A lawsuit or workers’ compensation claim can help you recover financially after a neck or back injury
If you’ve ever had a minor neck or back injury, you know that it really affects your daily life. Sometimes, these things just happen. And once you reach a certain age, it seems like you can get a kink in your neck or a pulled muscle in your back from almost anything—sleeping funny one night, sneezing too hard, or bending over in a way that tweaks your body.
Everyone experiences this eventually, and while it’s not pleasant, it’s a fact of life for most people.
But there are some instances where your neck or back pain isn’t because your body experienced a natural pull or twist. Sometimes, a neck or back injury is the result of an accident or incident that didn’t have to happen.
When an accident does occur, you could be left with the physical pain of the injury and expensive medical treatment, costly surgeries, physical rehabilitation, lost time from work, loss of the ability to manage the demands of your day-to-day life, and the loss of enjoyment of activities you love.
What can you do to recover expenses after a neck or back injury?
That depends on how the injury happened and whether it was caused by someone’s negligence.
There are 2 primary methods for recovering costs related to a back or neck injury:
- A workers’ compensation claim if the injury happened while you were at work or performing tasks related to your job, or
- A personal injury lawsuit if the injury is the result of an accident like a car accident, slip and fall, defective product or similar.
Claiming workers’ compensation benefits for a neck or back injury
Workers’ compensation is how an injured worker would claim benefits from the insurance provided by their employer. Nearly every employer with 5 or more employees in Alabama is required to provide workers’ compensation insurance for employees.
The exceptions are employers of domestic employees, farm laborers or casual employees or municipalities with a population of fewer than 2,000 people. These employers may choose to offer workers’ compensation benefits but are not required to by law. The other exception is railroad workers; a railroad worker is covered by the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA).
A work injury could be the result of a specific accident, but it could also be an injury that develops over time from stress on your body like heavy lifting or repetitive strain injuries or even from the way your body is positioned while you drive, sit at a desk or perform tasks related to your job.
It doesn’t matter who or what caused the injury—even if you accidentally caused it yourself. You only need to prove 2 things to receive Alabama workers’ compensation benefits:
- You were at work or engaged in activities related to your job at the time when you were injured
- The injury cost you money, either for medical treatment or lost wages.
This can include injuries that happen outside your regular place of work as long as you were performing duties for your job. For example, if you were asked to pick up lunch for your team or department and you were in a car accident on your way to do so, you could claim workers’ compensation for your injuries.
Personal injury lawsuits for Alabama neck and back injuries
The basis of personal injury law is that a plaintiff (injured person) whose injury is the result of someone’s negligence is entitled to be made whole—or to be financially compensated to restore them to the financial condition they would be in if the accident hadn’t happened.
There are 5 elements to proving negligence:
- Duty. You must prove that the defendant owed you a duty of care.
- Breach. You must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care owed.
- Causation. You must prove your injury was caused by the defendant’s breach.
- Injury. The action must have resulted in an actual injury to the plaintiff.
- Damages. The injury must have a financial cost to the plaintiff.
Types of damages you can recover for a back, neck or spinal cord injury
The law of damages is based on the concept that an injured plaintiff should receive the correct amount of money to compensate them for whatever financial costs were associated with the injury. In other words, the plaintiff is meant to become “whole.”
How much is the average settlement for a back injury?
You could be entitled to economic and non-economic damages, which both fall into the category of “compensatory” damages.
Economic damages compensate you for anything that costs money and has a financial value:
- Medical treatment, including doctor or hospital visits, ambulance transportation, surgery, pain medication, etc.
- Rehabilitative or other physical or occupational therapies
- Lost wages, both past and future
- Diminished earning capacity (if you won’t be able to do the job you had before the accident or if you won’t be able to work at all)
- Assistance with activities of daily life (if you need to hire a housecleaner, pay for child care services, transportation costs, etc.)
