Catastrophic injuries are by their very nature devastating to the individual harmed and his or her family and loved ones. These types of injuries change lives in profound and permanent physical, financial and emotional ways. These types of cases are also some of the most complex because the seriousness of the injuries often require a number of specialized experts. Experts who not only can explain why the injury should not have occurred but also the medical, emotional and financial effects on the injured victim and the family. You want to make sure that your attorney and his or her firm have the experience and resources to take on the challenge of this type of case.
Here we delve deeper into catastrophic injuries and discuss several topics related to them, including:
- What is considered a catastrophic injury?
- How do catastrophic injuries occur?
- What is the effect of a catastrophic injury?
- What does the trial attorney have to prove to hold someone accountable for your catastrophic injury?
- Questions to ask the attorney you are considering hiring to help you with your catastrophic injury case.
What is considered a Catastrophic injury?
While there are many different types of catastrophic injuries, they have one thing in common. A catastrophic injury leaves a person’s life changed forever. It is an injury that permanently changes the course and quality of someone’s life in a negative way.
Examples of catastrophic injuries include:
- Brain injuries
- Spinal cord injuries
- Multiple skeletal injuries
- Severe burns
- Fatal injuries
Amputations occur when a limb or other body part, such as a hand, leg or arm, is removed completely or partially. As relates to catastrophic injury cases, the amputation may occur because of the traumatic event itself or as a medical consequence of the traumatic event.
Typically, amputations done in a medical setting are because the limb or other body part, injured in a traumatic event, cannot be saved. Although not as common, amputations done in medical settings, however, have been known to occur because of medical malpractice.
Amputations typically require a hospital stay of at least a week, sometimes more, and then usually require a significant amount of physical and occupational therapy to deal with the loss of the limb or other body part.
The physical and occupational therapy often involves relearning what previously had been everyday tasks that most of us take for granted. The therapy may also involve learning to use a prosthetic device meant to help regain some of the abilities lost due to the amputation.
Brain injuries occur when an outside force causes injury to the brain inside your skull. The injury can be caused by blunt trauma to the outside of the head or by something penetrating the skull and entering the brain. The effect of brain injuries is incredibly varied. A brain injury may leave someone in a coma or other state so impaired that the victim cannot survive without constant medical intervention. Common injuries include the loss of speech, memory and reasoning abilities, loss of motor skills, as well as social and emotional problems.
Spinal cord injuries
A spinal cord injury is any injury to the spinal cord or the nerves found at the end of the spinal column.
A spinal cord injury often results in a loss, either partial or complete, of sensation, strength or function, below where the injury occurred . The reason is that the trauma at the site of the injury severs or at least impairs the connection between the brain and affected areas below the injury. It affects the brain’s ability to the control the function, for example, of certain muscles below the injured area depending on exactly where on the spinal cord the injury occurred. When someone suffers from an incomplete spinal cord injury, they retain at least some feeling and muscle control. An incomplete spinal cord injury is, however, still a profound and life-changing injury. A complete spinal cord injury, as the name implies, results in a complete loss of feeling and muscle control to the affected area.
Paralysis is one of the possible consequences of a spinal cord injury. There are a number of types as well as degrees of paralysis including:
- Partial – Where as noted above, there is some remaining muscle control
- Complete – Where, again as noted above, there is no muscle control remaining
- Permanent – No amount of time, treatment or therapy will help the injured victim regain functionality
- Temporary – Some or all of muscle control is regained.
- Flaccid – The affected muscles lose definition and size
- Spastic – The affected muscles become tight or hard and spasm
Paralysis can affect a localized area, such as the face or vocal cords or be “generalized”. There are various types of generalized paralysis:
- Monoplegia which affects one limb only. For example, a single leg or arm.
- Hemiplegia which affects a single side of the body. For example, both an arm and a leg on one side of the body.
- Diplegia which affects the same area on both sides of the body. For example, both legs or both arms.
- Paraplegia which affects both legs and sometimes parts of the torso.
- Quadriplegia which affects both arms and both legs as well as sometimes the torso from the neck area down.
Multiple Skeletal Injuries
Skeletal injuries are usually cause by blunt force trauma. Blunt force trauma is caused by a non-penetrating impact that causes damages to internal organs and bones. This is often the result of the body being struck, crushed, or smashing into something, like in the case of a serious auto crash.
When force is applied to bones, that exceeds the amount of force they can tolerate, the bones break. Bone breaks are called fractures, and when the bone breaks and comes out of the body, it is called a compound fracture. Multiple skeletal injuries are usually very painful and require significant medical treatment and recovery time. Recovery from multiple skeletal injuries can sometimes take from several months to over to a year to complete. Recovery may also not be complete, meaning for example, that the breaks result in permanent disfigurement or loss of function.
According to the American Burn Association, there were an estimated 486,000 burn patients in the United States in 2016., with approximately 40,000 of them requiring hospitalization. Burns severe enough to require hospitalization are considered a catastrophic personal injury. The treatment of severe burns is so specialized that burn victims are often sent to one of the 128 burn centers in the United States.
There are three different types of burns based upon severity:
- First-degree burns are often superficial, have redness, and are sometimes painful.
- Second-degree burns are slightly more severe, with red, swollen and blistered skin, and are usually very painful.
