What Is a Catastrophic Injury? – Understanding Catastrophic Injury Law & Compensation in California

Last Updated on: 23rd August 2022, 07:16 am

While car accidents, workplace accidents, and falls usually result in minor to moderate injuries, tens of thousands of people ever year sustain a catastrophic injury that affects them for the rest of their life.

Have you or a loved one been catastrophically injured? You are entitled to compensation from the at-fault party but recovering fair compensation for a life-changing injury can be challenging. Here is what you should know about catastrophic injury claims in California and how a catastrophic injury lawyer can help you.

What Is a Catastrophic Injury?

Catastrophic injuries are generally defined as permanent or long-term impairment or loss of use of an organ or limb, or an inability to perform gainful work. A catastrophic injury drastically alters the victim’s life and/or ability to work.

Catastrophic injuries may involve long-term or permanent cognitive impairment, paralysis, loss of hearing or vision, organ damage, or even significant scarring.

Depending on your lifestyle, hobbies, and employment, the catastrophic injury definition can be quite broad. Someone who is an avid skier may be catastrophically injured if they are no longer able to ski again, even if they are still able to walk and maintain gainful employment.

Definition of Catastrophic Injury

California personal injury law does not have a specific definition of a catastrophic injury, unlike some states. This is because some states operate a “no-fault” system in which injury victims must go through their own insurance policy to recover damages and cannot seek non-economic damages unless they are catastrophically injured.

In California, a specific legal catastrophic injury definition isn’t strictly necessary as victims are entitled to seek financial and non-economic damages from the at-fault party without overcoming a hurdle based on the severity of their injuries.

However, it’s still important to recognize when an injury is catastrophic because these injury claims can easily be worth millions in damages. Catastrophically injured victims will face lifelong consequences and medical expenses. This means insurance companies will invest more money and effort into limiting the payout for catastrophic injuries.

Types of Catastrophic Injuries

A catastrophic injury is any injury that significantly impacts your ability to work and/or quality of life. Catastrophic injury examples include:

  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Paralysis
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Disfigurement
  • Severe burns
  • Severe organ damage
  • Occupational illnesses like mesothelioma
  • Amputation
  • Injuries that cause loss of hearing or vision

Berman & Riedel, LLP represents clients who have suffered all types of catastrophic injuries. If you have suffered a catastrophic back injury, head injury, or other type of life-changing injury, we are ready to help you.

Common Catastrophic Accidents & Statistics

Any type of accident can result in catastrophic injuries. The most common types of catastrophic accidents involve:

  • Motor vehicle accidents including car accidents, motorcycle accidents, and truck accidents. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries and traumatic amputations and the second leading cause of traumatic brain injuries.
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Falls which are the leading cause of TBI
  • Workplace accidents, a leading cause of traumatic amputation, TBI, spinal cord injuries, hearing and vision loss, and disfiguring injuries.
  • Sports-related accidents
  • Medical malpractice including birth injuries
  • Premises liability accidents
  • Defective products

How common are catastrophic injuries?

Spinal cord injuries: Research indicates there are about 17,800 new spinal cord injury cases every year in the United States. There are about 294,000 people living with a SCI in the United States. Vehicle accidents are responsible for almost 39% of spinal cord injuries followed by falls (32%), violence (14%), and sports (8%).

Traumatic brain injuries: Between 1.5 and 2.8 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) every year in the United States. There are about 64,000 TBI-related deaths every year. About 75% of TBI injuries seen in ERs are mild, but around 70,000 TBI cases each year result in permanent impairment and long-term disability.

About 28% of TBIs are caused by falls followed by traffic accidents (20%), being struck by or against objects (19%), and violence (11%).

Pedestrian accidents: There were an estimated 6,516 pedestrian fatalities and 55,000 pedestrian injuries nationwide in 2020 according to the NHTSA. More than 14,000 injuries and 893 pedestrian deaths occurred in California in 2018 alone.

Amputations: There are at least 30,000 traumatic amputations every year in the U.S., 70% of which involve upper limbs. The most common causes of accidental amputations include traffic accidents, workplace accidents, agricultural accidents (such as lawnmower accidents), firearm and fireworks accidents, and electrical shock. There are nearly 2 million Americans living with amputation. About 25% of amputations in the U.S. are traumatic and accidental.

