Estimating the Value of a Back Injury Claim

Back injuries are common in car accidents and fall injuries, and can range from strains and sprains, to herniated disks, to serious spinal cord injuries - here's how to evaluate the settlement value of a claim.

A back injury claim allows you to get compensation from the person or business that is legally responsible for causing your injuries, or the underlying accident that led to your injuries. Since back injuries can range from strains and sprains to spinal cord injuries and paralysis, the settlement value of any given claim must be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, there are some general guidelines that apply when assessing the settlement value of a back injury claim, and this article offers some tips to keep in mind.

Value is Based on Compensable Damages

Typical compensation for a back injury claim includes both economic and non-economic damages (which are usually grouped together as a single award of “compensatory damages”).  Let’s take a closer look at both types of damages in a typical back injury case, as well as other forms of financial recovery that may be available.

Economic Compensatory Damages

Economic compensatory damages (sometimes called special damages) are actual financial losses due to money spent -- or money you are not able to earn -- because of your injury. Potential economic compensatory damages in a back injury claim include:

  • Past and Future medical bills: These will vary based on the severity of your injuries. For a herniated disc, a surgery costs about $6,000 on average (this according to a 2006 report in USA Today, so current costs are likely a little higher).  X-rays, which are often required even for minor strains and sprains, can cost from around $100 to more than $1,000, while physical therapy will likely cost at least $100 per session. In cases involving serious spine injuries and paralysis, the cost of future medical care (lifelong in some cases) can be millions of dollars.  
  • Lost income and wages: In a back injury claim, you’re entitled to compensation for any lost income and expected future reduction in your earning capacity. Lost wage damages are determined by an examination of your salary history and the amount of work you missed, including sick time or vacation time. Lost future income (or loss of earning capacity) is calculated under a complex formula that includes assessment of your projected earnings and the impact your back injuries will have on your ability to do any kind of work.

Non-Economic Compensatory Damages

Non-economic compensatory damages (sometimes called general damages) provide compensation for non-monetary losses associated with the effects of your back injuries -- losses that aren’t always easy to put a dollar value on. Non-economic compensatory damages typically include:

  • Pain and suffering: A pain multiplier is often used to assess pain and suffering damages. That means your economic compensatory damages (i.e. medical expenses and lost wages) will be multiplied by a set number (between 1.5 and 5, for example) although in cases of serious injury, the multiplier may be significantly higher (10, for example).
  • Emotional distress: When applicable, emotional distress damages may be assessed separately or compensated as part of pain and suffering, depending on state law.
  • Loss of consortium. When back injuries are so serious (as in cases of partial or total paralysis, for example) that the victim’s loved ones (spouses and children) are deprived of a normal loving relationship and companionship (including the loss of a marital sexual relationship in the case of a spouse), loss of consortium damages may be awarded. In some states, these damages are included as part of a back injury victim's compensatory damages award. Elsewhere, affected family members must sue separately for loss of consortium damages.

Punitive Damages

In rare circumstances, punitive damages may be awarded in a back injury case. But there must be proof that the defendant’s action or inaction in causing the accident amounted to more than just run-of-the-mill negligence, and even then, punitive damages are usually only awarded after the case has gone through a full civil trial and a jury has decide that punitive damages are appropriate. The defendant’s conduct must be considered so outrageous or egregious that payment of additional damages is justified -- not in order to compensate the back injury victim, but to punish the defendant’s behavior.

Other Factors That May Affect the Value of Your Back Injury Claim

While the severity of injuries is the major determining factor in the value of a back injury claim, two other considerations can also affect the amount of compensation received in a settlement or jury verdict. These include:  

  • Comparative/contributory negligence: In a small minority of "contributory negligence" states, you recover nothing at all if you were partially at fault for causing the incident that resulted in your injuries. In the majority of states, a different rule called “comparative negligence” applies, and you may be able to recover as long as the other party was at least 50 percent or 51 percent responsible (states have different rules on the required fault percentage). Your damages award will be reduced by the amount of responsibility that you bear (so if you’re deemed 20% at fault, you’ll only collect 80% of your total damages). See this page to find your state’s law.
  • Failure to Mitigate Damages: After an accident, you are required to take reasonable steps to mitigate your damages. For instance, let’s say you suffer a back sprain and your doctor prescribes a compression brace for you to wear for up to 12 hours a day. But you don’t wear the brace at all (in fact, the defendant can prove you never even picked it up from the pharmacy), and your injuries become worse. Since you could have taken reasonable steps to treat your injuries, but chose not to, the defendant will almost certainly be off the hook for at least a portion of your damages.

To help you understand how compensatory damages and the multiplier work to estimate an insurance settlement, check out AllLaw’s Settlement Calculator.

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