Are catastrophic injuries treated differently than less-serious injuries under the law?
All injuries are not created equal. It’s no wonder then that the law treats minor injuries different from catastrophic injuries.
If you suffered a catastrophic injury, you may be able to recover additional damages to help you on your road to recovery. There are, however, some things you should keep in mind.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at catastrophic injuries and catastrophic injury claims in Tennessee.
Common catastrophic injuries
The term “catastrophic injury” is a broad term typically used to describe any injury that leaves the victim with permanent damages. Common catastrophic injuries include:
In Tennessee, “catastrophic injury” also has a specific legal definition when used in the context of determining which damages cap applies to a personal injury lawsuit (more on this later). In this specific context, the term “catastrophic injury” includes the following injuries:
- Spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia
- Amputation of 2 hands, 2 feet, or 1 of each
- Third-degree burns covering 40% or more of the total body
- Third-degree burns covering 40% or more of the face
- Wrongful death of a parent leaving a surviving minor child
Causes of catastrophic injuries
Tennesseans spent a total of roughly 3.7 million days in Tennessee hospitals in 2019. Though any accident can result in a catastrophic injury, there are certain accidents that are more likely to cause catastrophic injuries, such as:
When can you sue for a catastrophic injury?
A personal injury lawsuit is an option for you if someone else was “at fault” for your catastrophic injury. The terms “at fault” and “liability” refer to a negligent or intentional failure to act reasonably or according to a specific legal duty.
Let’s take a quick look at lawsuits based on negligence and lawsuits based on intentional acts:
Catastrophic injury claims based on negligence
When someone is careless and their carelessness causes an injury to another person, the person may be held liable under the legal principle of negligence.
To prove negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff must establish that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care (in most cases, the duty of care owed is a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person would act under the circumstances),
- The defendant breached the duty of care (by, for example, acting unreasonably), and
- The breach was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
The boy’s parents sued Durham, arguing that the bus company was negligent for failing to take steps outlined in its own internal policies to ensure that the bus driver waited until the scheduled pick-up time before leaving the stop.
The court found that Durham was negligent and partially at fault for the boy’s injuries.
Catastrophic injury lawsuits based on intentional acts
A catastrophic injury can be caused by an intentional act (sometimes called an intentional tort). The most obvious example is when someone commits battery or assault, but there are other intentional acts that may cause catastrophic injuries—including:
- Sexual abuse/sexual assault
Notably, an injured person can sue a police officer, but there are some legal limitations to keep in mind.
Catastrophic injuries at work
If you suffered a catastrophic injury as a result of a workplace accident, you may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim.
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that pays financial benefits to employees who are injured while performing their job duties. Most catastrophic injuries are covered so long as the injury occurred during the course of employment. What’s more, most employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance.
The biggest difference between a workers’ compensation claim and a personal injury lawsuit is that you don’t have to prove that anyone was “at fault” to receive financial benefits through a workers’ compensation claim.
Compensation for a catastrophic injury
Unfortunately, catastrophic injuries almost always mean catastrophic costs. Though most injuries result in medical expenses, catastrophic injuries often result in substantial long-term medical expenses. These expenses might include the cost of:
- Surgeries and treatments
- Therapy (physical and mental therapy)
- In-home care or nursing home
There’s also usually a lost income component to a catastrophic injury. For example, a professional ballet dancer who suffers a catastrophic spine injury will most likely lose income as a result of no longer being able to perform the job they performed prior to the injury.
When it comes to recovering damages for a catastrophic injury in Tennessee, there’s both good and bad news.
The good news is that Tennessee allows plaintiffs to recover economic, non-economic, and punitive damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses associated with your injury (medical expenses, lost wages, etc.)
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary damages associated with your injury (pain and suffering, etc.)
- Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are available in cases where the defendant’s actions were malicious, fraudulent, or reckless.
The bad news is that Tennessee places a damages cap (i.e., a limit to the amount you can receive in a lawsuit) on both non-economic damages and punitive damages.
Non-economic damages are capped in the amount of $750,000. In cases where the plaintiff suffers “catastrophic injuries,” the cap is increased to $1 million.
Additionally, Tennessee places a cap on punitive damages in the amount of $500,000—or twice the amount of the compensatory damages awarded, whichever is greater.
Resources for survivors of a catastrophic injury
Catastrophic injuries are traumatic. Research has long shown that strong support services are vital in recovering from a traumatic event. With that in mind, here are some resources for catastrophic injury victims in Tennessee:
- The United Spinal Association of Tennessee connects and empowers individuals in Tennessee whose lives are impacted by spinal cord injuries.
- The Tennessee Department of Health created an extensive directory and resource information guide to help individuals with a traumatic brain injury find financial and emotional support.
- Camp Hope is a camp for pediatric burn survivors.
- The Tennessee Amputation Coalition can help amputees find a support group near them.
- The Trauma Survivors Network at Vanderbilt offers resources and programs for trauma survivors and their families.