In personal injury law, a catastrophic injury is a lasting or permanent disabling wound that usually prevents the victim from returning to work. Examples of catastrophic injuries include spinal cord injuries that lead to paralysis and brain injuries that impair the ability to be self-sufficient. Severe burns, loss of vision, and the amputation of limbs can also be the kind of life-changing injuries that are regarded as catastrophic.
Catastrophic injuries are usually caused by accidents, including falls, collisions, and explosions. The injuries are often the result of another person’s negligence. They can result from a surgeon’s careless actions during an operation or from improper supervision of recreational activities (such as diving or climbing). Defective equipment or dangerous products can lead to catastrophic injuries, as can traffic accidents involving motorcycles or other vehicles.
When a catastrophic injury is caused by another person’s carelessness, a lawyer can help the victim cope with the injury’s devastating impact. Financial compensation will not restore health, but it can help accident victims come as close as they can to regaining the life they enjoyed before the accident occurred.
The intent of any personal injury settlement is to make an accident victim “whole.” As a practical matter, that is not possible, but lawyers work to negotiate settlements that allow victims to lead a life that is as “normal” as it can be under the circumstances.
When a catastrophe makes it impossible to walk, a personal injury settlement will attempt to restore mobility by assuring that the victim has a state-of-the-art wheelchair. The victim may also need an accessible van that can be operated with “hands only” vehicle controls. The victim’s home and surrounding area may require remodeling to add ramps and accessible entrances. Vocational rehabilitation may be required to help the victim find a new career. Of course, a settlement should also replace a lifetime of lost income and cover the future medical expenses the accident victim is likely to incur.
In some cases, including severe brain injuries and conditions that confine a victim to bed, compensation focuses on making professionals available to assure the victim’s comfort and safety. This may include the cost of a residential care facility or, if the victim is able to function in his or her home environment, the expense of a home nurse to assist with daily tasks such as eating and bathing.
Attorneys work with a variety of experts to evaluate the impact of a catastrophic injury upon an accident victim’s life. In addition to doctors and other health care professionals, a lawyer might work with vocational rehabilitation experts, economists, life care planners, medical equipment suppliers, and specialists in accessible housing. The lawyer will want to develop a comprehensive understanding of the struggles a catastrophic injury victim will endure and the means by which obstacles can be overcome.
Accident victims are entitled to recover compensation for pain and suffering caused by another person’s negligence. In addition to physical pain, compensation can be awarded for emotional distress and “loss of life enjoyment.” These types of damages include compensation for losing the ability to have sexual relations, to take a walk in the park, to play a sport, to socialize, to raise a child, and to engage in other activities that were once an important part of the accident victim’s life or expectations.
The loss of enjoyment of life cannot be calculated mathematically or measured with precision. No amount of money can overcome emotional suffering. The goal of financial compensation is to give accident victims funds they can use to find new ways to enjoy their life.
Personal injury lawyers consider a number of factors when they evaluate pain and suffering as a component of a catastrophic injury settlement. The most important is generally the amount of compensation that local juries have awarded in similar cases. The lawyer will want to get a sense of how a jury would respond to the witnesses who will testify if the case goes to trial. Juries are usually sympathetic to accident victims but, in some cases, they might also see themselves in the position of the person who caused the accident. An experienced lawyer can take those intangible factors into account when predicting the award of damages a jury would make in a particular case.
Most claims for compensation as the result of a catastrophic injury settle out of court. Some settle without filing a lawsuit while others settle before trial. Since catastrophic injuries tend to produce large awards of damages, insurance companies have an incentive to limit their losses by settling the claim rather than risking a larger verdict.
Accident victims who experience catastrophic injuries also have an incentive to settle. Unfortunately, insurance does not always cover the entire amount of a victim’s loss. That is particularly true when the wounds occurred in a motor vehicle accident. If a driver has minimum policy limits and no umbrella coverage, the victim will often settle for the policy limits because that is all the money that is available. If a defective product, medical malpractice, or a hazard in a commercial building caused the victim’s wounds, insurance coverage is more likely to be adequate.
Even if the person who caused the damage is adequately insured, there may be a dispute about fault. If the victim’s own carelessness played a role in causing the damage, a jury’s verdict is difficult to predict. It is often preferable to settle a case for less than full compensation rather than risking a jury verdict that provides for little or no compensation.
Finally, settlements give victims the certainty of knowing how much compensation they will receive while allowing them to move forward with their lives.
Attorney Tim Ryan is author of "The Personal Injury Victim's Bible" and has assisted thousands of injury victims, obtaining more than $1 billion for his clients collectively since 1981.
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