Whether a spinal injury results from a car accident, a fall, or some other cause, the impact on the lives of spinal injury victims and families can be devastating -- and the lifetime medical costs associated with spinal injury can be enormous. If you or a family member have been in an accident and suffered spinal cord injury, you may be able to file a lawsuit and get compensation for your injuries and losses. This article explains spinal cord injuries and the kinds of legal issues that may come up in your case.
Spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord (the bundle of nerves housed within the spinal column, or "backbone," that carries messages between the brain and body) that results in full or partial loss of motor control and sensation. Spinal cord injuries can leave victims paralyzed in the lower parts of the body (paraplegic) or in all four limbs (quadriplegic). Because the spinal cord is responsible for a range of bodily functions -- like breathing, body temperature, bladder, and sexual functioning -- accident victims can suffer a broad range of permanent and serious health problems.
Spinal cord injury is usually the result of a traumatic injury or blow to the spine. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, common causes of spinal cord injury are:
Spinal cord injury can also be caused by errors that occur during risky surgical procedures involving the back and the neck. In some of these cases, a spinal cord injury may have been avoidable, and the error might rise to the level of medical malpractice. (Learn more in Nolo's article Medical Malpractice Basics.)
Spinal cord injuries caused by negligence. Most spinal cord injury lawsuits (and most personal injury lawsuits in general) are based on a legal theory called negligence. If your spinal cord injury case is based on negligence -- your injury happened when a car hit your motorcycle or when you slipped and fell on a broken staircase -- you will need to prove that the party you are suing (the "defendant" in legalese) is legally responsible or "at fault." To learn about what you must prove in a negligence lawsuit, see Nolo's article Proving Fault in Personal Injury Accidents: General Rules.
Spinal cord injuries caused by defective products. If your spinal injury was caused by a defective or dangerous product (faulty seatbelts or airbags that made injuries sustained in a car accident much worse, for example), you may be entitled to compensation from the companies that designed, manufactured, and sold the product. For more information about defective product cases, see Nolo's Product Liability FAQ.
Contributory and comparative negligence. It's not uncommon in spinal cord injury cases for a defendant to argue that the injured person's own carelessness contributed to the accident, so the defendant is not legally at fault. For example, since alcohol is a factor in many spinal cord injuries (about 1 in 4 cases according to the Mayo Clinic), a defendant might argue that the injured person's intoxication was the main cause of the accident and the resulting injuries. This defense is based on legal theories known as "contributory negligence" (the victim's carelessness contributed to the injury) and "comparative negligence" (the victim and defendant's relative carelessness are weighed).
Assumption of the risk. If your spinal cord injury occurred when you were involved in a dangerous activity (like bungee jumping or skiing, for example), the defendant will likely raise the "assumption of the risk" defense -- arguing that you chose to take part in an activity that was likely to cause you harm so you're not entitled to compensation.
These defenses -- contributory negligence, comparative negligence, assumption of the risk, and more -- are explained in Nolo's article Defenses in Personal Injury Cases.
The general purpose of a monetary award in a spinal cord injury case (as with any personal injury lawsuit) is to compensate an injured person for the losses caused by the accident and injury. To the extent that a money-based award (called "damages") can do so, payment is designed to restore the injured person to his or her pre-accident condition.
In spinal cord injury cases, damages typically include compensation that goes above and beyond reimbursement for incurred medical expenses and "pain and suffering." Since a spinal cord injury can have permanent and life-altering effects, a damages award can also include compensation for things like ongoing health care and rehabilitation, the cost of assistive devices (like motorized wheelchairs), and modifications to the injury victim's home (like access ramps and stair lifts).
Learn more about the different types of compensation available in a personal injury lawsuit in Nolo's article Damages: How Much is a Personal Injury Claim Worth?
Spinal cord injury lawsuits usually involve more complex legal and medical issues than those in a typical injury case so, if you're thinking about filing a lawsuit, you might want to speak with a lawyer who specializes in spinal cord injury litigation.
For help in choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to find out about the lawyer's expertise, if any, with spinal cord injury cases).