Among the most difficult injuries to prove in a court of law are those involving the back and the neck. We’ve all heard of conditions like whiplash and vague back problems associated with the impact of a collision between two cars. They are very common. When you think of two automobiles traveling at 35 miles per hour crashing into each other, you may get a sense of how powerful that impact can be. Nevertheless, insurance companies use every tool in their power to downplay the consequences of these injuries.
The worst thing about neck and back injuries from a personal injury standpoint is that they often don’t show up instantly. Very often victims of vehicular trauma feel stiff and sore after the accident, but don’t feel badly enough to go to the doctor with a specific complaint. In the beginning there is sometimes no “Doctor it hurts right here” moment.
In time though, the injury makes itself known through symptoms including pain, numbness, and muscle weakness. Sadly, these symptoms often come after the unsuspecting victim has settled with the other driver’s insurance carrier and must bear the cost of treatment on his/her own.
In this article we’ll discuss disc injuries – how they can happen, what symptoms are associated with them and how they can affect your life. We’ll talk a little about treatment options but mostly we’ll concentrate on what you must do to prove your injury in a Georgia Courtroom if you choose to seek justice for your damages. Finally, we’ll tell you how lawyers and insurance adjusters place a value on your injury and how a settlement may be arrived at.
Your spine – the individual vertebrae that stack together to create your spine, the spinal cord that runs through those vertebrae, and the discs that lie like little cushions between the bones – taken together is a marvelous machine. In spite of its relatively small size your spine can take all kinds of punishment. It bends, twists, and rights itself every day. In time it may start to complain a bit, but all in all, it’s a tough and generally reliable system within your body.
Unfortunately, when the spine gets an unexpected jolt – as can happen in an automobile accident – there can be painful and debilitating results. When the cushion between your vertebrae is forced out from between the bones it’s called a Herniated Disc. You may have heard this condition described using other words like slipped, ruptured, or protruding disc. Whatever you call it, it can create problems for the victim.
The Mayo Clinic describes discs this way: “A spinal disk is a little like a jelly donut, with a softer center encased within a tougher exterior. Sometimes called a slipped disk or a ruptured disk, a herniated disk occurs when some of the softer “jelly” pushes out through a tear in the tougher exterior.”
When the gel-like material spills out of a tear in the capsule of the cervical disc and protrudes into the area of the spinal column, it can press on spinal nerves or the cord itself causing pain, numbness, and muscle weakness.
There are other causes for herniated discs, but for our purposes, we’ll concentrate on what can happen when an impact causes your neck to snap back and forth or side to side forcefully enough to injure the disc.
A 26-year old woman, employed as a checker at a local convenience store is stopped in the traffic lane of a two-way Georgia highway waiting to make a left-hand turn. She is using her directional signal and her brake lights are on. Nevertheless, a man driving a delivery truck for an Atlanta trucking company doesn’t see her stopped vehicle in time to stop. He hits her stationary vehicle at approximately 20 mph.
At the instant of impact her head is forced forward and snapped backward. Of course her airbag doesn’t deploy – they are specifically designed not to inflate in rear-end collisions since doing so can render the driver blind to oncoming traffic or other cars around him/her making matters worse.
It appears at first that nobody is seriously injured. The woman is shaken up, and her neck feels “noodle-y” like an old rubber band, but she is otherwise whole and glad to be alive. She doesn’t go to the hospital, but waits for a tow truck to remove her badly damaged car.
A few days later, she notices that she is experiencing weakness in her hands and arms. It is difficult for her to lift a twelve-pack of beer as she is called to do many times each day at work. She also begins to experience a tingling in her arms and shoulders, as if the muscles were asleep. When this annoying numbness turns to pain that radiates down her right arm, she goes to the local urgent-care facility.
The clinic suggests that the woman may have a pinched nerve and recommends she see a neurologist, but because her medical insurance pays very little, she opts to see a chiropractic practitioner who sees her mother.
She spends some months in the care of the chiropractor, but when the symptoms become worse and she begins to miss work, the woman makes an appointment with a neurologist. After an MRI, the neurologist tells her that she has a herniation of the disc between vertebrae C6 and C7.
It is at this point, when she realizes that she may eventually need surgery for her injury that she engages an attorney and files suit against the driver who hit her six months previously and the furniture company he worked for.
This young woman has several factors working against her. First of all, she refused medical treatment at the time of the accident. Had she gone to the hospital, there would be medical records and clinical observations documenting the accident and her noodle-y neck. Since she denied having any injuries at the time, she may expect that the lawyers for the insurance company will use those statements against her in court.
Because she honestly didn’t know how badly she’d been injured, and disc injuries can become more painful with time. This can make it appear that the injury happened after the accident and is unrelated. Insurance company lawyers will invariably claim this whether it’s true or not. Their job is to convince you and the jury that your injury is not the fault of their insured. Their ultimate goal is to pay as little as possible. Paying nothing is even better if they can manage it.
The very best thing you can do when you’ve been involved in an accident of any kind – if you think you have been injured — is go to the doctor immediately. Understand that the adrenaline that’s pumping through your body following an accident can mask even intense pain. Remember this: after an accident may be in no condition to pass judgment on your level of wellness.
The second thing you can do is to write everything down. Write down precisely how the accident happened – the police will also provide necessary reports – but your recollections of the event will be important if you go to court. If you know of anybody who saw the accident, write down their name and phone number for your attorney. Any information about witnesses – even if it comes down to “the guy who runs that florist shop on the corner” – can be helpful.
Also keep a detailed daily record of your symptoms. If those symptoms cause you to miss work, as they did for our young lady, document every day and each hour when you are unable to earn. Lost earnings can be a big part of your damages, so be precise and be thorough.
Don’t miss doctor’s appointments for any reason. If you fail to attend doctor appointments, therapy sessions, or scheduled tests, it will look as if your injuries are not as serious as you claim they are. Even if you don’t think you can pay for treatments or tests, get them done.
The documentation you provide, including medical records, police reports, witness statements, and the testimony of friends and co-workers are all critically important. So are the statements of those who can testify about how you were different after the accident than you were before will be used to determine the level of your injury. Your notes about lost work and medical expenses will also be considered as will any temporary or permanent changes the accident made to your lifestyle.
Understand that the attorneys for the defense will try every possible way to evade responsibility for your injuries. They will try to convince the court that your injury is a figment of your overactive imagination. They will insist that you’re making it all up or that your injury happened before the accident. (Perhaps the neck injury happened when you were playing tennis in high school?) Ultimately, payment for the damages done to you will come down to your documentation and your personal injury lawyer’s skill at nullifying the arguments made by attorneys for the defense.
A skilled personal injury lawyer can defeat these defense arguments, proving that your injuries came from the wreck, using your medical records and interviews with your doctors, friends, co-workers and family.
With a case as tricky as this one is to prove, it is essential that you get the best, most qualified counsel possible. A criminal lawyer or one that deals mainly with real estate transactions probably won’t be able to help you. They may try, but personal injury cases are notoriously challenging in ways that only a personal injury specialist understands. Attorneys who specialize in other fields are ill equipped to handle a technical medical matter like this. The more difficult your case is to prove, the more you need a lawyer with specialized skills.
Our young woman may be facing surgery. She may never be able to do the things she used to. She is young, and the impacts of this accident may be with her for many, many years. She requires a dedicated attorney who handles only personal injury cases in order to maximize her chances to recover even some of what she’s lost.
At The Millar Law Firm we offer a free case evaluation to help you understand what you’ll be up against if you take a case like this to court. Once we’ve looked at the facts and the circumstances, we’ll give you an educated opinion as to how you should proceed. If we are able to take your case, you may rest assured that we’ll stand with you against the insurance company, and if necessary, in the courtroom prepared to battle fiercely on your behalf.