Non-economic damages compensate you for the losses that don’t have a specific monetary value:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of enjoyment of everyday life
“Loss of enjoyment” is the legal system’s acknowledgment that you deserve to be happy. If your injury prevents you from doing something that was a regular part of your life—like playing a sport, activities with your children, playing a musical instrument, cooking, or whatever it is—that counts for something. It’s harder to quantify how much the dollar value is for loss of enjoyment, but your attorney has methods for figuring out how much it can be in a lawsuit.
Punitive damages can sometimes be added to your compensatory damage award. Punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant for especially egregious or malicious behavior and serve as a deterrent so that they don’t take that action again in the future. Whether or not you can receive punitive damages depends on the nature of the injury, the type of defendant (person, company, etc.) and the extent of liability.
Alabama awards punitive damages up to 3 times the amount of the compensatory damages, up to a maximum of $1.5 million.
Alabama pure contributory negligence standard
There’s one aspect of Alabama law that makes some personal injury cases complicated, and that’s the Alabama pure contributory negligence standard. Each state follows 1 of 4 different fault systems, and these rules determine whether a plaintiff can receive damages if they had any role in or liability for the accident that caused the injury. Some states allow a plaintiff with shared liability to recover damages reduced by the amount for which they were liable, but Alabama does not.
In Alabama, if the plaintiff had any liability or contributed in any way to their own injury, they can’t receive any damages from a personal injury lawsuit.
This is why, particularly if the injury was caused by a car accident or similar where liability could be a question, it’s crucial to have a skilled Alabama lawyer who can review the evidence and absolve you of responsibility. In most states, it’s enough to minimize responsibility, but in Alabama, you can’t have any.
How does this work?
Here’s a hypothetical situation that illustrates pure contributory negligence:
Plaintiff Peter is driving his car west on Shades Crest Road in Vestavia Hills, just outside Birmingham. He’s about to turn left onto Columbiana Road because he’s heading north to meet a friend for dinner at an Italian restaurant on Broadway Street, about 4 minutes away. Columbiana Road is a divided road, with 2 lanes heading in each direction. Shades Crest Road has a merge lane onto Columbiana, and Peter is easing into the lane to make his merge.
As he is doing so, defendant Dennis is approaching from the left. Dennis is speeding... easily going 70 mph in a 45 mph speed limit zone. As Peter merges onto Columbiana, he and Dennis collide. Peter is left with severe whiplash and a back injury that requires surgery. He is out of work for 4 months and unable to walk for several weeks.
Although Dennis was clearly exceeding the speed limit and caused the crash, the court finds that Peter could have avoided the accident by braking sooner during his merge, but he didn't properly judge Dennis's speed. Peter is found to be only 10 percent liable for the accident, but that's enough that he, unfortunately, cannot receive damages.
Could the outcome have been different?
Since this is a hypothetical situation, there’s no right or wrong answer and no actual facts or evidence. But in theory, if Peter’s attorney had successfully argued that Dennis was speeding so fast that Peter did not have time to brake, or if there was some other evidence that proved that Peter absolutely could not have avoided the collision, he might have been able to receive damages. This is why a skilled Alabama neck and back injury lawyer will be essential to your case.
Common causes of neck injuries
Some conditions that develop on their own (without an acute injury) can cause neck pain. But often, neck pain is caused by a specific injury. The most common include:
- Falls (either slip-and-fall accidents or falls from heights)
- Excessive twisting of the spine
- Whiplash (in a car accident)
- Blows to the back or top of the head
- Sports-related injuries
- Penetrating injury (stab wounds)
- External pressure applied to the neck (strangulation)
You can probably point to the general “neck” body part on a diagram, but what is it actually? From a medical perspective, the neck includes:
- Bones and joints of the cervical spine (or vertebrae)
- Discs that absorb shock when you move (that separate the cervical vertebrae)
- Muscles and ligaments that hold the cervical spine together
Neck pain can also happen because of normal daily activities that include:
- Forward posture while working, reading, watching TV, etc.