Eye injuries: About 1 million eye injuries occur every year and around 90% are preventable. Around 300,000 eye injuries each year are the result of workplace accidents.

Workplace accidents: 2.7 million non-fatal workplace injuries occurred in 2020 alone according to the BLS. There were 4,764 fatal workplace injuries that year, but many more were catastrophically injured on the job.

Catastrophic Injury Law in California

After a catastrophic injury victims have the right to seek compensation from the at-fault party. However, it’s important to understand your rights as California personal injury law affects how long you have to make a claim and the compensation you can recover.

California’s Pure Comparative Negligence System

The pure comparative negligence standard in California can affect the compensation you can recover in your personal injury case. Under this system, you can recover any share of damages that the defendant caused. However, if you share any amount of fault for your injuries, your compensation is reduced proportionately.

As an example, suppose you are injured in a car accident and suffer $85,000 in damages. If you had no fault in the crash, you would be entitled to the full $85,000 from the at-fault party. If a jury decides your own negligence contributed to the crash and you were 20% at fault, your award would be reduced by 20% to $68,000.

The defendant and their lawyer will likely try to shift as much blame as possible onto you to reduce how much they are responsible to pay.

Punitive Damages in California

A small number of personal injury cases are eligible for punitive damages which can be awarded on top of compensatory damages (economic and non-economic damages). In California, punitive damages can only be awarded if you can show clear, convincing evidence that the at-fault party acted with fraud, oppression, or malice.

California Civil Code 3294 defines oppression, malice, and fraud as:

  • Intentionally concealing or misrepresenting material facts known to the defendant with the intention of depriving someone of their legal rights, property, or causing injury,
  • Despicable behavior that subjects someone to cruel, unjust hardship through conscious disregard of the person’s rights,
  • Despicable behavior by the defendant carried out with conscious, willful disregard for the safety or rights of others, or
  • Behavior intended to cause injury to the plaintiff.

Cap on Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

There is generally no cap on the damages you can recover in a personal injury lawsuit, although in practice what you can recover will be limited by the at-fault party’s insurance coverage and assets.

Medical malpractice claims are an exception. Even if you suffer catastrophic injuries due to medical malpractice, you cannot recover more than $250,000 in non-economic damages.

Statute of Limitations for Catastrophic Injury Cases

You have a limited amount of time to file a personal injury lawsuit. In California, you generally have two years from the date of your injury. If your claim is against a government agency, you may have as little as 6 months. Medical malpractice claims must be brought within one year of when you knew or should have known about your injury, and you must give the healthcare provider 90 days’ notice before filing a lawsuit. In some cases, you have more time to bring a claim.

It’s important to consult with an experienced injury lawyer as soon as possible, no matter how much time you have left to bring your claim. A delay in pursuing your case can make it harder to gather evidence needed to prove liability and the extent of your damages. This is particularly true if you have been catastrophically injured as your case will likely involve a thorough investigation and working with experts in many fields.

Compensation for a Catastrophic Injury

By their very nature, catastrophic injuries have a significant impact on your life and ability to work. You have the right to seek compensation from the at-fault party responsible for your injuries.

Because a catastrophic injury can result in life-long medical needs and disability, the financial damages alone can exceed $1 million. According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the average cost of paraplegia is $2.5 million for a 25-year-old or $1.65 million for a 50-year-old. The cost of high tetraplegia increases to $2.52 to $5.16 million depending on age. These costs only include health care and living costs and do not even consider lost wages, pain, and suffering.

Damages in catastrophic injury claims may include:

  • Medical expenses you have already incurred
  • Projected cost of future medical costs
  • Lost wages
  • Reduced or lost earning capacity with future wages based on your income-earning capacity
  • Property damage
  • Non-economic damages for pain, suffering, emotional distress, reduced quality of life, loss of enjoyment of life, disfigurement, and more

In rare cases, you may be entitled to punitive damages as well. Punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer for the actions that caused your catastrophic injuries and provide compensation beyond your actual damages.

How Much Is a Catastrophic Injury Case Worth?

