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Medical Malpractice and Catastrophic Injuries

A catastrophic injury can come from out of nowhere, leaving the injury victim suffering serious and permanent damage. In a medical setting, patients and their families are not prepared for a catastrophic injury, which may happen after a person goes to the doctor for a routine procedure or outpatient surgery. 

There really is no such thing as a risk-free surgical procedure. Even the most common surgical procedures often involve serious anesthesia drugs. Anesthesia is a powerful procedure that can have devastating impacts if it is not properly administered or monitored. Too much of the anesthesia cocktail can cause brain damage, cardiac arrest, or death. 

Surgical procedures may also involve cutting open a person’s body or inserting a foreign object into the body. The human body can be very good against bacterial and viral infections coming from outside the body. However, when the interior of the body is exposed, any introduction of bacteria, virus, or fungus can cause serious damage. 

These are just a couple of ways how a “routine” medical procedure can suddenly turn into a disaster. Medical malpractice lawsuits allow injury victims and their families to recover compensation for the costs of medical care, loss of income, and pain and suffering after a catastrophic injury. If you have any questions about catastrophic injuries and medical malpractice, contact our medical malpractice law firm for help.

What Is a Catastrophic Injury?

A catastrophic injury is an injury that causes severe disability and makes it difficult to participate in activities of daily life. For example, government injury benefits define a “catastrophic injury” as “consequences of an injury that permanently prevent an individual from performing any gainful work.”

Catastrophic injuries also refer to severe injuries of the spine and traumatic brain injuries. Spinal cord injuries often leave patients with partial or total paralysis. Depending on where along the spinal cord the injury occurred, injury victims may be paraplegic or quadriplegic. Some paraplegic individuals are able to get around with a wheelchair or mobility device. However, quadriplegics are often left bedbound and have to rely on others to get around and perform activities of daily life. 

Brain injuries can have different levels of severity. Some people with brain trauma are able to participate in daily life with little to no impairment. Other brain injuries can leave individuals unable to move or breathe without assistance. Catastrophic brain injuries generally cause permanent and severe functional disability. 

Traumatic injuries include those caused by severe injury to the spinal cord or brain, skull or spine fracture, or blunt chest impact causing cardiac arrest. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research classifies catastrophic injuries under 3 categories: 

  • Fatalities;
  • Injuries that result in permanent functional disability; or
  • Serious injuries that result in temporary functional disability with full recovery. 

Common Causes of Catastrophic Injuries

Causes of catastrophic injuries often involve traumatic injuries but catastrophes can also be caused by infection, disease, or even medical errors. Some of the common causes of catastrophic injuries for individuals in the U.S. include: 

The most common source of catastrophic injuries is car accidents. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, road crashes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for individuals under the age of 55. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2 million people in the U.S. are injured in car accidents every year, with many of those injuries resulting in severe head or back trauma. 

Americans spend more than 1 million days in the hospital from car crash injuries. The estimated total cost of crash injuries in lifetime medical care in 2012 is an estimated $18 billion. The lifetime work lost because of car crash injuries cost an estimated $33 billion in 2012. 

Medical Malpractice Causing Catastrophic Injury

Most people do not think about medical malpractice as a cause of catastrophic injury. However, medical errors can cause permanent damage to the brain and spinal cord, leaving the victim severely disabled. Medical errors can include accidents that cause damage to the brain or spinal cord, or failure to properly treat a patient for another condition that results in a catastrophic injury. Medical malpractice causes of catastrophic injury can include:

Even a seemingly simple operation can turn catastrophic when something goes wrong. For example, a patient is getting a nose job/rhinoplasty. The cosmetic surgeon gives the patient anesthesia to put them under. However, the mix of drugs is too strong and the patient goes into cardiac arrest. The doctor is worried that calling 9-1-1 will get them in trouble because the surgeon does not keep the clinic properly equipped with a crash cart. 

Eventually, the doctor calls 9-1-1 but by the time the patient is revived, they suffer oxygen deprivation for almost 10 minutes, resulting in permanent brain damage. This injury was caused by the negligent doctor’s improper use of anesthesia, failure to monitor, failure to maintain lifesaving equipment, and delayed emergency response. 

Other surgical errors can more directly cause injury to the brain or spine. For example, a pregnant woman may be given an epidural block during labor. An epidural block delivers numbing medication into the back to cause a loss of feeling or numbness to the lower half of the body. This can be used to reduce pain during childbirth. However, there are risks of injury to the spinal column if the epidural block is not done properly. A spinal or epidural infection can damage the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. 

