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When Is a Personal Injury Considered Catastrophic?

In the field of catastrophic injury law, we are often confronted with the question, “What makes an injury catastrophic?” This seems like a reasonable thing to ask, especially since the term “catastrophic injury” can occur in a variety of contexts, from emergency rooms to NFL broadcasts. 

The truth, though, is that there is no universally accepted legal definition for what makes an injury catastrophic. Thankfully, many knowlegeable people have considered the question and come up with working definitions — ones that are acceptable for most legal and medical purposes — which allow us to assess and categorize especially extreme or serious injuries.

Defining a Catastrophic Injury

One of the most widely-used definitions states that a catastrophic injury is one where the consequences of the injury permanently prevent an individual from performing any gainful work. In other words, after suffering a catastrophic injury, the victim can no longer maintain a job that allows them to support themselves or their family.

From financial, legal, and emotional standpoints, an injury like this can be devastating. The victim has lost a lifetime of wages and benefits as well as the sense of purpose and wholeness that come with meaningful work — not to mention incurring enormous medical bills. Sometimes a person who has suffered a catastrophic injury can undertake expensive retraining to learn new employment skills that fit within their current limitations, but many victims may have severe physical or cognitive impairments that prevent them from maintaining any employment at all.

The implications of these injuries often go far beyond the victim’s work life as well. A person who is too severely disabled to work will rarely be able to travel, exercise, engage in favorite hobbies or activities, or even care for themselves on a day-to-day basis in the way that a typical healthy person would. They may also suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that create emotional anguish in addition to the physical pain and suffering that inevitably come with a devastating and disabling injury.

Common Types of Catastrophic Injuries

A few types of injuries in particular tend to disrupt the body’s central nervous system and create consequences that most experts would consider catastrophic. These injuries include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Brain injuries
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Severe burns
  • Amputations
  • Multiple bone fractures
  • Organ damage
  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances

A catastrophic injury can arise from any incident that causes physical trauma to the victim. However, certain types of accidents tend to cause these injuries more often than others. For example, motor vehicle accidents — especially accidents that involve motorcycles or large trucks — tend to cause a large portion of the catastrophic injuries that occur.

Other types of incidents that may cause catastrophic injuries include:

Damages in Catastrophic Injury Law

Because of the far-reaching implications for the lives of victims and the enormous losses that result from catastrophic injuries, the ensuing legal cases tend to involve much higher damages than a typical personal injury case. Sometimes, a healthy person may read a blurb about a multimillion dollar verdict in a catastrophic injury case and think that the victim has received some sort of windfall.

The reality, though, is that when you add up the toll of a lifetime of lost earnings, enormous medical bills for ongoing and extensive medical treatment, and the physical and emotional pain and suffering the victim has endured, these verdicts simply grant the victim some degree of financial stability and security in the face of crippling lifelong losses.

RELATED: Why Medical Records Matter in a Catastrophic Injury Case

In fact, one unfailing truth we can share from the world of catastrophic injury law is that every victim would gladly trade any amount of money to gain back the normal life they lived before their injury. Since that isn’t possible, though, the legal system offers their only hope for some semblance of justice and compensation.

Catastrophic Injuries and Pure Contributory Negligence

In Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., personal injury law must abide by the unfortunate and unfair legal standard of pure contributory negligence. The law in jurisdictions that follow the pure contributory negligence standard says that a victim who bears any amount of fault for their own injuries — even 1 percent of the total fault — can’t be allowed to recover compensation for those injuries.

(The other legal standard — which is followed by most jurisdictions in the U.S. — is called pure comparative negligence, and it allows victims to recover based on their proportion of the fault. So, for example, if a victim was 25 percent responsible for their own injuries, they could recover up to 75 percent of the total damages that result.)

Because of the burden of proof, enormous costs, and high damages involved in a catastrophic injury case, it’s more important than ever to work with an experienced attorney — and doubly so in jurisdictions that follow the pure contributory negligence model. In these jurisdictions, it’s almost assured that the defense will try to argue that the victim was at fault to some small degree for their injuries, since doing so successfully will mean that the victim is no longer entitled to any damages.

Let Us Help You—Call Perry Charnoff, PLLC If You’ve Suffered a Catastrophic Injury

At Perry Charnoff, we support and fight for the victims of negligence in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. to help them find justice and compensation for their injuries. If you or someone you love has suffered from a catastrophic injury due to someone else’s negligence, please call our offices at (703) 291-6650 to schedule a free consultation. You can also fill out our convenient online contact form and we’ll follow up to get in touch with you. Statutes of limitation do apply to personal injury cases, so please don’t delay — get in touch with our legal team today.