain and suffering might make more sense to a jury in one case than another.
Another means of calculating pain and suffering is to use the “per diem” model. In this model, a specific dollar amount is set to be the value of the suffering of each and every day from the date the injury occurred to the time that “maximum recovery” is reached. So, if the assigned amount is $75, and it takes 300 days to recover, the pain and suffering damages would be calculated as being $22,500.
There are some issues with this—especially in cases involving permanent damage to the spinal cord or brain.
First, if you’ve suffered SCI or brain trauma, there’s a very real chance you won't fully recover. So, it can take a long time to establish if you’ve truly reached “maximum recovery” after your gains from therapy have topped out.
Second, most spinal cord and brain injury survivors can’t afford to wait to reach maximum recovery before filing a personal injury claim. There’s a limit to how long you can wait to file a claim—if you miss this deadline, you can’t file at all. So, you may end up either rushing to establish a potential recovery date that could be inaccurate, or waiting so long you lose the chance to collect compensation.
How Can You Prove Pain and Suffering in Court?
Another tricky aspect of pain and suffering claims is that they are often difficult to prove in court. As we said earlier, pain is subjective—and nobody can really know how much suffering you’ve been through just by looking at you.
Medical bills and records can help prove the extent of your injuries, but may not necessarily convey how much those injuries have put you through. But, at least they’re a start.
Other evidence you might want to collect includes:
- Any and all psychiatric evaluations you’ve undergone; and
- Testimony from friends and family about changes in your life post-injury.
Anything that can be used to demonstrate what your injuries have cost you emotionally and physically could be valuable for a claim of pain and suffering. In most cases, having more evidence of something is better than less.
However, even with plentiful evidence, it is easy for others to undervalue your suffering from a traumatic brain or spinal cord injury. This is why it’s so important to have the support of an attorney who has experience in handling SCI and TBI cases.
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