“Bad things happen to good people.” That’s the slogan. But, what if they happen twice? You suffer an injury, and while on the mend you have an accident. Or, you have a medical condition worsened by an accident. Now what?
Basic Law on Preexisting Conditions
A person with a medical condition that is exacerbated by another person’s negligence can hold the other person responsible for any aggravation caused by the accident. The negligent party, or defendant in a law suit, can be held responsible for any aggravation of a prior injury or condition that is caused by the accident.
In any law suit, the person who has been injured, the plaintiff, bears the burden of proof. They must prove that a defendant’s negligent conduct caused damages. So, the question for a court, or an insurance company in considering settlement, is: “Was the defendant’s negligence a cause of harm that would not have occurred without the accident?”
For example, take a middle aged person with degenerative disc disease, who may have had a backache here and there, but never enough to warrant going to a doctor. They are sitting waiting for a red light when someone babbling on the cell phone plows into the back of the car, destroying the car and sending the driver to the hospital. Fortunately nothing is broken. But, the driver is in severe pain and requires months of physical therapy or other treatment before they can be considered close to normal.
How Preexisting Injuries are Misused
Insurance claims adjusters will point to the hospital x-rays. “Nothing is broken. Look, the person had degenerative disc disease.” Insurance company attorneys blow these x-rays up and point them out to the jury: “Look, this person already had back problems.”
The injured person must prove that the defendant’s conduct caused the claimed damages. The issue is whether the defendant’s negligent conduct in slamming into the back of the car is a factual cause in bringing about the plaintiff’s injuries. The injured person might have had degenerative issues before, but never required treatment.
So all of the post-accident treatment, medical bills and even the potential likelihood for possible surgery in the future are a direct result of the accident and should be damages in this case. But, medical evidence must link the claimed injuries to the negligence by the correct legal standard of causation. Failing this, insurance company efforts to “muddy up” the issue by pointing out the previous condition might carry the day.
Key Legal Element of Causation
Proving “causation” is often overlooked by the uninitiated. Jury instructions and insurance company “independent” medical examinations can confuse. Here is one actual instruction: “Negligent conduct is a factual cause of harm when the harm would not have occurred absent the conduct. An act is a factual cause of an outcome if, in the absence of the act, the outcome would not have occurred.” The bottom line: preexisting conditions and injuries do not stop injured people from making a claim for the aggravation of the already existing condition. But, treacherous efforts to “muddy up” reality require proper medical evidence and the attention of an experienced attorney who has been down this road before.