If you’re hurt in a car accident that wasn’t your fault, it’s standard procedure to seek compensation for any property damage and, possibly, medical bills. If you had an injury or medical condition before the accident, the claim gets a bit more complicated. Many people think it’s impossible to collect damages if you have a pre-existing condition or injury…but in most cases, that’s not true. If the crash made your injuries worse and contributed to the treatment you need, you can still be compensated.
Aggravated or Exacerbated Previous Injuries
An at-fault driver is still responsible for the medical expenses of the person they harmed, even if that person already had an injury. What matters is if the crash caused further harm by aggravating or exacerbating the problem—in other words, making it worse.
Let’s say a person has a recent flare-up of knee pain. One of the four ligaments in the knee has a minor tear. They’re taking over-the-counter pain medications and visiting a physical therapist twice a week. The doctor thinks that after a few months of therapy, the patient’s knee will feel fine.
Then, they’re involved in a car accident. Now, the pain is much worse. The doctor is prescribing stronger pain killers and recommending surgery on what is now a severely torn ligament.
The victim, in this case, is entitled to compensation to take care of the aggravated knee injury, even though there was a pre-existing condition here. This could include the cost of stronger, more expensive pain medication, and the cost of additional doctor bills, surgery, and associated rehabilitation.
Victims can’t make a claim for their original injury or condition. However, damages can be collected for any additional treatment that is necessary after the incident.
Proving liability for accident injuries can be harder when the victim has a pre-existing condition or injury. The insurance company, judge, or jury must decide if the accident truly caused the problem to get worse, or if it would have worsened anyway.
Proximate cause is a legal term meaning that a specific outcome was the result of a certain action or chain of events. In a trial, a lawyer might define proximate cause to a jury this way:
When I use the expression “proximate cause,” I mean a cause that, in the natural or ordinary course of events, produced the plaintiff’s injury. [It need not be the only cause, nor the last or nearest cause. It is sufficient if it combines with another cause resulting in the injury.]
So, if a car blows a stop sign and hits a pedestrian, breaking his or her leg, the driver’s negligence is the proximate cause of the injury. Now let’s consider a similar case: Another driver has to swerve to avoid hitting a car that blew a stop sign, and that driver thereby hits the pedestrian. The first driver’s negligence is still a proximate cause of the injuries, even though the other car is what physically hit the pedestrian. The first car, which blew the stop sign, started the chain of events that caused the injury.
With a pre-existing injury, the plaintiff must show that the accident was the proximate cause of the aggravation of their condition. In our example of the knee injury, it must be proven that without the accident, surgery would not have been necessary and the knee would have healed with physical therapy alone.
Proving proximate cause can be a difficult task. It is not as clear as the example of a crash causing a broken leg. The defense might claim that the plaintiff’s condition, to begin with, was much worse than they’re claiming. Or that they would eventually need surgery anyway. But if the plaintiff can show that their injuries are worse because of the incident, they will be able to collect the compensation that is rightfully owed to them.
What Matters with a Pre-Existing Injury—and What Doesn’t
Some things don’t factor into whether or not a victim can be compensated for their exacerbated injuries. For example, it doesn’t matter how long they have had a pre-existing condition or injury. In the case of our knee-pain example, it could be a decades-old sports injury or the result of a recent stumble.
What’s more important is the severity of the pre-existing injury. If there is a baseline showing how bad the original injury or condition was before the incident, it will be easier to determine exactly how much new damage was done.
The opinions of medical professionals make a difference in a personal injury claim. For example, a doctor may tell a patient they are nearly recovered from a previous injury and will avoid needing surgery. An accident may set back their progress considerably, requiring extra therapy, new treatments, or an operation to repair the additional damage. The doctor’s testimony might be needed to prove the case.
The Eggshell or Thin Skull Rule
A defendant’s insurance company or lawyers might try to claim that the accident was not the proximate cause of an aggravated pre-existing injury, and that the plaintiff is no worse off than they would have been anyway. They may also argue that the victim’s condition could have gotten worse for other reasons. In the case of “invisible” conditions that are hard to diagnose, like tinnitus, they might even think the victim is exaggerating or lying.
Whatever their reasoning, insurance companies and defense attorneys will always try to minimize the amount that they or their clients must pay in damages. A personal injury attorney can help the plaintiff prove their case and get a fair settlement.
One defense that can’t be claimed by an at-fault driver is what’s known as the eggshell rule or sometimes the thin skull rule. It means that the defendant can’t argue that the victim’s pre-existing condition was responsible for their current injuries. They will try to argue that the plaintiff’s fragile state was to blame and that an “average person” would not have been hurt in the same situation.
It may be true that a pre-existing injury, a medical condition, or a chronic illness might make a person more likely to sustain injuries. Even age can be a factor, as an elderly person might be more severely harmed than someone younger. But none of these factors reduces the liability of the at-fault driver. They will be just as responsible for their actions whether the victim is in fragile condition or in perfect health.
Making a Claim for an Aggravated Pre-Existing Injury
There are some things that can make proving a personal injury difficult when there is a pre-existing condition. First, the victim should be honest and upfront about their condition. Trying to hide that you had prior issues such as neck pain, joint injuries, or conditions like sciatica could hurt your chances of being compensated. The insurance company or defense attorneys will be able to access prior medical records. If the injury is included in those records, it will cause a credibility issue and they will argue that you had the problem all along.
Medical records that include a doctor’s assessment of previous conditions are extremely helpful. When documents show what stage a patient is in, recovering from a prior condition or injury, a setback will be easy to identify.
Another convincing piece of information is how a victim’s abilities or lifestyle have changed since the incident. For example, someone who used a cane occasionally when knee-pain flared up, but after an accident is confined to a wheelchair or can no longer go to work.
Getting Help With Pre-Existing Condition Accident Claims
Accident claims are made even more complicated when the victim has a pre-existing injury or medical condition. Negligent drivers need to be held accountable when they make these problems worse. If you’re in an accident that was not your fault, you deserve to be compensated for injuries caused directly by the accident, as well as old injuries that are aggravated by the crash.
The attorneys of Hipskind & McAninch are experienced in all personal injury claims and can help you sort out exactly what an at-fault driver owes toward your recovery.