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Pre-Existing Spinal Injury Lawsuit Settled for $380,000 by Piccuta Law Group
This week, the Piccuta Law Group issued a six-figure check to its client from a $380,000 settlement the firm obtained on his behalf. The case arose out of a low-impact car accident that occurred in Santa Cruz, California. The lawsuit was entitled K.N. v. T.O., Et Al. (initials used to protect medical information contained herein). The personal injury lawsuit was filed in Santa Cruz County Superior Court. The settlement was obtained two weeks before trial and after the case had been litigated for more than a year.
Some Facts About the Car Accident Case
The firm’s client was driving in downtown Santa Cruz when his work truck was struck from behind by another driver. The driver who hit the client was driving a 2012 Ford escape. The client’s vehicle had less than $1,500 in damage. The vehicle of the at-fault driver did not sustain significant damage either. The minimal damage to the at-fault driver’s vehicle is seen pictured to the right.
After inspecting his vehicle, the client returned to work that same day. The client then presented to Urgent Care the following day complaining of neck and back pain. He was diagnosed with a cervical strain (whiplash) and degenerative disc disease. The client had a handful of visits to Urgent Care before starting physical therapy. He then completed about ten physical therapy appointments over the course of eight weeks for his neck pain. The client then asked to be discharged from physical therapy as he did not believe it was helping him.
The client had no further appointments or medical treatment for more than a year. Approximately 18 months later, the client met with an orthopedic surgeon for his neck pain. An MRI was ordered. After reading the results of the MRI, the surgeon advised he could perform a surgery that may give the client relief from his pain.
The client eventually underwent an anterior cervical discectomy fusion with cage and plate. In common terms, he underwent a neck surgery where hardware was placed in his spine. The surgery involved taking out a diseased disc that was irritating his nerves. Hardware was then inserted to ensure that the spinal space was maintained between the two bone segments from which the disc was removed. Images showing the client’s spine with the hardware implanted are below.
The Difficult and Unfavorable Issues in the Case
The case had several challenges and issues that were unfavorable to the client. Each issue provided the insurance company with a reasonable belief that they could win the case. Each issue gave a basis for allowing the insurance company not to pay a large settlement. Each of those issues is highlighted below:
- First, the client had a long history of cervical spine issues and pain before the accident. His neck pain before the accident was so severe, that he had underwent multiple epidural injections in his neck. The client had an epidural injection in his cervical spine as recently as 15 months before the car accident.
- Second, the client had a history of activities that could be associated with causing his neck pain and cervical spinal issues other than the car accident. The client was a competitive rodeo rider and was in the construction trade for decades.
- Third, the client went nearly a year and a half with no medical treatment at all before meeting with the spine surgeon and getting the spine surgery.
- Fourth, the client’s entire cervical spine was diseased and showed arthritic and degenerative changes at multiple levels, not just at the disc level operated on.
- Fifth, the damage to both vehicles was minimal.
- Sixth, the client had received a portion of his medical treatment on a lien.
- Seventh, the client had a history of pain and depression, which neutralized any argument that the client should receive a significant damage award for these two items.
- Eighth, the client had a difficult history with respect to personal issues. He was a convicted felon and was fighting drug addiction.
- Ninth, the case was previously filed and handled by a different attorney who brought our firm in at the last minute to try the case when it was realized that no settlement would be offered.
- Tenth, the case was being defended by a skilled insurance defense law firm out of the bay area with a proven track record of results and defense victories.
Despite the above, our Monterey injury lawyers met the challenges head on and prepared the case for trial.
Presenting the Negative Facts In a Way that Favored Our Client
Our firm was not intimidated by the negative facts of the case. Instead, our firm looked to turn each negative fact into a positive. The most important issues we neutralized were: 1) the low-impact nature of the crash and 2) our client’s previous history of neck pain and treatment.
Specifically, we argued that our client had fully recovered from his previous neck problems and was largely asymptomatic prior to the crash. Even if our client had a diseased/arthritic spine, he was not having problems at the time of the crash. As such, the crash was the likely cause of all his subsequent problems and need for medical care and surgery. We argued that the crash exacerbated an asymptomatic (at the time) pre-existing medical condition. In simple terms, this means that the crash aggravated and restarted the client’s neck problems at a point in time when those problems were fully under control and at a time when the client was no longer having any pain or symptoms.
We further argued that although the impact was at a lower speed with minimal damage, it was enough to cause injury to our client since his neck was especially susceptible to aggravation and reinjury. Where a perfectly health client with no cervical spinal issues may have suffered no injury from the crash, such was not our client. Our client was fragile, so to speak, in that his neck was already diseased. Where a lower impact collision may have not caused the injury to someone else—it did to our client.
The Eggshell Plaintiff Legal Principle
Fortunately, as our skilled injury lawyers knew, California law directly supported our legal argument and theory of the case on these main issues. California law holds that you take your client as you find them. This is known as the “eggshell plaintiff” legal principle. In other words, even if the client is as frail as an eggshell, if someone causes him or her harm, that person is responsible.