- Using a pillow that’s too high or flat or sleeping with your neck bent in an unusual way
- Experiencing stress or tension, which can make your muscles tighten
- Work or exercise using your upper body
Common causes of back injuries
Your backbone is also called the spine. The spine protects the spinal cord. The spine consists of 33 bones that extend from your skull to the pelvis, including the cartilage discs that separate them—kind of like shock-absorbers.
These bones make up your spine:
- 7 cervical vertebrae that form the upper part of the spine
- 12 thoracic vertebrae between your neck and upper back
- 5 lumbar vertebrae in the lower back between your chest and hips
- 5 sacrum vertebrae at the base of the spine
- 4 fused-together vertebrae that make up the coccyx (tailbone)
Back injuries can be caused in a variety of ways, including lifting heavy objects, sports-related injuries, falls, hits to the back, or even an awkward twist or other motion.
Neck, back and spine injuries caused by car accidents
Car accidents are a leading cause of neck, back and spine accidents. Some of the most common injuries include:
If you’ve been rear-ended in a car accident, you might have experienced whiplash. Whiplash happens when your torso (the midsection of your body) jerks forward when your head moves backward. Your seatbelt usually tightens to stop your body, but your head continues to accelerate forward. That causes the ligaments and muscles in your neck to strain and can damage the spinal cord and vertebrae.
Whiplash can sometimes be treated with massage, physical therapy, medication and rehabilitation.
A discogenic injury (having to do with discs) happens because of a trauma, like a car accident or fall. These kinds of injuries are diagnosed with a Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or tomography exam. These injuries can include:
- Lumbar sprains happen when excessive force causes muscles, ligaments or tendons in the back to stretch to excess.
- Disc herniation happens when a disc ruptures and the substance inside affects the nearby nerves.
- Spinal stenosis can happen gradually or as a result of a trauma like a car crash. A ruptured bone fragment or disc would put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves from the impact.
- Degenerative spine disorders could happen without a trauma but can make a patient predisposed to serious injury. An accident can also aggravate a preexisting degenerative spine disorder.
This condition is characterized by nerve and/or spinal canal compression, which causes pain and numbness. Like whiplash, it occurs most frequently when a car is rear-ended at high speed.
Facet joint injuries
Facet joints connect the vertebrae and allow your body to bend and twist. The impact of a car crash can cause a person to move back and forth quickly, which could make the facet joints collide with each other as the neck jerks.
If you’re in a car accident, you might think you’re fine immediately afterward. However, some symptoms of neck and back injuries could take days, or even weeks, to appear.
You might experience these symptoms after an accident:
- Neck and shoulder stiffness
- Back pain
It’s important to go to a doctor or hospital for a complete medical evaluation immediately after a car accident, even if you don’t think you have back or neck injury symptoms.
Neck and back injury treatment and recovery
It’s critical to seek a diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional instead of trying to treat symptoms yourself. For a minor neck or back injury, these are common treatments that might be prescribed:
- Stabilizing brace. Your doctor might tell you to wear either a neck or back brace to prevent certain parts of your body from moving in a certain way.
- Heat or ice. Heat helps to alleviate muscle tension, and ice can reduce swelling. Depending on the nature of the injury, the doctor might advise you to either use a heat or ice pack on the affected area.
- Pain medication. If you’re offered a prescription painkiller, have a conversation with your doctor about the specific amount and length of time you should take it. Some painkillers are highly addictive, and your doctor should advise you of the risks so you can avoid developing a dependence.
- Physical or rehabilitative therapy. Physical therapy helps your body regain strength and range of motion as well as restore muscle loss.
- Surgery. For serious injuries, surgery can be an option. Your doctor will tell you whether it’s recommended that you have surgery or if there’s a non-invasive treatment available.
Some patients feel there are benefits in chiropractic care, but some insurance companies see it as alternative medicine, so talk with your attorney to see if your treatment can be covered.
If you’re seeking care for a neck or back injury caused by an accident or negligence, you should also seek the advice of an Alabama personal injury lawyer. It’s possible that your injury might not seem serious now, but it could leave you with lasting effects.