- Third degree burns are often whitish, charred, or even translucent, and there is a lack of sensation in the affected area.
Severity of burns
Burns are categorized based on severity. The American Burn Association classifies burns as 1) major, 2) moderate or 3) minor.
The categories of the burn is based on several factors such as:
- Total body surface area affected
- Location of the burn (specific anatomical zones)
- Age of the victim, and
- Associated injuries
Here is tool to use to help figure out how the American Burn Association identifies burn severity:
The wrongful death of a loved one is devastating on a family. The emotional devastation of losing that person is always present. Often there are financial consequences for the family as well, for example if the loved one was the primary bread winner and there are children left without a father or mother. Click here to learn more about Wrongful Death lawsuits.
How do catastrophic injuries occur?
There is no limit on the ways that a person can suffer a catastrophic injury. That said, there are certain situations that are often the cause of these types of injuries:
- Truck and tractor trailer crashes
- Medical malpractice
- Motorcycle crashes
- Unsafe workplaces especially in dangerous professions like construction and manufacturing
- Motor vehicle crashes
- Head trauma
- Dangerous drugs
- Defective products
What is the effect of a catastrophic injury?
Catastrophic injuries effect people physically, emotionally and financially. The particular effect, of even the same injury, on two different people varies. That is why it is essential that your trial attorney and his or her firm understand how to document and explain how the injury affected you and your loved ones. Again, the complexity of trying to put into words and numbers how your life has changed takes particular experience and resources.
Take for example the loss of arm in a motor vehicle crash caused by a distracted or drunk driver. This horrific injury will affect every part of the injured victim’s life. They may no longer be able to do the job they were trained to do. Daily tasks taken for granted, like getting dressed or eating a meal, have to be relearned. The parts of one’s life that may have previously brought joy, like playing catch with a son or daughter, may have to be relearned or worse may be lost forever. Also, the financial burden of adjusting to this new, unwanted, life is often enormous – medical expenses, lost wages etc.
What does the trial attorney have to prove to hold someone accountable for your catastrophic injury?
This area of law is called “tort law.” The primary purpose of tort law is to:
- Provide financial relief to injured victims for harms caused by others,
- to hold those responsible accountable for the harm they caused, and
- to deter others from injuring others in the same way.
In catastrophic injury and other negligence cases, there are certain facts that an attorney must prove to win a case. These facts are:
- Duty. The other party owed you a duty of reasonable care;
- Breach. The other party breached that duty;
- Causation. The breach caused the injury; and
- Damages. You suffered damages because of the injury.
There are several parts to each of these elements, but here is a basic introduction to each one:
Duty is a legal obligation that people and corporations have to each other either to do certain things (or avoid doing certain things) with a reasonable amount of care to prevent foreseeable harm to others.
Breach occurs when a person or corporation that has a duty to someone, fails to live up to their duty. Duty and breach are always connected and are the first two elements that must be shown. Here is an example of how they work together: Everyone who drives a vehicle must operate the vehicle safely and within the law (duty). If a driver is distracted because they are texting and driving and they run a stop sign and hit a child walking their bike across the crosswalk (breach) and breaks her leg, they have breached their duty and did not prevent a foreseeable harm to that child.
In proving causation, the attorney must show that the injury that resulted from the breach of duty was caused by the act. This is known as the “cause in fact.” To demonstrate cause in fact, we can use the texting driver in the example above: You could say that if the person did not hit the child walking the bike, the child would not have been injured. Once cause in fact is proven, the attorney must also prove something called proximate cause. In proving proximate cause, the attorney has to show that the breach was injury that was caused by the accident was foreseeable by the person who caused it. In the United States, people cannot be held accountable for things that happen that were not foreseeable to them.
After proving duty, breach, and causation, the attorney must still prove that there were damages suffered. There are two types of damages: Compensatory and Punitive. Certain states put limits on the types and amounts of damages that may be awarded.
Compensatory damages are meant to try to make a party whole again for the injuries they have suffered. It puts a monetary value on things like lost wages and earning potential, medical bills and future medical expenses, property damage as well as pain and suffering.
Punitive damages serve a different purpose; they are intended to deter similar conduct from happening again. For example, punitive damages may be awarded against a manufacturer of a defective car in order to incent the manufacturer to improve the safety of its cars going forward.
Questions to ask the attorney you are considering hiring to help you with your catastrophic injury case
It is especially important given the complexity and resources required to handle a catastrophic injury case that you carefully consider the attorney and firm you are considering hiring. Here are some of the things to look for when considering an attorney or law firm:
- Focus on personal injury law generally
- Experience in catastrophic injury cases in particular
- Years of experience in general
- Trial experience in particular
- Evidence of their abilities in and commitment to this area of law including whether or not they continued their training or even teach other lawyers how to do this type of work
- How clearly do they communicate to you? (if they cant explain things to you, how could they ever explain anything to a jury?)
- Are they willing and able to go to trial, if need be? (even if you don’t want to go to trial, having a trial attorney is a good idea – here’s why)
- Are they large and experienced enough to withstand the coming pressure from huge corporations or insurance companies who fight to minimize you claim? (these companies try to bury smaller, inexperienced law firms all the time and hope they can make the process take so long and make the claim so difficult, that there is no choice but to settle for much lesser than what is right!)
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