Can I Get Compensation for a Severe or Catastrophic Injury?

A catastrophic or severe injury has a big impact on an injury claimant's life, and on the value of his or her personal injury case.

A personal injury claim involving catastrophic injuries can present unique challenges, especially when it comes to proving the current and future impact on the plaintiff's life. And a catastrophic injury is certain to increase the plaintiff's compensable losses ("damages") and the value of the case. In this article, we'll look at the potential spectrum of catastrophic injuries, issues common to these kinds of cases, and examples of settlements and verdicts in claims involving catastrophic/severe injury.

What Is Considered a "Catastrophic" Injury?

There's no universal definition of "catastrophic injury" in the realm of personal injury law, but the following types of harm would likely be categorized as "catastrophic":

  • spinal cord injuries, especially those resulting in partial or total paralysis
  • severe spine injuries
  • traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and other severe head injuries
  • injuries that result in the loss of a limb
  • severe burn injuries
  • injuries that result in disfigurement and significant scarring, and
  • any injury that results in long-term or permanent disability that significantly disrupts the plaintiff's life, especially the ability to earn a living, and especially those requiring intensive medical treatment and/or long-term care.

"Severe" Harm In a Personal Injury Case Can Be Relative

In some sense, whether or not an injury qualifies as catastrophic or severe depends on who suffered the harm, and the impact of the injury on that person's life. For example:

  • If a single mother of three comes away from a car accident with a head injury that prevents her from working or caring for her kids at home, that kind of harm would likely be deemed catastrophic in terms of impact on her life.
  • If a professional skier suffers two broken legs in a skiing accident, and the strength and stability of his knees never return to pre-accident form, he would probably categorize his injuries as "catastrophic."

Extra Payout (and Extra Challenges) In Cases Involving Severe Injuries

Since the value of any personal injury case is typically based on the nature and seriousness of the claimant's injuries, it stands to reason that the more severe your injuries, the more you can expect to receive in the way of "damages". But the facts, arguments, and evidence needed to prove the full extent of the plaintiff's damages also tend to get much more complicated and elaborate.

That's because, after an accident that results in catastrophic injuries, the plaintiff may merely be at the beginning of a long initial recovery process, and could face a potential lifetime of necessary medical care. The attorneys for both sides must have a good understanding of the specific medical treatment that will be required now and in the future in order to value the plaintiff's case in a meaningful way and negotiate an injury settlement that will be acceptable to both sides. More likely than not, medical and economic experts will play a big role in laying out the necessary course of care, the anticipated costs of that care, the financial impact of the plaintiff's inability to earn a living, and other facets of economic damages.

On the non-economic side, the plaintiff's "pain and suffering," emotional distress, and other more subjective types of damages will need to be established, through the plaintiff's own testimony and that of medical experts including doctors and mental health care providers.

Catastrophic Injury Verdicts and Settlements

Here's a quick look at a few real-life personal injury cases (jury awards and out-of-court settlements) where catastrophic injuries played a part:

  • $50 million for plaintiff who suffered broken neck after defendant ran red light and collided with plaintiff's car.
  • $27 million verdict for construction worker who suffered severe brain injuries after falling from a scaffold.
  • $17 million for plaintiff who suffered severe brain injury due to lack of oxygen after physician failed to intubate him after airway closed down.
  • $11.3 million for two occupants of airplane (pilot and passenger) that was not properly maintained. Pilot suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body and could not return to her profession as pilot. Passenger, a doctor, suffered lung and respiratory injuries, multiple orthopedic injuries due to crushed legs, and burns over 40 percent of his body. He was able to return to work after years of therapy.
  • $10 million for ironworker who fell one-story off a pre-fabricated metal building due to excessive oil on the decking sheets on the roof. Plaintiff was rendered a partial quadriplegic by the fall.

Finding the Right Personal Injury Lawyer

If you've been involved in any kind of accident that resulted in catastrophic or severe injuries, the complexity of the evidence inherent to these kinds of cases—and what's at stake financially—make it crucial to have the right personal injury lawyer on your side.

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