Between 800 and 1200 people experience a traumatic spinal cord injury every year in the UK alone, the most at risk age group being those aged between 15 and 25. The majority of these cases result in permanent paralysis. In total, there are something like 40,000 people living with the effects of spinal cord injury in the UK, equivalent to around 1 in 1,500. Most of these people are full time wheelchair users. According to a survey carried out by the British Associaton of Spinal Cord Injury Specialists (BASCIS) in the year 2000, the most common causes of spinal cord injury are road traffic accidents, domestic accidents and incidents while playing sport. From their survey the figures for that year were:
- road traffic accidents 36%
- falls 42%
- sport 12%
- other 10%
Spinal cord injuries are almost always very serious, and generally result in some level of paralysis. The location of the injury and the degree of damage are the two main factors that determine the resulting disability. A serious injury to the neck may lead to paralysis in the arms, legs and torso, with impaired breathing and impairments to other bodily functions. This is known as tetraplegia or quadriplegia. Injuries at or below chest level, usually affect only the legs and lower body. This is called paraplegia. Catastrophic spinal injury occurs only in a small percentage of accidents. However, if you have experienced such an injury as a result of the actions of another party, then it is important to begin pursuing a claim as soon as possible. The sooner a case is begun, the easier it is to establish the facts about the accident. Evidence can be gathered, and witness statements prepared. The more time that elapses after the event, the poorer a witness’s recollection is likely to be. There is a time limit of 3 years in most cases, within which the litigation process must begin.
There are three main elements of any claim for compensation. You must be able to prove that:
- You have indeed suffered a spinal or spinal cord injury.
- Another person’s actions caused that injury.
- The other person was at least partly to blame.
You will have to show that the party you are claiming against owed you a duty of care, and breached that duty. You will also have to show that the type of injury that you sustained was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of that negligence. Medical evidence will be required to support your case. With paraplegia and quadriplegia there will be ongoing requirements relating to care and mobility. It is essential that an individual’s future needs are properly taken into account in any settlement. The bulk of a settlement will go towards things like:
- Adaptations to the home.
- Medical expenses, equipment and rehabilitation.
- Care costs.
- Loss of future income.
There will also be a general element of compensation relating to ‘loss of amenity’. This refers to the pain and suffering endured, and to the degree of incapacity after the accident. Even if you think you may have been partly at fault, you may still be able to claim. For example, a claimant who suffers a road traffic accident and is not wearing a seatbelt would normally be considered to contribute a factor of 25% to the negligence. It is possible to opt for a ‘split trial’ in which the issue of liability is resolved first, leaving the issue of the value of the settlement until later. Split trials offer the advantage that, once liability has been decided, an interim award of damages can be made pending a final settlement. It is also possible to receive a structured settlement consisting of a smaller lump sum plus an annual income, rather than a single lump sum award.
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