Catastrophic Birth Injuries

Birth injuries are another cause of catastrophic injuries. Birth injuries can be more tragic because they impact an infant who may have to live with the consequences of a brain or spinal cord injury for the rest of their lives. This can leave a family struggling with paying for the lifetime cost of medical care for their child, who may even require medical attention after the parents pass away. Causes of traumatic birth injuries include: 

Birth injuries that cause oxygen deprivation, head trauma, or spinal cord trauma can cause permanent damage, including mental disabilities, physical disabilities, and developmental delays. Parents of a child who suffered a birth injury may be able to file a lawsuit to recover damages and help pay for the medical care and living costs of their child. 

Brain Injuries and Head Trauma

Head trauma can be caused by blunt trauma, like a blow to the head, fall hitting the head, or car accident striking the head against a surface. Closed head injuries can be caused by swelling or bruising in the brain, and may not be visible. Head trauma could also be an open injury, where the injury penetrates the skull and causes problems like bleeding, the pressing of bones against structures in the brain, or a skull fracture.

Brain injuries can be complex and may take time to become evident. Many head injuries result in the injury victim walking around and not appearing to be injured. However, bleeding in the brain can cause pressure and swelling, later developing into brain damage or death. 

In a medical malpractice case, brain injuries are often caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain or a lack of oxygen. The brain relies on a regular supply of oxygen from the blood to function normally. Interruptions to blood and oxygen flow, from something like bleeding, a pulmonary embolism, or stroke, can cause serious brain injury in a short period of time. Even a few minutes of decreased blood and oxygen flow to the brain can begin to cause cell death and brain damage. 

Spinal Cord Injuries

The spinal cord is an important organ in the body that is responsible for movement and communication between the brain and the body. The spinal cord extends all the way from the brain to the lower back. The spinal cord is a tubular structure of nervous tissue which is surrounded by protective layers called meninges. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) runs through the central canal of the spinal column. 

The spinal cord is very sensitive and is protected by the vertebrae. The vertebral space allows the spinal column to be flexible and protected. However, any physical injury to the spinal cord can result in permanent nerve damage. Spinal cord injuries are often referenced based on the location of the spinal nerve damage along the vertebrae. There are 31 spinal nerve pairs, which can be designated as:

  • Cervical: C1 to C8
  • Thoracic: T1 to T12
  • Lumbar: L1 to L5
  • Sacral: S1 to S5
  • Coccygeal: Co1

Damage to the spinal cord is often permanent. Some spinal cord injuries can be temporary with neurological recovery. The permanence and location of physical damage may depend on where along the spinal cord the injury occurred. Damage to the spinal cord generally has a distal effect, meaning damage higher up on the spinal cord and closer to the brain may be more extensive than lower spinal cord injuries. Paralysis from spinal cord injuries can be categorized as: 

  • Complete quadriplegia
  • Incomplete quadriplegia
  • Complete paraplegia
  • Incomplete paraplegia

What Damages Can I Collect After a Catastrophic Injury?

Damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit include the costs associated with a medical injury. In a malpractice lawsuit, the damages are intended to compensate the injury victim for the losses caused by the doctor’s negligence. In most medical malpractice cases, the damages available include: 

  • Economic damages
  • Non-economic damages

Economic damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit include the costs, expenses, and losses associated with the medical injury, which may include: 

  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical care costs
  • Loss of income
  • Loss of earning capacity

Noneconomic damages may be more difficult to quantify but they are important to help an injury victim get compensation for the loss and pain suffered. Noneconomic damages may include payment for pain and suffering, physical impairment, disfigurement, and loss of joy in life. 

A catastrophic injury may involve much higher financial damages than a minor injury. Depending on the type of accident, many catastrophic injuries involve permanent damage. This may require calculating the lifetime costs of care that will be needed for the injury victim. For example, if the injury victim is paralyzed from the waist down after an accident, damages may include lifetime medical care, home modifications for wheelchair accessibility, a specialized vehicle, mobility aids, and in-home care. 

The injury victim may also no longer be able to work because of a catastrophic injury, and should be compensated for what they would have earned if they were able to keep working for the remainder of their work-life. Loss of income should also include the loss of benefits, raises, bonuses, and even retirement contributions. For a young person who suffers a catastrophic injury, the damages can amount to millions of dollars.  

Where to Turn After a Catastrophic Injury

After a catastrophic injury, your medical care and well-being are the most important part of coming to your maximum medical recovery. However, at some point, you may need to turn to a medical malpractice attorney to help you recover financial compensation caused by the injury. An attorney with experience handling complex medical injury cases can explain your options, help you understand your rights to recover compensation, and guide you through the difficult process. 

If you are not sure if your injury was the result of a medical error, an attorney can conduct an investigation and identify any possible negligence. You don’t need to be 100% sure before coming to an attorney for help. Medical malpractice attorneys have extensive experience reviewing medical records and can refer your case to a medical expert for an independent and specialized review of the care you received and what mistakes may have led to your injuries. 

Talk to experienced trial attorneys who can review your case, get an expert’s review, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim after a medical malpractice injury. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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