Without doubt the most common injury resulting from car accidents is neck and back pain. And the most common cause of spinal injuries presenting at Royal Perth Hospital and Fiona Stanley Hospital is vehicle related trauma – that is accidents involving cars, motor bikes, pedestrians and bicycle riders. In fact more than half of all spinal injuries treated at the hospitals result from these road accidents.
So what happens if you or a loved one has suffered a spinal injury in a road accident?
If the accident was wholly or partly the result of another road user’s negligence (i.e. if someone driving another car or motorbike caused or contributed to the accident) then a claim can be made against that person’s third party personal injury insurance (the insurer in Western Australia is the Insurance Commission of Western Australia).
Of course back and neck injuries can range from minor stiffness and pain lasting just a few days to completely disabling spinal cord injuries. In the case of the minor injuries, the most that is usually needed is a visit to the GP to check that everything is ok and perhaps some over the counter medication. If the injuries resolve in a few days or weeks then it is generally not practical to pursue a claim.
This may be the case even if the diagnosis is ‘whiplash’ or soft tissue injuries. And don’t be too quick to dismiss whiplash as a minor injury – in some cases these soft tissue injuries can be debilitating with permanent ongoing pain. We have successfully represented many claimants whose only diagnosis was soft tissue injuries but whose claims settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Of course, for the majority of people suffering soft tissue injuries the pain will gradually reduce over a period of months or years. But months or years of suffering with neck or back pain can cause significant financial distress with time off work and ongoing medical treatment. That’s why the compensation for these claims can be significant.
At the other end of the spectrum of spinal injuries is serious damage to the spinal column. The damage may be to the disc, the vertebrae, nerves or the spinal cord itself. The most severe cases will result in paralysis of some or most of the body.
When a person suffers a traumatic spinal column injury the question as to whether they have a claim for personal injuries can make a huge difference to their quality of life. At the time of writing, people injured in motor vehicle accidents for which they are solely responsible (eg a single vehicle car accident) are left to rely on the public health system and disability pension. There is no compensation payable to them however legislation is being considered by the Western Australian Government to introduce no fault compensation in limited cases.
Treatment for serious spinal injuries can easily amount to a hundred thousand dollars or more but once liability for an accident is determined this is usually paid by the Insurance Commission of WA on an ongoing basis. Time off work however will prove for most people to be a serious problem. In cases of severe injuries it is possible to obtain advances for lost income on an ongoing basis to help alleviate some of this stress. This could be the difference between paying the mortgage or losing the family home.
Once a long period of medical rehabilitation is complete it is often possible for someone with a serious neck or back injury to return to work. This can be a very difficult and confusing time for many people, especially if they are unable to return to their previous employment. A vocational rehabilitation provider can often help with this difficult period by assessing what occupations would be suitable and what training or work experience will assist with returning to work. The cost of vocational rehabilitation will usually be paid by the Insurance Commission of WA once liability for a claim is agreed.
Thankfully, many people with serious neck or back injuries are able, with significant medical treatment and rehabilitation, to return to some meaningful employment. Yet even when excellent recoveries are made, it is essential that they be provided with funds to cover possible future deterioration such as arthritis. Such deterioration in their medical condition may necessitate early retirement or retraining, additional medications or further surgeries. In some cases thousands of dollars may need to be allowed for these parts of the claim. In the most severe cases of spinal injuries affecting young people, the allowance for future expenses (medical treatment, time off work, paid services, care, housing modifications etc) can add up to millions of dollars.
The scariest part of finalising a claim for serious injuries is that it generally cannot be reopened in the future – even if it turns out that the injuries are more severe than first imagined. It is therefore essential that any prolonged neck and back pain be investigated by specialist medical practitioners to ensure the best evidence is obtained about the chance of future problems.
The importance of obtaining the best possible medical and legal advice when dealing with neck and back injuries cannot be underestimated. After all, we rely on our spinal health in every aspect of our lives.