Does a Previous Injury Hurt Your Car Wreck Claim?

dreamstime_s_81881804Insurance companies are notorious for denying and minimizing payments to people injured in car accidents, especially to those with pre-existing injuries. That is not fair. This is another reason you need a good injury lawyer fighting for your rights if you have been crashed into.

After all, hardly any Americans are in perfect health. So how can an insurance company refuse to pay fair compensation to someone who

  • has been in a previous wreck or hurt his body after falling down, lifting a heavy object, or playing sports — often many years ago?
  • has a previous injury that had totally healed?
  • has had surgery to a different part of his body, say his neck, and has now only injured his back?
  • has a medical condition that results in much worse damage than the defendant could have expected?

The defendant in court must pay for these damages. This important legal concept is referred to as the eggshell skull rule.

What is the rule?

Tort law has always held that the defendant takes the plaintiff as he finds him, including all hidden symptoms, fragile conditions, and unforeseeable medical problems. You should not be punished for being injured or weak before the crash, unless the damages you are claiming were not caused by it.

Imagine that a fictional plaintiff has a skull that is as thin as an eggshell. What if the injured person is elderly or frail? A fender-bender that might cause a mere bruise to a normal person’s head could potentially crack open the plaintiff’s extremely fragile skull. The defendant can’t possibly know this of course. However the defendant is liable for killing the plaintiff even though he could not have foreseen that the minor accident would be deadly.

The eggshell skull rule illustrates the most extreme example. But in real life, this doctrine applies to such medical conditions as previous herniated disks, osteoporosis, torn rotator cuffs, concussions, or use of blood-thinning medications to treat blood clots.

Is the defendant responsible for all unforeseen conditions? 

A crucial element in a personal injury claim is causation. You must show that the car crash caused your damages. For example, if you cut your hand peeling an orange while you were waiting for police to arrive at the crash scene, the defendant would not be liable for profuse bleeding caused by blood thinning medications.

In addition, the defendant is not responsible for dangerous medical conditions you created. For instance, the defendant would not be liable for excessive bleeding resulting from use of recreational drugs.

Your attorney can help you build a strong case for causation, which is especially important when the link is less clear as in a pre-existing condition claim.

Proving the crash exacerbated your injuries

The insurance company will inevitably try to pin the damages for a pre-existing injury on you. Even if it concedes your condition was exacerbated by the defendant’s actions, the insurer will attempt to underrate how much of the damage is actually linked to the crash.

What can you do to counter this common defense tactic?

First, don’t admit you have an underlying problem until you have talked to your attorney about strategy.  Your insurance company will use your comments to exaggerate how injured you were before the crash.

You must disclose all previous conditions and illnesses you had to your personal injury lawyer. He can order those past medical records and prove that you were injured in a different part of your body — say your L5 disc, not your L3 disc — or that your prior L5 disc injury was exacerbated by the new collision.  MRI tests and surgical records are especially helpful to show that the area injured was different or that your injury worsened.

Second, if you are asked by the insurance adjuster to sign a blank medical authorization before you have hired a lawyer, you should not do so until you consult with one. The company may end up getting one that has been modified to protect your legal rights but you can be sure that the documents they find or claim they find will be used against you in settlement negotiations or at trial. This is insurance defense 101.

The defendant is not responsible for all damages associated with your injury, just that portion attributed to his negligence. For example, if you broke your wrist weeks earlier, the defendant would not be liable for the original fracture. However, he would be required to pay damages for the renewed pain, set-backs in your rehabilitation, greater disability and surgeries necessitated by the re-injury. Yes, this can be a blurry line in some cases.

My law firm’s goal is to emphasize these new damages. We do this by obtaining medical records and diagnostic tests from prior to and after the accident. We consult with experts who compare the findings and analyze the crash’s effects on you.

If you need help after your Fort Worth car accident, please contact our office.

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