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Words matter, and how you describe a patient’s medical condition can affect your personal injury lawsuit
The news media creates sensational headlines intentionally—you’ve heard the term “click bait,” right? When an accident happens, the news wants to write a headline that makes the injuries or incident so dramatic that you need to click to read about it. It’s human nature to be drawn to drama, particularly when the accident or incident hits close to home. We want to know who, why, how, and all the details.
Sometimes, though, the news media tosses around terms like critically, gravely, or fatally injured. Or they describe a person as being “wounded.” Is that the same as injured? Or do these words have different meanings? How do you sort out what actually happened?
People who write headlines for the news media aren’t lawyers, and the words have different meanings. This is important if you need to file a personal injury lawsuit related to accident injuries.
If you’re injured or you represent a family member who suffered a serious injury, it is helpful to understand the “lingo” and the distinctions between serious types of injuries.
Critical, grave, or fatal injury — what do these words mean?
What is a critical injury?
A critical injury is a serious, life-threatening injury. It is fatal if not handled immediately. When a hospital lists a patient as critical, it means their vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. A critically injured person has a high risk of death if they don’t receive immediate medical treatment.
What is a grave injury?
A person who is gravely injured is in very serious condition and could be experiencing a life-threatening situation. Their condition is not immediately life-threatening and they might survive if they receive proper medical treatment within a reasonable period of time.
What is a fatal injury?
An injury that is so severe that it results in death is a fatal injury. This person has little to no chance of survival, regardless of the medical treatment they receive and how quickly.
In the immediate aftermath of an injury or accident, a hospital may release certain types of information about a patient’s condition. This is governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
HIPAA allows hospital to release information as follows about a patient’s condition:
|Undetermined||Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment.|
|Good||Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.|
|Fair||Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious but might be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.|
|Serious||Vital signs might be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.|
|Critical||Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient might be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.|
What’s the difference between being “injured” and being “wounded”?
A “wound” is an injury that tears the flesh. An “injury” is the general term for any other hurt or loss that happens from an accident.
This might sound like a distinction that only your high school English teacher would know or care about, but when it comes to the law, words matter.
Back in 2018, one missing comma in state law resulted in a $5 million settlement to delivery drivers who worked for a Portland, Maine dairy. It sounds like a punchline of a bad lawyer joke, but the one missing comma changed a legal exemption that affected how workers were paid for doing their jobs.
Legal medicine is the term that applies knowledge of medicine to questions of civil and criminal law in order to build and settle complicated legal matters like lawsuits.
Law and medicine are closely intertwined because many personal injury lawsuits rely on the testimony of medical experts to determine exactly how a plaintiff’s injury was caused.
Your medical condition after an accident is very important because it is often the crucial factor in determining whether or not you can recover damages in a personal injury claim.
How damages are determined in a personal injury lawsuit
In a personal injury case, you’re entitled to compensation from the person or company legally responsible for your injuries. The legal term for this compensation is “damages.” The amount of damages may be agreed to by the parties after a negotiation or may be decided by a judge or jury after a civil trial.
Damages can be broken down into compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are intended to compensate a person for the losses associated with their injuries. Punitive damages are rare and are intended to punish the responsible party.
One of the primary determinants for compensation is medical expenses. An injury almost always requires medical treatment and medical care is expensive. Correctly assessing a patient’s injury status (as critical, grave, or otherwise) is an important part of figuring out what they should be owed in compensation.
Some examples of medical expenses include:
- Hospital stays
- Emergency room visits
- Physical therapy
- Massage therapy
This could also be important if part of the lawsuit involves a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental distress. PTSD and mental anguish are psychological conditions that can be the result of witnessing or experiencing trauma.
These 5 factors would be considered in calculating damages for PTSD:
- Severity of injuries. You might not have severe physical injury from the trauma itself, but the PTSD can result in physical and psychological issues that are long-lasting and require ongoing treatment or inpatient care.
- Lost wages or decreased earning capacity. If a doctor determines that PTSD has decreased your ability to work, you can claim damages for lost wages.
- Pain and suffering. There are two methods used to determine what a plaintiff can recover in pain and suffering damages.
- Multiplier method: This calculation takes the amount of medical expenses and multiplies by a negotiated figure between 1.5 and 5, based on the severity of the trauma, in order to reach a figure for pain and suffering.
- Per diem method: “Per diem” means “per day.” States that use the daily rate would use a figure such as your average daily rate of pay and multiply it by the number of days you’re likely to experience pain and suffering.
- Punitive damages. Punitive damages are added to a personal injury award in order to punish the defendant for an especially egregious or malicious act that caused the injury.
- Insurance and assets. Often, the amount of damages for a pain and suffering lawsuit can be influenced by whether the defendant’s insurance policy can cover the cost, or whether the defendant has assets in the amount of the award.
The more severe your initial injury, the more likely that you can make a claim for emotional distress.
If you’ve suffered a serious injury, or if you’ve lost a loved one and are considering a wrongful death lawsuit, understanding both the legal and medical terms is important. If you were seriously injured, contact a personal injury attorney to learn your legal options.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.