What You Need to Know about Spinal Injuries

Whether it is in a car accident or a bad fall, spinal injuries can be a nightmare.  From whiplash to paralysis, they can involve weeks of recovery, or, at their worst, cripple you for life.

Because the spinal cord contains the communication pathways from the brain to the rest of the body, spinal injuries can be very debilitating.  The severity depends on the where in the spinal column the injury has occurred:

  • High-Cervical Nerves – these are located closest to the skull, and as such cause the most severe injuries when they are damaged.  These injuries can include complete paralysis, the inability to breath, eat, or even speak, and leave you requiring medical care for the rest of your life.
  • Low-Cervical Nerves – these control the arms and the hands, and an injury here can cause paralysis of both.  The degree of damage depends on where in the four vertebrae the injury has taken place.  At the lowest vertebra, the damage may be less debilitating, and can be localized in the hands.  At the highest vertabra, there will likely be paralysis of the wrists, hands and legs, as well as weakened breathing.
  • Thoracic Nerves – these are located in the mid-back, and control the chest muscles, back, and legs.  Injuries here will often leave the arms and upper body unaffected, but may cause paralysis and loss of function in the lower body.  While complete paralysis of the legs can happen, in many cases of thoracic nerve damage it is possible to walk with braces and use a frame to stand upright.
  • Lumbar Nerves – these are located in the lower back.  Injuries here will affect the legs and hips.  While paralysis is unlikely, whether you can walk after an injury here depends on the strength of your legs, and you may require a wheelchair or braces.
  • Sacral Nerves – these are located at the very bottom of the spine.  Injuries here will result in some loss of function within the hips and legs, but it will be minor.  After an injury here, you should be able to walk without the aid of braces.  

If you have bought sickness and injury coverage, compensation for a spinal injury is usually covered by your insurance company.  If you were injured on the job, you may qualify for compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), also known as Worker’s Compensation – however, this is “no fault” insurance, and accepting an offer from the WSIB means waiving your right to sue a third party, where you otherwise have an option between the two choices.

If your injury was caused by the negligence or actions of a third party, you are entitled to sue for damages.  In Ontario, there are three categories of damages awarded in a personal injury claim:

  • General, aka “non-pecuniary,” damages – these are the damages for issues such as pain and suffering and the loss of enjoyment of life.  Because these are very hard to measure, general damages are usually assessed by a court.  The most one can receive for pain and suffering today is around $360,000, although this amount is reserved for the most difficult claims.
  • Special, aka “pecuniary,” damages – these are the damages for financial loss due to an injury.  This would cover treatment costs, loss of income, and projected general future costs.  Special damages are calculated using invoices and expert testimony, and are not intended to exceed the actual costs and loss of revenue caused by the injury.
  • Punitive damages – these are damages designed to punish the defendant.  They are, in fact, quite rare – to see punitive damages awarded, the defendant must have acted in a manner that is not just negligent, but reprehensible to any reasonable person.  This includes high-handedness, maliciousness, arbitrary conduct, and dishonesty.  When they are awarded, the damages are calculated to punish the defendant for their actions and provide a deterrent.  Large awards of punitive damages are rare, but they can occur, particularly when the actions of a defendant has caused severe out-of-pocket expenses.

An award of damages can include any of these three categories, and sometimes all three. One of the factors in the calculation are the injured party’s own actions – if they are partly responsible before or after the injury for their pain and suffering or loss of income, the damages may be reduced accordingly.  It is important to act quickly, however – most civil actions are bound by a statute of limitations of two years, meaning that any claim filed more than two years after the accident (with some exceptions depending on the circumstances) is likely to be dismissed.

Spinal injuries can change your life, and dealing with the process of gaining compensation can be complicated.  Knowing what you are entitled to, and what you need to do, can help clear away the red tape so that you can concentrate on your recovery.
Author Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher in Kingston, Ontario, who spent several years working as a writer and editor for the Queen’s University Faculty of Law.

Lerners periodically provides materials on our services and developments in the law to interested persons.  These materials are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice, an opinion on any issue or a lawyer/client relationship.  For more details on our terms of use and the information contained in this blog, please visit our Terms of Use page.

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