What is the Average Settlement?
People commonly ask personal injury attorneys hear: “What’s the average settlement for this type of claim?” While the question is understandable when considering your legal options after an injury, it’s not always the most straightforward question to answer. This is particularly true when the injury involves the neck and back.
Not All Neck and Back Injuries Are Equal
When speaking of “neck and back injuries,” one can refer to many different things, ranging from minor whiplash that heals within a few days or weeks with rest to a spinal cord injury that deprives the sufferer of the ability to live or complete basic daily tasks independently. Here is a look at some of the types of back and neck injuries and their impact on personal injury claims.
What About Spinal Cord Injuries?
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the skull to the waist within the bony housing of the spinal column. As part of the body’s central nervous system, the spinal cord functions as a messenger from the brain to other body parts. However, despite the importance of the spinal cord to the body’s ability to function, the organ only has a limited ability to heal from injuries. Because of this, spinal cord damage is often a permanent injury.
The most common impact of spinal cord injuries is the loss of function and sensation below the injury site, which is known as paralysis. Any level of paralysis can cost millions of dollars due to the high cost of treating the injury and the numerous complications that often accompany it.
For example, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, individuals who experience high tetraplegia—which refers to paralysis from the neck down as a result of damage to the spinal cord in the cervical (neck) area, can expect to incur around $4.7 million in lifetime medical costs if the injury occurs at the age of 25, and nearly $2.6 million if the injury occurs at age 50.
Those experiencing low tetraplegia, which refers to paralysis in the lower part of the back while sensation and function in the neck, shoulders, arms, and diaphragm remain intact, can expect slightly lower lifetime expenses.
Lower costs are associated with paraplegia (paralysis affecting only the lower extremities). However, any loss of motor function resulting from the injury will likely carry a lifetime price tag of over $1 million.
Spinal cord injuries are catastrophic injuries because they result in a permanent loss of earning capacity for the sufferer. Because of this, they are often valued higher and command a higher settlement value to compensate the claimant for these expenses throughout their lifetime.
Damage to the Vertebrae or Discs?
In addition to spinal cord injuries, car accidents can damage spinal vertebrae or discs.
The spinal vertebrae are the tiny bones that make up the spinal column. The most common injuries to involve the vertebrae are fractures and dislocations.
Dislocations occur due to damage to the ligaments in the back and neck that hold the vertebrae in place, causing too much movement in the area. If not treated promptly, the injury can damage the spinal cord due.
The spinal discs are rubbery cushions located between the vertebrae. A common type of disc injury suffered in car accidents is a herniated disc, which occurs when a tear in the disc allows the soft, jelly-like center to seep out. Depending on where the injury occurs, it can result in pain in the affected area, numbness, or weakness.
Damage to the spinal vertebrae or discs can often require surgery and produce chronic pain, both of which can drive the value of the claim up due to the increases in medical expenses and wage loss from the injury, as well as compensation needed for the non-economic physical pain and suffering of the injury and associated treatments.
Any Soft Tissue Damage?
Soft tissue damage involves injuries to the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves in the back and neck. Perhaps the most well-known type of soft tissue injury in this part of the body due to a car accident is whiplash. Whiplash damages the soft tissues of the neck when the head snaps forward and backward rapidly and forcefully, like the cracking of a whip. Whiplash symptoms often include pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, dizziness, numbness in the arm or hand, irritability, and sleeplessness.
While whiplash and other soft tissue injuries commonly heal with minimal medical interventions, some individuals will suffer chronic pain from the injury. The claim value and consideration of settlement offers often depend on how much work you lost because of the injury and the amount of pain and suffering the claimant incurred.
Other Factors That Determine the Value of a Neck or Back Injury Claim
There is a major difference between a neck and back injury claim that involves high tetraplegia as a result of a spinal cord injury and a claim that involves minor whiplash that results in a few lost days from work and a few weeks of having a sore neck. However, the severity of the injury isn’t the only factor that an attorney considers when valuing a car accident neck and back injury claim.
Other factors that can impact the claim’s value, and subsequently the value of a settlement, include:
- The at-fault party’s insurance. The liability insurance policy of the at-fault driver usually compensates for car accident injuries. Many drivers opt only to purchase the minimum amount of liability insurance required in their state to reduce the amount they pay in insurance premiums. However, these policies often carry a lower policy limit than the expenses and impacts of your neck and back injuries.
- The permanence of the injury, as permanent injuries often cause disabilities that can make it difficult to earn an income and complications that may require medical treatment throughout the sufferer’s life.
- What the claimant earned before the accident. Many expenses an individual can recover depend on lost income. Someone in the prime of a career would face a greater economic loss due to missed work or earning capacity than someone who retired and no longer earns an income or someone who is too young to have a job.
- The age of the accident victim. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation notes that it is considerably more expensive to live the course of one’s life with a spinal cord injury that occurred at the age of 25 than living with one that occurred after the sufferer turned 50.
- Any pre-existing injuries. Pre-existing injuries can make it difficult to value a claim because the claimant can only seek compensation for the expenses and impacts created by the worsening of the condition rather than the condition itself. Insurance companies will often pounce on pre-existing injuries to reduce the claim’s value or even eliminate the claim, making the assistance of an experienced personal injury attorney even more important to protect the claim’s value.
The Unique Issues That Can Affect a Settlement in a Neck and Back Injury Case
A car accident claim often begins when the claimant’s attorney submits a demand to the insurance provider. Upon receiving this demand, the provider assigns the claim to a claims adjuster, an individual hired by the insurance company to evaluate claims and determine the claimant’s payout. After reviewing the demand, the adjuster can either choose to pay it in full, deny the claim with a reason provided to the claimant for the denial, or make an offer to settle the case for less than its total value.
Most initial settlement offers from insurance providers for personal injury claims are around 40 percent of the claim’s value, or even less if an attorney does not represent the claimant. The problem with accepting a settlement without having an attorney value the claim is that the client often has no idea what their claim is worth or the impacts and expenses they can recover.
Without having this information available when deciding on a settlement, claimants often go for quick resolution only to find out later that the payment they received was not enough to cover all of their expenses and impacts. However, the claimant can no longer go back and ask for additional compensation after accepting the offer.
Other unique issues that can impact the settlement in a neck and back injury case include:
- Questions of liability. One of the most common ways insurance adjusters reduce or eliminate the value of a claim is by producing evidence to suggest that the injury did not occur the way the claimant said it did or was not as serious as the claimant says it is. They use the client’s own recorded statements against them, by obtaining authorization to look at the claimant’s medical history to search for pre-existing conditions, or even by looking at the claimant’s social media accounts to see if posts indicate the claimant participates in activities that the insurance provider does not believe they should do due to their injuries.
- Questions about medical expenses. Insurance companies will often reduce claims by going after soft expenses such as medical expenses involving less-standard treatment methods. For example, if the treatment mostly involved chiropractic’s rather than surgery and medication, the insurance company may try to get out of paying for the chiropractic treatments, saying that chiropractors are not medical doctors.
- Willingness to compromise. In a settlement, the claimant agrees to accept a lower amount of compensation and an insurer agrees to provide that compensation to avoid the expense and uncertainty of litigation. When both sides agree on some aspects of the settlement but disagree on others, it can result in delays and ultimately conclude the case through court action.
- The claimant’s patience. Settlements can come until the court decides the matter. In other words: A large part of the life of the case will take place during settlement negotiations. The process is often frustrating for the client, who faces mounting expenses. Impatient claimants are often quicker to determine that an offer is fair. An attorney can provide guidance, but, ultimately, whether to accept an offered settlement is the client’s decision.
Did you suffer a neck and back injury in a car accident? Let an experienced car accident lawyer evaluate your claim for free. Contact a car accident lawyer today.