Catastrophic injury claims are often worth $1 million or more. However, there is no way to estimate the value of your case without carefully considering unique factors like:

  • Type and severity of injuries
  • Your lifestyle before your accident
  • Long-term medical care you will need
  • Whether you are able to work in any capacity
  • Your education, age, and earning capacity
  • Insurance coverage available
  • Strength of your case and any shared liability

The value of your case requires calculating not only the financial losses you have suffered but projected future damages. This includes lost wages, employment benefits, home adaptations, medical care, and home care. Your catastrophic injury lawyer will work with experts to calculate these damages.

Your non-economic damages like pain, suffering, emotional distress, reduced quality of life, and disfigurement will play a large role in how much your catastrophic injury case is worth. These damages can be estimated by multiplying your economic damages by a factor of 2 to 5, but every case is unique.

Whether you reach a settlement or your case is decided by a jury is also a factor. Only jury verdicts are public information, but many catastrophic injury cases result in multi-million-dollar jury awards. Catastrophic injury settlements are confidential. Taking your case before a jury has the potential to result in more compensation for your injuries, especially if you are entitled to punitive damages, but trials are expensive and time-consuming, particularly when catastrophic injuries are involved.

Why You Need a California Catastrophic Injury Lawyer

An experienced catastrophic injury attorney is critical to recovering the full compensation you deserve when you are catastrophically injured. There are many ways in which the catastrophic injury lawyers at Berman & Riedel, LLP protect your best interests and build the strongest case possible.

Insurance companies invest significant resources in fighting catastrophic injury claims

Because catastrophic injury settlements can easily reach millions, insurance companies are prepared to invest a significant amount of money and resources to reduce payouts as much as possible.

You will be up against a team of lawyers who will attempt to find weaknesses in your claim, minimize the severity of your injuries and damages, and blame you for your accident.

Under California’s pure comparative negligence system, every 1% of fault the plaintiff can shift to you reduces the damages they need to pay. An experienced California catastrophic injury attorney will fight back against attempts to shift blame.

Working with experts is necessary to prove your future damages

The value of future medical needs and lost earnings are extremely difficult to estimate. When it comes to catastrophic injuries, this is best done by experts who can testify about the nature of your injuries and the type of care you will need.

Your injury lawyer may work with medical experts who can testify about the extent of your injuries, the limitations you will face, how your injuries are treated, and the care you will need in the future. Financial experts can present data backing up the value of future earnings, employment benefits, and retirement contributions you will lose due to your injury.

Valuing non-economic damages requires persuasion and skill

Because non-economic damages do not have a financial value, it’s often left to a jury to decide how much a victim’s pain, suffering, and reduced quality of life is worth. A catastrophic personal injury lawyer must use skilled narrative to demonstrate these damages to a jury.

Psychological evaluations and testimony from friends, family members, and colleagues can all help to illustrate just how your injuries have changed your life. Your lawyer will present a persuasive case that demonstrates the affect of your injuries on raising children, participating in your favorite hobbies, and disruption to relationships.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a California Catastrophic Injury Attorney

Berman & Riedel, LLP is a prominent San Diego personal injury law firm representing victims throughout California. If you have been catastrophically injured due to someone else’s negligent or criminal behavior, we will fight tirelessly to help you seek justice and the compensation you need to preserve your quality of life.

Berman & Riedel, LLP has recovered more than $100 million in verdicts and settlements. Our case results include $8 million in a defective product case that caused traumatic brain injury and a seizure disorder and $3.3 million in a case involving a negligent driver who injured a pregnant woman and infant.

Contact our law office today for a free case review with a San Diego catastrophic injury lawyer to discuss how we can help you.

About Berman & Riedel, LLP firm managing partner attorney William M. Berman:

Attorney William M. Berman focuses his practice in the areas of catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death and elder abuse and neglect. Strictly a plaintiffs’ dedicated firm, he never represents insurance companies in the defense of claims. Mr. Berman’s firm remains staunchly committed to helping those who have suffered serious injury or loss due the negligence, intentional misconduct or wrongful acts of others.

Mr. Berman has grown his firm to what is considered one of the largest and most successful elder abuse/neglect practices within California. Through his continued successes in handling claims involving nursing home and elder abuse and neglect, Mr. Berman remains a prominent figure in advocating on behalf of this vulnerable class of citizens.

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Attorney Bill Berman

William M. Berman, Esquire
Berman & Riedel, LLP
12264 El Camino Real, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92130
ph: (858) 350-8855
fax: (858) 350-9855
web: www.bermanlawyers.com