Back injuries are common in personal injury cases stemming from car accidents and slip-and-fall incidents. But since back injuries can range from strains and sprains to spinal cord injuries and paralysis, the settlement value of any given claim can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
Typical compensation for a back injury claim includes the injured person's economic and non-economic losses (called "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 damages (sometimes called "special" damages) are the quantifiable actual out-of-pocket or financial losses arising from the injury. Potential economic damages in a back injury claim include:
Past and future medical bills: These will vary based on the severity of your injuries. The range of medical treatment related to a back injury includes surgery to repair a herniated disc, MRIs and other imaging/diagnostic exams, physical therapy, and, in cases involving long-term injuries or paralysis, the cost of future medical care (lifelong in some cases).
Lost income and diminished earning capacity: In a back injury claim, you're entitled to compensation for any lost income and any expected reduction in your ability to earn income in the future. Lost income damages are typically determined by an examination of your pay stubs, W-2s, invoices, and other financial records against the amount of work you missed, including sick time or vacation time you had to use.
Proof of lost future income (sometimes called "loss of earning capacity") often requires an expert who can present an assessment of your projected earnings and the impact your back injuries will have on your ability to do any kind of work.
Non-economic damages (sometimes called "general damages") cover non-monetary losses associated with the effects of your back injuries—losses that aren't always easy to capture with a dollar figure. These include:
Pain and suffering: A pain multiplier is often used to assess pain and suffering damages in a back injury case. That means your economic 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 (perhaps even 10).
Emotional distress: When applicable, emotional distress damages may be assessed separately, or compensated as part of pain and suffering.
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.
For more on how damages and the multiplier work in the context of a personal injury insurance settlement, check out AllLaw's Settlement Calculator.
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.
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 via settlement or jury verdict.
Comparative/Contributory Negligence. In the small handful of "contributory negligence" states, you recover nothing at all if you shared any measure of fault for the accident that resulted in your back injury.
In the majority of states, a different rule called "comparative negligence" applies, and you may be able to recover compensation 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 usually 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).
Learn more about how shared fault for an accident affects an injury claim.
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.
If you're thinking about making a back injury claim after an accident, your best first step might be discussing your options with an attorney. Get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer.