Can Stem Cells End Personal Injury Law?
As a personal injury lawyer, my clients meet me after tragedy and misfortune. Our relationship starts out after something has gone terribly wrong in their lives and they need my help. While there are many elements to my role, one of my predominant roles is securing compensation for my clients.
In law, personal injury lawyers secure money for the injured client through a concept called ‘damages.’ The notion is that injuries unfortunately happen and nobody has a time machine to go back and prevent them. The best our society has to offer in order to provide remedy to one who has been wrongly injured is an award of money, based upon the damage done to the person. In my experience, nobody would ever take the money if they had the option to go back in time and prevent the accident from ever happening; however, monetary damages is the only logical alternative that our society has to offer. You have been wronged, we cannot bring you back, so you will be financially compensated.
This is the system that has been in place for centuries. But — what if there was a new option to add into the mix?
I have recently become keenly interested in the developing area of regenerative medicine. This is a field of medicine where medical professionals are using the body’s own healing factors and cells to regrow tissue. At the forefront of the field is very exciting work that is being done with stem cells (the cells in all of our bodies that are responsible for creating and growing various tissues).
The concept of regenerative medicine has been around for decades but continues to evolve and grow. It is currently being used in a variety of medical fields. There are researchers who are looking into utilizing stem cells in a variety of applications – from healing diseases or genetic disorders, to restoring tissues after trauma. Consider the implications for someone who has suffered a spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia. Imagine if there was a procedure where stem cells could be harvested from that person’s own body and, through cultivating those cells and engineering them, medical experts could regrow that person’s damaged spinal cord? Similarly, imagine a person who has been suffering from a failing organ, but that organ could then be regrown or repaired using the person’s own cells (thereby completely avoiding waitlists as well as the issue of rejection)? These are revolutionary possibilities that are being researched and advanced right now.
Not only would regenerative medicine be life changing in the medical field, but undoubtedly in the law. Currently, personal injury cases largely focus on litigating over the appropriate value of ‘damages’ for the injured person. Damages include categories such as income loss, pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, and the costs of care needs. Imagine a world where those concepts are eliminated or drastically reduced? Imagine a person who is severely injured and advised they might never walk again. They will have a lifetime of pain and suffering and lose out on numerous life events. The person will have extensive medical needs, such as requiring a wheelchair and a wheelchair accessible vehicle and home, to name but only a few. However, if we imagine a world where that person endures the serious injuries, but with advanced regenerative medicine, he or she can regrow the damaged tissue over a period of, say, 6 months, and then return to all normal function. In that world, the damages would be drastically reduced. That person’s legal claim would change from a lifetime of pain and suffering to a period of 6 months. The injured person would likely only need care costs for that same period (and of course the costs of the regenerative medicine procedure would have to be covered). Their income loss would also be limited to that short time frame. Ultimately, depending on the durability and longevity of the new tissue versus the organic tissue, there may be some debate as to future issues leading to compensation, but who knows at this point in time, given it is all theoretical.
Of course, there may be some exceptions to the exciting prospect of regenerative medicine. For example, if someone were to sustain a brain injury, it is unclear (although unlikely) that regenerating brain tissue would fully restore that person to the person he or she was prior to the injury. Furthermore, for brain injury survivors and many others who have suffered serious injuries, there would also remain the psychological impact of having endured the injuries and the implications of those injuries on the psyche on the person as he or she moves forward in life. Thus, restoring the physical may not heal the psychological. But without doubt, in the majority of cases, the advantages would be astounding. Simply put, such a medical advancement would revolutionize medicine, law, and society as a whole.
While the various scenarios I have outlined are simply goals in the medical community at this point, there are some regenerative medicine applications in use today. In orthopaedics, for example, there are stem cell therapies currently being used to assist people in growing cartilage and ligaments. Unfortunately, results at this point in time are not consistent. As such, OHIP does not yet fund these procedures. That said, there are a growing number of studies that confirm that patients are experiencing in both the short and long term reductions in pain and overall greater function and tissue maintenance.
I am hopeful that in going forward, private insurance might consider funding some of these therapies. If a person’s function could be restored, or at least pain alleviated, it would seem to reason that over the long term, there would be significant medical and rehabilitation savings for both the insured person and the insurer. Perhaps as the evidence continues to grow in favour of regenerative medicine options, we will see more accident benefits treatment plans including these options, more life care plans including these options, or family doctors and specialists recommending that their patients pursue therapy of this nature.
It seems that globally we are advancing in medicine at an exponential rate. One day, we may very well achieve such significant advancements in regenerative medicine that the injuries and damages that largely were the focus of personal injury litigation, become a thing of the past. I would think that many lawsuits would no longer be necessary. This would mean lawyers like me might be out of a job. But if we could have that technology available and benefiting the lives of so many across the globe, I say bring it on – I will gladly go find another career.