How a Preexisting Injury Can Affect a Personal Injury ClaimOctober 31, 2023 | - News & Insights
Car accidents, slips and falls, and medical malpractice cases are rarely as straightforward as they sometimes appear. One reason why personal injury claims such as these can become more complex than normal is because most personal injury plaintiffs are not in perfect health at the time they become injured. Many have one or more preexisting conditions or injuries that can be difficult to separate from the injuries they receive in an accident or that can cause the injuries they receive in an accident to be more severe than they otherwise would be. While defendants in personal injury cases are not liable for plaintiffs’ preexisting conditions or injuries, they may be liable for the reactivation or aggravation of such conditions. A North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can help defendants limit their liability when plaintiffs claim damages for preexisting conditions.
Common Preexisting Injuries
A preexisting condition is any condition or injury the plaintiff had at the time the events giving rise to the litigation occurred. They often become relevant in the personal injury, workers’ compensation, and insurance contexts. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that roughly one in two Americans suffers some kind of preexisting condition, while that number rises to 86% for adults aged 55-64.
Preexisting conditions and injuries that often arise in the personal injury context include:
- Herniated discs
- Chronic back, neck, or shoulder issues
- Prior concussions or head injuries
- Prior broken bones
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
Injured plaintiffs in personal injury cases often try to claim damages for the full extent of their injuries — even if some of those injuries were due to their preexisting condition rather than the defendant’s actions. An experienced North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can help defendants separate the two.
Causation in Personal Injury Cases
To prevail in personal injury litigation, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of her injuries. To show actual causation, the plaintiff must prove that, but for the defendant’s wrongful act, her injury would not have occurred. To show proximate causation, the plaintiff must show that her injuries were a natural and foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s wrongful act. As we will see below, defendants are liable for damages only when their negligent actions are the actual and proximate cause of such damages. Of course, all standard defenses — including contributory negligence — remain available to defendants in personal injury cases involving preexisting conditions.
Liability for Unrelated Preexisting Injuries
Defendants are not liable for injuries they did not actually and proximately cause. To use a very simple example, assume that the plaintiff in a personal injury action was recovering from a broken left arm when he slipped and fell on the defendant’s property and broke his right arm. The defendant could be liable only for the injury to the right arm, since the defendant’s wrongful act did not actually and proximately cause the injury to the left arm.
Liability for Aggravation of a Preexisting Injury
While it’s clear that defendants cannot be held liable for damages solely attributable to the preexisting injury, few personal injury cases involving preexisting injuries are as simple as the example above. In many cases, the defendant’s negligent actions do not cause the plaintiff’s preexisting injury, but they nonetheless exacerbate or aggravate it. The general rule in such cases is that where the defendant’s wrongful conduct aggravates or increases the severity of a preexisting injury, the plaintiff may recover only for the aggravation or increase in the severity of the injury.
For example, assume that the plaintiff in a personal injury action suffered from chronic back pain from an old injury that she had been managing successfully with over-the-counter medication. The defendant then runs a red light and broadsides her car at an intersection, causing back pain that is so severe that she must take time off of work and for which over-the-counter medications no longer alleviate. If the plaintiff submits medical evidence sufficient to show that the increase in pain would not have occurred but for the defendant’s actions, the defendant may be liable for the plaintiff’s additional injuries, as the defendant’s conduct actually and proximately caused the aggravation of the injury.
Cases involving aggravation of preexisting injuries are notoriously complex; the best way to limit your liability in such cases is with representation by a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney.
Liability for Injuries to “Eggshell Plaintiffs”
A maxim that often arises in personal injury law is that the defendant takes the plaintiff as he finds him. This doctrine has particular relevance in cases where a plaintiff suffers a medical condition that makes her unusually susceptible to injuries. Known as the “eggshell plaintiff” rule or the “peculiar susceptibility” rule, it holds that a defendant is liable for the full extent of a plaintiff’s injuries even if the defendant’s wrongful actions would not have caused injury to an ordinary person.
For example, assume that the plaintiff is an elderly woman suffering who suffers from osteoporosis, a condition that causes a loss of bone density and increases the risk of fractures and breaks. The defendant is texting and driving and bumps into the car in front of her, and the gentle bump causes severe fractures to the plaintiff’s collar and pelvis bones. Even though such injuries would not have resulted to an ordinary plaintiff, the defendant is liable for them because her breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of the injuries.
Limit Your Liability With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney
Proving that a plaintiff’s injuries were the result of a preexisting condition often involves expert testimony, voluminous medical evidence, and complex damages calculations. The best way to limit your liability in such cases is with the assistance of an experienced attorney. For more information, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.