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Prosthetic Limbs: Property Damage Or Personal Injury?

How much is your arm worth? The law says that depends on what kind of arm it is.

Currently, prosthetic limbs are considered to be the “property” of their owner, not a part of the body. But developments in technology and in our understanding of the psychology behind prosthetics may spell out a change in the law.

A recent article by Vice reported that this topic has recently been discussed at a conference about emerging topics in law regulation. But this topic is also developing in the United States and was the subject of a panel by the New York Bar Association.

Damage to prosthetic limbs and devices is tried as property damage, which severely undervalues the importance of the prosthetic limb or device to the individuals who need them.

The article cited an example of a quadriplegic veteran whose mobility assistive machine (MAD) was damaged by an airline while he was traveling. Without the device, he was bedridden for almost a year while the device was replaced and had to rely on others for basic needs like groceries. The airline only wanted to offer $1,500, the price to replace the machine, but the veteran ultimately received $20,000 for his suffering.

The veteran’s medical condition meant that he relied on the machine to make up for his non-functioning legs and left arm. If the MAD chair had been considered as an extension of the veteran’s body and charged as a personal injury case, the compensation may have skyrocketed.

ProPublica has collected data about the average maximum compensation allowed in states across the US for damages to the body. The average maximum compensation for the loss of one leg is $153,221, and federal employees are awarded up to $543,367. The national average maximum compensation for an arm is $169,878, and is $588,647 for federal employees.

The veteran was already wounded in the war, but in losing his MAD he lost a device that facilitated basic functions of his body. The question is: did he deserve more than $20,000 for the loss of a device that compensated for both legs and an arm?

Developing technologies in the area of prosthetics have also begun to make prosthetic limbs more life-like, fusing with bones in the patient’s body and reacting to nerve signals from the patient’s brain. Technology is even being developed that will allow prosthetic limbs to supply sensory feedback to their wearers.

But these limbs don’t just look more life-like; many people see their prosthetic limbs as actual parts of their bodies, much like the limbs they lost. Studies have shown that prosthetic limbs help their wearers feel more complete and whole, and are often viewed as a normal extension of their body.

Law and policy makers are considering both the physical and psychological impacts of prosthetic limbs and will continue to discuss possible changes in the law. As Vice reports, Linda MacDonald, the attorney in the veteran’s case, asked, “who would Stephan Hawking be without his assistive devices?” Laws will continue to evolve to match the increasing integration of prosthetic limbs and devices into our bodies.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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