Compensation claims involving spinal cord injuries *
A spinal cord injury (SCI) is an injury where the spinal cord is damaged, resulting in the cord’s normal functions becoming disrupted. While suffering a fall or other injury involving the back while at work or engaging in sports or other recreational activities can cause SCIs, motor vehicle accidents are by far the most common cause. In Ireland, most SCIs happen to people aged between eighteen and 35 years of age, and 70% of these SCI victims will never return to work.
Depending on where the spinal cord suffers the trauma, and what nerve roots are damaged, the symptoms can vary widely, from serious and chronic pain, to paralysis and incontinence. Read our guidelines below or get in touch with our specialist spinal injury solicitors * for further advice.
Complete and incomplete SCIs
A ‘complete’ spinal injury is categorized as on where all functions below the injured area are lost, whereas an ‘incomplete’ SCI involves preservation of motor or sensory function below the level of injury in the spinal cord to some extent.
In the case of complete SCIs, the higher up along the spine that the trauma is sustained the more catastrophic the injuries. Cervical injuries (where the damage is in the neck region) usually result in full or partial tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia, this is the loss of use of all limbs). However, depending on the specific location and severity of the injury, limited function may be retained in some cases.
Complete SCIs occurring in the thoracic region of the spine (being the accident victim’s trunk) result in paraplegia (loss of use of the lower limbs), with the functions of the hands, arms and neck usually being retained.
Injuries to the lumbar or sacral regions of the spinal cord result in decreased control of the legs and hips, urinary system and anus. Bowel, bladder and sexual function may also be lost or impaired.
Common complications associated with SCIs, most of which can be avoided if detected early, include pulmonary oedema, respiratory failure and deep vein thrombosis.
Spinal injuries may result in pain, numbness, or a loss of sensation in the injured areas. Loss of muscle function may also occur and this can have additional effects if the muscle is not used as a result, including atrophy of the muscle and bone degeneration.
Treatment of spinal cord injuries
Thankfully the treatment of SCIs has improved dramatically over the years and there are now many surgical procedures and other medical devices and treatment techniques which can yield results that would have been considered impossible in the not-so-distant past.
Treatment typically starts with restraining the spine and controlling inflammation to prevent further damage. The actual treatment regime (which can incorporate surgery, physical therapy or rehabilitation exercises) is then commenced when the spinal cord has been stabilised.
Surgery will be performed if it is necessary to remove any bone fragments from the spinal canal or to stabilize the spine using instrumentation. As inflammation can cause further damage to the spinal cord after the initial trauma, patients are sometimes also treated with steroids and other drugs to reduce swelling in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
Spinal cord implants may be implanted on the surface of the spinal cord in certain cases. These devices emulate the physical properties of living tissue and deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances into the affected region. Low voltage stimulation of the spinal nerves can operate to block the feeling of pain by interrupting pain signals.
While stem cell research holds out some hope for the future, the state of medical science at present means that a complete SCI will result in an accident victim having very little hope of functional recovery of their faculties below the area of injury. However, great strides have been made in the area of incomplete SCIs in recent decades and new treatments are constantly emerging so that recovery of at least some function is now fairly common.
SCI patients often require extended treatment in specialized spinal or intensive care units. The rehabilitation process will likely involve physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, social workers, psychologists and other health care professionals working as a team.
Calculating the amount of damages * payable to SCI victims
When assessing the level of damages * to be awarded to an SCI victim, the courts will take into account the severity of the injury and the needs of the particular individual. While obviously money can never meaningfully make up for an SCI sufferer’s loss, under Irish law compensation * is awarded to attempt to put the claimant, in so far as is possible, back in the position that they would have been had the accident not occurred.
General damages will be awarded for the pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and loss of opportunity caused by the injury itself. On top of this figure for general damages, special damages will be awarded for all current and future financial losses and demands. Recoverable items include:
- All losses of earnings from the date of the accident to the date upon which the claimant would have retired had their working life not been cut short by their injuries.
- The costs of any specialist treatment and medical care (both past and future) which an SCI victim will need as a consequence of their injuries.
- Rehousing costs. If left wheelchair bound, an SCI victim may no longer be able to continue to live in the accommodation they had prior to the accident, in which case they may be entitled to recover the costs of refurbishing their existing dwelling, or if this is not practical, the costs of acquiring a new property which is necessary to accommodate their needs.
- Round-the-clock nursing care. If someone has suffered a catastrophic spinal injury, they may require specialist nursing assistance on a continuing twenty-four-hour basis.
- Devices and aids. SCI victims may need state-of-the art medical devices and aids and specially adapted vehicles to alleviate their suffering to the greatest extent possible.
After working out the costs associated with all of these possible requirements for the remainder of the injured person’s life, the total figure can often run into millions of euro.
Historically, one lump-sum award was made by way of compensation in the case of catastrophic spinal injuries, notwithstanding the fact that it was notoriously difficult to accurately predict what sum of money would be required to ensure that the accident victim’s treatment and care was properly funded for the rest of their life.
However, new legislation introduced in Ireland now allows for periodic payment orders (PPOs) which enables a claimant to apply to court for future payments after the initial assessment of damages has been made at the trial of the action.
Contact our specialist spinal injury solicitors*
If you have any questions about claiming compensation for spinal cord injuries *, our live chat operator is available to help you with any queries you may have at any time or, you can just give us a call on our nationwide Local number 1890 390 555 during office hours. Our specialist spinal injury solicitors * are based at our offices in Dublin and Cork but assist people from across the country.
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*In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.