On the surface, spinal cord injury lawsuits seem straightforward. After all, anyone who suffers a serious spinal cord injury in a motor vehicle accident (or anywhere else) is going to leave the hospital with a clear diagnosis and a good lawyer.
But there are times (and I’ve seen a few firsthand) when things aren’t so cut and dry.
For example, a victim may have a lot of neck pain but doesn’t think it’s enough to visit the hospital until a few days later when the pain becomes debilitating. What then?
How can you tell a spinal cord injury from whiplash?
I’ve seen victims who were convinced they had whiplash, when they’d actually suffered a fracture and needed a fusion.
This happens and it’s a bit scary. I had one client who thought they had a WAD 2 (a second grade of whiplash but not super-serious) – and the doctors diagnosed them with a WAD 2 – only for them to discover weeks later they they’d suffered a spinal fracture (WAD 4). The reason it’s scary is because anything could have happened to them in that time to exacerbate the injury and cause paralysis.
I’ve heard it said that, if you’re at home surfing the net because you think you may have a spinal cord injury, you probably don’t. But that’s not entirely true:
At times hospitals will miss things – we’re all human. A spinal cord injury or fracture doesn’t always mean paralysis, so it’s not always obvious.
Furthermore, no doctor wants to do a surgery i.e. a neck fusion if it’s not 100% necessary so they can be conservative in their diagnosis.
Spinal cord injuries of the more subtle (but no less painful) variety, often unfold like this: The doctors initially clear you, but a few weeks later, the pain hasn’t improved. Perhaps you can’t move your neck and the stiffness is getting worse.
This is indicative of something more serious. I always tell my clients to listen to their bodies. Doctors miss things and unexpected complications can arise. If your neck pain does not improve after a week or two, it’s time to return to the hospital.
What does a spinal cord injury lawsuit look like?
From a legal perspective, spinal cord injury cases are often easier to resolve, particularly if they’re a result of a motor vehicle accident.
If the at fault driver’s insurance company sees a spinal fracture in the medical records, they’ll treat it differently and set a higher reserve (to learn more about how insurance companies decide on compensation, continue here LINK)
When someone suffers an obvious and serious injury, the insurance company is not going to debate the injury itself. But they will debate the value of the injury’s impact on the victim’s life.
This is counted under general damages. The lawsuit is therefore about proving the impact the injury has had, so that the insurance company can fairly compensate.
For example, take a welder who wears a heavy mask and suffers a spinal cord injury that requires a fusion operation. This injury could affect their ability to wear the mask thus impacting their livelihood.
Compare that to someone with the same injury who holds an office job. While the discomfort might be equal, they can still work at their profession unhindered, thus the value of the impact on their life is lower.
So you can see how one injury, when superimposed on people with different circumstances, can result in a higher or lower assessment of the value of the damages.
Always talk to your doctor! Your treatment plan comes first
Another complication of spinal cord injury cases is that treatment rarely begins right away, particularly if you’ve suffered a spinal cord fracture. It’s like when you break an ankle. Your ankle needs to heal before you start physio. It takes time.
The injury itself will evolve. In time, the doctors may find it’s less serious than initially thought, or more serious than initially diagnosed.
It’s very hard at the beginning of any personal injury lawsuit to know what kind of treatment you will require over the long term.
When clients come to see me with an injury, my first question is “have you seen you doctor?” Legal representation is important, but not as important as your health! If you’ve had an accident, first see your doctor, then see your lawyer.
Why are conversations with your doctor important?
Obviously because you need to understand your treatment plan, but also because these conversations drive what we will argue for with the insurance company.
Your doctor will advise us if you need surgery or physio. They will advise us on how long, how intense, and how debilitating your treatment may be. And we, in turn, can figure out how much money you will need to get through, particularly if you can’t work or need to retrain.
This amount is what we present to the insurance company. And we keep presenting it – tweaking it here or there as your situation evolves. Initially we present this number so the insurance company can set the right reserve, and then so they can make a fair settlement offer.
You won’t hear this from many personal injury lawyers, but I’ve worked on both sides of the table and the path to a fair settlement is providing the insurance company with enough information to empower them to provide YOU with the compensation you need.
Insurance companies are not the enemy – they exist to help you, and I exist to make sure that things are communicated in such a way that you get the help you need.
Can Your Lawyer Help with Healthcare Fees During the Lawsuit?
People can get spinal cord injuries through other ways like slip and falls. Unfortunately, many don’t have additional insurance to cover that kind of injury. (It’s not like a car accident where you have mandatory insurance.)
Under these circumstances, all the treatment costs that are not funded by OHIP have to be funded by you (think: physiotherapy, certain devices, even certain medications)
If you’re working with a lawyer, oftentimes the lawyer can help you access services that you can’t afford up front.
First, you want to make sure you work with a lawyer who has strong roots and relationships in your hometown. You also want to work with an experienced lawyer who can accurately estimate the value of the case.
If your lawyer is well-respected by local medical professionals like physiotherapists, he or she can sometimes work with treatment providers to “protect the account.”
This means that the lawyer will make sure your treatment provider gets paid out of the settlement i.e. you can get the care you need without paying upfront.
There’s a slight risk to the service provider if the case is lost at trial, but this is why it’s important your lawyer has trusted relationships with local treatment providers and a good track record.
If you recently hurt your neck in an accident and the pain hasn’t improved, drop me a line. Expect me to tell you to see your doctor (!), but you may also have a case, and we’ll discuss that too.