Another way to think of this is with this example. If someone crashes into a vehicle at 15 miles per hour, that may not cause injury to a perfectly healthy strong individual—say Lebron James for example. Lebron’s physical stature, strength, athleticism, health, flexibility, etc., may allow him to walk away from that impact unaffected. Lebron’s stronger neck muscles and hulk like shoulders may support his head in a way where he can withstand the forces of the crash without injury.
In sum, the focus is not on whether or not the car accident or impact could have hurt the average person, it is whether or not the car accident or impact hurt the actual individual in the vehicle.
However, if that same exact 15 mile per hour impact involves a frail 90-year old grandmother. She may not be so lucky. She is skin and bones. She is elderly. She is fragile. She does not have the strength, physical stature or health to experience those same forces without sustaining an injury. If she does sustain an injury, California law allows her to recover for her damages. In sum, the focus is not on whether or not the car accident or impact could have hurt the average person, it is whether or not the car accident or impact hurt the actual individual in the vehicle. This is true even if the individual who was hurt was as frail as an eggshell. In this case, we argued that our client and his cervical spine were.
A Pre-existing Condition Is Actually Helpful In Proving a Low-Impact Car Accident Case
This argument was especially helpful in this case because of the minor damage to the vehicles. Defense lawyers and insurance companies constantly argue that low-impact car accidents, that do not cause significant vehicle damage, cannot cause the forces necessary to cause injuries. These defense lawyers and insurance companies rely on “studies” and “experiments” commissioned by the insurance industry to support these findings. These “studies” supposedly show that low-impact car accidents create forces no greater than those experienced in routine activities of daily living. Those daily activities, supposedly capable of causing the same forces as a low-impact car accident, include:
- A hardy slap on the back by a friend
- Driving over a speed bump at 5 miles per hour
- Sitting down in a chair from a standing position
- Sudden turn of the head over a shoulder as if checking for traffic
- Simple hop off an 8-inch step with both feet
- Plopping backward into a low-back office chair
Anyone who has been involved in a low-impact car accident (between 10-20 miles per hour) knows that the forces experienced in the crash far exceeds these daily living activities.
These “studies” are biased, flawed and inaccurate. They are simply not supported by reliable and scientific methodologies and principles. Obviously, the individuals undergoing the studies are aware of the study and can prepare or brace for the impact. Further, these studies wholly fail to take into consideration the individuals in the car accidents and their conditions. Simply put, there is no study on the face of the earth that could equate what forces were necessary to cause aggravation or reinjury to our client and his specific medical condition. Our attorneys can prove that such “studies” are completely worthless in most cases, but especially in a case where the client had a pre-existing injury and was unusually susceptible to injury. Contrary to what one may think, our injury lawyers believe that a pre-existing injury is actually helpful to proving a low-impact car accident case, as long as the injury was not symptomatic immediately before the accident.
How to Prove an Aggravation of a Pre-Existing Condition Under California Law
Under California law, you must prove four things to recover for an exacerbation (aggravation) of a pre-existing condition.
- That you had a physical or emotional condition before the incident
- The physical or emotional condition was made worse by the incident
- The conduct of the at fault party was not a trivial factor in making the condition worse
- That you were damaged as a result
California’s Form Jury Instruction 3927 is entitled “Aggravation of Pre-existing Condition or Disability” and provides as follows:
[Plaintiff/hurt party] is not entitled to damages for any physical or emotional condition that [Plaintiff/hurt party] had before [Defendant/at-fault party’s] conduct occurred. However, if [Plaintiff/hurt party] had a physical or emotional condition that was made worse by [Defendant/at-fault party’s] wrongful conduct, you must award damages that will reasonably and fairly compensate [Plaintiff/hurt party] for the effect on that condition.
The Result Obtained By Our Monterey Personal Injury Attorneys
A settlement of $380,000 was eventually obtained within ten days before the start of trial. Prior to our firm’s involvement in the case and preparation of the case for trial, no settlement amount was offered. The case involved significant expert work and depositions. Charles Tony Piccuta was required to travel to Daly City, Sacramento and Los Angeles for expert depositions. The work and travel our firm put into the case paid off for the client as he received a sum of money that is life-changing for him. He now has the opportunity to start anew and has enough money for a down payment on a house.
Like this and every case, the defendant and insurance company did not want to pay out. Simply put, insurance companies are not handing out easy cash. Just to get fair value on a case, your attorney must prove that he is willing to put in the work and take the case to trial. You must beat the money out of the other side. No one is writing a six-figure check otherwise. The personal injury attorneys at the Piccuta Law Group are willing to do the hard work to get the larger settlements our clients deserve. There is no better feeling then a satisfied and thankful client. In this case, the client sent the following thank you message which made all the work worth it.
Contact One of Our Monterey Personal Injury Attorneys Today
If you or a loved one need an attorney willing to put in the work and fight for you, contact the Piccuta Law Group today. One of our Monterey personal injury attorneys is available now to discuss your case and provide a free consultation.
About the author: The content on this page was written by Monterey personal injury attorney and civil rights lawyer Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Ranked Top 35 US News & World Report 2018). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
Disclaimer: The information on this web site is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues.