The American Medical Association (AMA) defines a catastrophic injury as a severe injury to the spine, spinal cord, or brain, that may also include skull or spinal fractures. When used legally, the term “catastrophic injury” may refer to the injuries in the AMA definition, but may also refer to any severe injury that results in long-term or permanent pain or bodily damage. The law labels an injury as catastrophic by the injury’s expected outcome, rather than only by which parts of the body are severely injured. Per the U.S. Code § 3796b, a catastrophic injury is any injury that “permanently prevents an individual from performing any gainful work.”
Some examples of injuries that may be catastrophic injuries include:
Catastrophic injuries can be caused by a wide variety of circumstances. Some examples of common causes of catastrophic injuries include:
The most common cause of catastrophic injury is motor vehicle accidents. Car accidents, truck accidents, bus accidents, and motorcycle accidents can all cause an immense amount of damage, since these involve heavy machinery traveling at high speeds. Car accidents are frequently responsible for serious injuries and catastrophic injuries, including traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, internal bleeding, organ damage, burns, and disfigurement.
California law allows more than one party to be held liable for an injury. Depending on the circumstances involved in a catastrophic injury case, one party may be liable for the injury or a combination of parties may be liable for the injury.
Liability in a California injury case is typically determined based on negligence. If an injury occured due to someone’s negligence, an injury victim could show proof that this party’s negligent actions led to their injury in order to pursue damages.
In some cases, liability in a California injury case may be governed by strict liability. Notably, strict liability can come into play in product defect cases and dog bite cases. In these types of circumstances, an accident victim could be entitled to hold an at-fault party responsible for their losses without having to prove negligence.
Catastrophic injuries can be caused by a vast variety of circumstances, which means that many different types of individuals or entities could potentially be liable for a catastrophic injury, whether they are liable due to negligence or California’s strict liability laws. Some examples of the types of parties that could potentially be held liable for a catastrophic injury include:
Non-economic damages are meant to compensate a victim for their intangible, non-economic losses (such as their pain). Some examples of non-economic damages that could be available in a catastrophic injury case include:
If a catastrophic injury caused by negligence or malice leads to a person’s death, the deceased person’s family may be able to recover damages by filing a wrongful death claim. Per California law, surviving family members may be able to recover any “just” damages. This vague wording can make determining damages in a wrongful death case complex, since what is “just” may vary on a case-by-case basis. However, there are some damages that may be commonly available in a California wrongful death claim, including:
Establishing damages in a wrongful death case can be challenging. Often, successfully establishing damages in this type of case requires expert analysis. One of the more challenging damages to establish is the dollar amount that should be assigned to the loss of the decedent’s reasonably expected income. Accurately determining how much income a person would have made over the course of their life (this is also something that frequently must be calculated in non-fatal catastrophic injury cases) requires thoughtful consideration, research, and calculation. One must consider a person’s life expectancy, the normal course of advancement in the person’s career role, inflation, bonuses, education, and abilities. Due to the complex nature of calculating and proving these types of damages, the services of a personal injury lawyer that specializes in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases can be invaluable.
The State of California’s statute of limitations for personal injury cases is generally two years from the time of injury. However, there are exceptions to this timeline in specific circumstances. Notably, the statute of limitations is shorter if an injury case involves malpractice or a government entity. California malpractice claims must generally be brought within a year from when a patient discovered (or should have discovered) the injury. Personal injury claims that involve government entities have an even shorter statute of limitations: six months from the time of the injury.
The statute of limitations for a catastrophic injury case may also be longer than two years from the time of the injury in certain cases. For example, in cases of delayed discovery, the statute of limitations for filing a catastrophic injury claim or lawsuit may be extended to a year after the injury was (or should have been) discovered. Examples of catastrophic injuries that may not be discovered right away include a traumatic brain injury discovered months after a car accident or asbestosis that presents after years of asbestos exposure.