Accidents resulting from negligence are a frequent cause of traumatic spinal cord injury
Every year, there are about 4,000 new cases of spinal cord injury (SCI) in Canada. Of this total, an estimated 42 per cent are traumatic spinal cord injury. Traumatic SCI results from a violent external physical impact such as might occur in a car accident. The injuries associated with traumatic SCI include fractures, dislocations and contusions of the victim’s vertebral column. Spinal cord injuries are also the most common cause of chronic pain syndrome resulting from an accident.
Accident victims who experience the debilitating effects of a traumatic spinal cord injury may be eligible for compensation for their losses and suffering, and an ILO spinal injury lawyer can provide sound advice on the best course of action in obtaining a fair settlement.
What is spinal injury?
Spinal injury is defined as injury to the spinal cord, which often produces a temporary or permanent change that affects normal motor, sensory or autonomic functions. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that carries instructions to and from the brain to the rest of the body. The vertebrae are interlocking bones that form the spinal column and surround and protect the spinal cord. Because the spinal cord performs the critical function of carrying messages between the brain and the rest of the body, spinal cord injury can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function.
Spinal cord injury is often the result of direct or indirect trauma to spinal cord. The former includes trauma that directly affects the spinal nerves, while the latter includes trauma to the bones, soft tissue and vessels which surround the spinal cord. There are two common types of spinal injury – complete and incomplete. Complete refers to spinal injury when the victim loses all ability to feel and voluntarily move below the level of the injury and incomplete refers to when the victim has some function and movement below the level of the injury.
The American Spinal Injury Association scale is the standard used by medical professionals, both in Canada and the United States, to assess the severity of a spinal cord injury. This designation also contributes to an assessment for ‘catastrophic injury’ for an accident victim, when a physician in Ontario is asked for a determination for the purposes of compensation. The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) classifies patients into five categories which range from complete loss of sensory and motor function (Grade A) to normal function for someone that had a previous SCI (Grade E).
Depending on the location and severity of damage along the spinal cord, the symptoms can vary from pain or numbness to paralysis and incontinence. Other common signs and symptoms include loss of sensation, headaches, problem walking and unconsciousness. The spinal cord may not necessarily have been severed to result in a loss of function; it may also have been bruised, stretched or crushed.
The causes of spinal injury
Spinal injury may result from a number of sources, including violence, infection, insufficient blood flow or pressure from a tumor, sports injuries and more. However, the most common causes are car accidents and slip and fall accidents. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at The University of Alabama, between 2010 and 2015, 38 percent of spinal injury cases in the U.S. were the result of motor vehicle accidents and 30 percent were the result of falls.
Spinal cord injury associated with a car accident is often caused by trauma to the neck or back due to the force of impact when the vehicle collides either with another vehicle or an obstacle such as a tree. It is unsurprising that car accidents are the leading cause of spinal injuries due to how common they are. Car accidents are an almost daily occurrence in many communities in Ontario. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO), there were 42,966 fatal and personal injury motor vehicle collisions in 2013.
A catastrophic injury like SCI is particularly devastating in terms of the magnitude of impact on an accident victim. Disturbingly, spinal cord injury resulting from car accidents is almost always the result of a careless or negligent action. The MTO annual report of accidents statistics for 2013 found that the highest number of road fatalities were the result of drinking and driving.
Driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs continues to be one of the most frequent causes of car accidents. Other common causes are distracted driving, speeding and fatigue. Distracted driving includes everything from checking one’s phone for texts, talking on the phone, talking to other passengers, eating and more. Anything that takes a driver’s attention and focus away from the road is a distraction and carries a greater risk of collision and personal injury.
Slip, trip and fall accidents, another common source of spinal injuries, are also frequently the result of carelessness or negligence. Situations that often cause slip, trip and falls include: a failure to promptly clean up liquid spills, poor lighting in precarious areas such as stairways, ice, debris or obstacles on the floor, clutter obstructing or blocking a path, loose carpeting, and damaged flooring. These circumstances are particularly hazardous in public venues such as office buildings, parking lots, restaurants or stores. Like car accidents, spinal injury from slip, trip and fall accidents is due to trauma to the neck and back area, resulting from the impact of violently striking a hard surface when a person falls.
Rehabilitation for spinal injury
Spinal injuries are often catastrophic in nature and victims frequently require significant physical and occupational therapy. In severe cases, when spinal injury results in partial or complete paralysis, an injured person will require considerable assistance over the long term, and often permanently. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation suggests that the average yearly expenses resulting from a spinal cord injury may range from (US) $228,566 to $775,567 in the first year alone.
There are a number of excellent organizations that provide information and support for SCI victims and their families, with the goal of improving quality of life for accident victims. Two such organisations are the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation in the United States and the Rick Hansen Institute in Canada.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, there are a wide variety of treatments to address the source of injury, help with pain and improve physical function. Some of the treatments include surgery, medications, physiotherapy, immobilization, and new technologies (such as, modern wheelchairs, electronic aids to aid with daily living). 87.9 per cent of all individuals suffering spinal cord injury are discharged from hospitals to private homes (as per the Christopher Reeve Foundation).
Court awards over $12 Million for spinal injury in Gordon v. Greig, 2007
Due to the often severe and catastrophic nature of spinal injuries, civil suits involving victims who were injured due to the negligence of others often result in awards of significant compensation for accident victims. In the 2007 Ontario Superior Court ruling of Gordon v. Greig, the judge awarded damages of almost $24 million to the two severely injured accident victims, Derek Gordon and Ryan Morrison. Both men were only in their early twenties when the accident occurred, and the catastrophic injuries they suffered had a huge and devastating impact on their ability to function and on the lives of their family members.
Both were passengers in a pickup truck driven by Corey Greig, who was under the influence of alcohol when he lost control of his truck on a rural road south of Lindsay, Ontario. Mr. Greig was alleged to have been driving in excess of 80 km/hr coming into a sharp curve with a recommended speed of 50 km/hr, shortly after having passed two vehicles. When Mr. Greig pulled back into the driving lane to avoid collision with an approaching car, he struck the shoulder and lost control which resulted in multiple rollovers of his vehicle. As the pickup truck rolled over, two passengers and Mr. Greig, all of whom were not wearing their seatbelts at the time, were ejected from the truck. One passenger, Mr. Gordon suffered a catastrophic brain injury as a result of the accident, and the other, Mr. Morrison sustained a severe spinal injury leaving him a paraplegic.
Mr. Morrison’s share, $12.3 million of the almost $24 million settlement is currently the largest personal injury award in Canada for a spinal cord injury. Some of the damages included in the settlement are: loss of past and future income, housing expenses, cost of attendant care and future care, and general damages (for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment in life). The other passenger, Mr. Gordon suffered acquired traumatic brain injury and upper spinal injury, and was awarded almost $11,400,000 in damages. The settlement for both men included a deduction for contributory negligence because they were not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.
Of particular note in this trial is that the judge awarded the upper limit for general damages in Ontario, $310,000, to Mr. Morrison. This amount is generally awarded only in the case of accident victims with acquired quadriplegia. Mr. Morrison is a person with paraplegia following multiple surgeries, including a stem cell procedure which was undertaken in Portugal at a cost of $75,000 to his family (for the medical procedure and living expenses). The judge was particularly impressed by Mr. Morrison’s positive attitude and strength of will; Mr. Morrison participates in an aggressive and demanding rehabilitation program and endures a great deal of pain in his efforts to improve his mobility.
Money certainly does not solve the emotional and physical trauma that victims of SCI face following an accident. However, injured persons with severe injuries such as SCI require and deserve considerable monetary support to ease their significant financial burden. The experienced team of lawyers affiliated with the Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) group have negotiated many favourable settlements for accident victims who sustained serious injuries such as SCI. Our empathetic team wants to help you get the compensation you justly deserve and will work tirelessly to ensure that you do.
If you or someone you love has been the victim of an accident and suffered a catastrophic and severe injury such as SCI, call or visit an Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) office in your community today for a free consultation. If you are unable to come to our office, we can meet with you in the hospital or at home. Let us use our expertise to help you at this most difficult time.