People often think a spine injury immediately means paralysis, but that is not the case. Only if the spinal cord is damaged will paralysis be the probable result. Even a broken back does not necessarily lead to paralysis, although fracturing the back is still very serious. Soft tissue spine injuries that do not include a fracture or spinal cord damage can cause considerable pain, but they are quite common.
If someone suffers a soft tissue injury of the spine, it can be difficult to prove the injury’s cause. This is because conditions like these – such as a herniated disc – often occur as a result of degeneration during the aging process. Unless an individual has had an MRI or CT scan shortly before the accident, there may be no way to show that the herniation was caused by the accident. X-rays only show the bones, not the soft tissue.
Nevertheless, attorneys obtain settlements for plaintiffs every day in personal injury cases that involve herniated discs, as well as spinal fractures and paralysis. The most common causes of spine injuries are automobile accidents, falls, and violent attacks (particularly gunshots). Sports-related spine injuries do not happen as frequently as many people think, but diving is the most dangerous sport for the spine.
Construction workers are more prone to spine injuries than the average person, and injuries to the spine caused by medical malpractice also result in numerous lawsuits every year. Construction employees file workers’ or workman’s compensation claims, but they may also file third party lawsuits against parties whose negligence caused the accident. Medical malpractice lawsuits are a specific type of case in which the injured person sues the physician believed to be responsible for the injury. Medical mistakes involving the spine usually occur during surgery.
Types of Spine Injuries
There are many different kinds of injuries of the spine, which is divided into four sections: (1) cervical – the neck region; (2) thoracic – the chest region; (3) lumbar – the area below the ribs; and (4) sacral – the lowest portion of the back. The higher the injury in the back, the more serious and painful it usually is. If the spinal cord is damaged in the neck, for example, the individual will probably suffer full paralysis.
Spinal cord injuries. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that runs along the spine. Those nerves send impulses back and forth between the body and the brain. When they are damaged, the ability to move and experience sensation is impaired. Spinal cord injuries are classified as complete or incomplete. Complete spinal cord injury refers to either quadriplegia, in which there is no sensation or function in the arms or the legs; or paraplegia, in which the legs are paralyzed while the arms remain mobile.
Incomplete spinal cord injuries may affect one arm, one leg, or one side of the body, leaving the other intact. These injuries are classified as Anterior Cord Syndrome, Central Cord Syndrome, or Brown-Sequard Syndrome, all of which can result in significant loss of movement and sensation. Brown-Sequard Syndrome occurs as a result of a puncture wound.
Spinal cord injuries also often bring with them respiratory problems, which may necessitate the use of a ventilator, as well as bladder and bowel control issues. These injuries can affect fertility, blood pressure, the ability to control body temperature, and even perspiration. They can cause spasticity, muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, gall stones, and kidney stones as well.
Fractures of the vertebrae. The vertebrae make up the back bone, and they serve as a protection for the spinal cord. As long as the bones themselves are broken without injuring the spinal cord, paralysis should be avoided. Broken vertebrae usually occur in the thoracic or lumbar spine. Treatment requires either surgery or wearing a back brace to stabilize the back until the bones heal.
Dislocated vertebrae. A dislocated vertebrae is exactly as it sounds, when one vertebrae locks over a vertebrae adjacent to it. A fracture and dislocation can also occur simultaneously, and the spinal cord can be damaged during a dislocation as well. This injury can be corrected through traction or surgery.
Disc injuries. The discs are the soft, cushiony material in between the vertebrae that allow the back to be flexible. When these discs become compressed, back pain and impairment of movement is the result. A car accident, for example, can cause one or more discs to move out of their proper place. This is often called a “slipped disc” and, while not serious, can be difficult to treat.
Spine Injury Lawsuits
Obviously, soft tissue back injuries will bring smaller settlements than spine injuries resulting in paralysis. If someone must live in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, there are many expenses besides the wheelchair, medical care, and ongoing rehabilitation. Those costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Such a person might also require a caretaker, special toilets, an alteration of the home to be wheelchair accessible, and equipment indoors for bathing, going upstairs, and getting in a car. Specialized van services may be required to transport the person to and from the doctor and other locations.
Lost wages are also often a part of the settlement. While a paralyzed person may be able to work, he or she might very well not be able to continue in the same profession as before the accident.
Experts called “Life Care Planners” are often called upon to calculate the amount of money a permanently injured person will need for day-to-day expenses and care. Vocational experts may also be required to determine what kind of work, if any, an individual with a spine injury can perform post-accident. For those in active professions such as construction work or sports, even soft tissue injuries may be enough to make it impossible for them to return to their previous jobs.
In order for a spine injury lawsuit to prevail for the injured party (the plaintiff), the alleged responsible parties (the defendants) must have owed the plaintiff a “duty of care.” This means that the defendants were obligated to act in a way that was safe. For example, the owner of a construction site owes a duty of care to anyone on that site, and a driver of a vehicle owes a duty of care to everyone who might be injured by that driver’s reckless behavior behind the wheel.
With that duty of care established, attorneys for the plaintiff can often obtain significant settlements in spine injury cases, especially when the injuries are permanent.