The “eggshell skull rule” sounds frightening, but it’s actually a fairly straightforward legal doctrine that helps make certain personal injury plaintiffs recover ALL the damages that stem from their accident.
Let’s take a closer look.
What is the eggshell skull rule?
The “eggshell skull rule” holds that the defendant’s liability won’t be reduced just because the plaintiff is more susceptible to injury than the average plaintiff.
The legal doctrine is most easily understood by looking at the 1891 case that established the doctrine:
Andrew Vosburg v. George Putney
In a schoolroom in Waukesha, Wisconsin, 12-year-old George Putney got into an argument with 14-year-old Andrew Vosburg. The 2 were sitting opposite each other across an aisle when George reached across the aisle with his foot and kicked Andrew lightly in the shin.
The kick likely wouldn’t have injured a healthy child, but Andrew was not healthy. Andrew had a tibia infection and the kick aggravated the infection, resulting in a serious injury that prohibited him from ever recovering full use of the limb.
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that George was liable for the extensive damages caused by his intentional tort even though George didn’t know about Andrew’s weakened condition.
When does the eggshell skull rule apply?
Let’s consider 2 more examples that are more likely to be similar to your situation:
Jane is driving east on Cypress Avenue in Redding, California. She’s texting while driving and doesn’t see the station wagon stopped at the stoplight in front of her until it’s too late. Jane slams on her brakes, but she rear-ends the station wagon.
Though Jane was only traveling 2 miles per hour when she collided with the station wagon, the woman driving the station wagon, Linda, suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (“brittle bone syndrome”) and suffered multiple fractures as a result of the low-impact collision.
Linda files a personal injury lawsuit against Jane demanding $100,000.
At trial, Jane argues that most people wouldn’t have been injured in the crash and that the brittle bone syndrome is responsible for Linda’s injuries.
The court holds that, under the eggshell skull rule, Jane is liable for the full $100,000.
John returns home to his apartment complex after being on vacation for a week. It’s the middle of winter and a snowstorm has created a thick sheet of ice on the apartment complex steps. Despite several complaints by others in the apartment complex, the landlord has failed to treat or remove the ice from the steps.
As John is walking up the steps, he slips and falls on his side. John, who has hemophilia, begins to bleed excessively. He is rushed to the hospital and misses 2 weeks of work as a result of the injury.
John sues his landlord for $100,000.
John’s landlord argues that an otherwise healthy person would have suffered minor scrapes from the fall and he should only be responsible for paying the damages associated with minor scrapes.
The court holds that, under the eggshell skull rule, the landlord is responsible for all of John’s medical bills and lost wages.
Are there any situations when the eggshell skull rule doesn’t apply?
The eggshell skull rule applies to physical injuries in every state. However, only some states allow the plaintiff to apply the eggshell skull rule to mental conditions.
For example, if a plaintiff suffered from PTSD as a result of a car accident, and a subsequent car accident aggravated the PTSD (whereas the subsequent car crash alone wouldn’t have caused PTSD), only some states would allow the plaintiff to recover damages for the aggravation of their PTSD.
The crumbling skull rule
The eggshell skull rule shouldn’t be confused with the crumbling skull rule.
The “crumbling skull rule” holds that, while a defendant is responsible for the damages needed to restore the plaintiff to the position they were in before the accident, the defendant isn’t responsible for putting the plaintiff in a BETTER position.
In other words, the defendant is liable for the injuries caused, even if they are extreme due to the person’s pre-existing condition, but NOT for any debilitating effects of the pre-existing condition that the plaintiff would have experienced anyway.
Let’s look at an example to clarify these 2 rules:
Susan accumulates $200,000 in medical bills to repair the fractures. What’s more, Susan wants to undergo an experimental surgery that would reduce the overall impact of brittle bone syndrome. The surgery would cost $100,000.
Susan sues the restaurant under premises liability laws for $300,000.
Under the eggshell skull rule, the grocery store would be responsible for the $200,000, but not the $100,000 associated with the experimental surgery. To put it another way, the grocery store is not responsible for putting Susan in a better position than the one she was in prior to the accident.