The Syracuse and Central New York accident law firm of Michaels & Smolak represent lots of people with spine injuries. That’s not surprising; spine (neck and back) injuries are very common in car crashes, falls from scaffolds or ladders, slip and falls, and other accidents. But in the world of New York personal injury claims, spine injury cases pose special problems in court. Let me explain why.
Our injured clients often have never in their life had any back or neck pain, but ever since the accident they have had excruciating pain in the neck (cervical spine), or mid back (thoracic spine), or lower back (lumbar spine), sometimes with “radiculopathy” (radiating pain) down into the legs or arms. The pain is sometimes so severe it prevents them from working in anything but sedentary jobs, or from working at all.
But even though our clients never had any problems with their back or neck before the accident, after they undergo an MRI or CT Scan, the radiologist will sometimes say that their spine was already compromised before the accident. The radiologist will see evidence, in the MRI or CAT scan, of something known as “degenerative” spinal changes or disease. It might be a herniated disc (a protrusion or budge in the intervertebral disc that can compress nerves around the spine) or.a spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal causing swelling of the tissue around the spine, which can compress the nerves around the spine).
Even though these “degenerative” conditions, which are caused by the natural aging process, were present before the accident, they were causing no pain or symptoms of any kind. That is why medical professionals refer to them as “preexisting asymptomatic degenerative disease”.
Now here’s the problem: Even though the accident caused the symptoms, and even though the client would probably never have developed the symptoms but for the accident, and even though the symptoms may now require extensive surgery (to relieve the pain), such as a fusion of the discs, or a “discectomy” (removal of a portion of the problem disc), the insurance company lawyers will argue that the accident did not cause the injury. Rather, they will argue, the injury was already there, and therefore, they are not responsible for compensating the accident victim.
And some juries buy that! That’s why, when, as a New York personal injury lawyer, I read my clients’ medical records, and I see the words “pre-existing” or “degenerative”, I cringe. This is not good for my client’s case. I know the insurance company will take those words and run with them. They will often try to low ball the settlement offer based on their argument that the injury was already there before the accident.
But it wasn’t. What was there BEFORE the accident was merely a “condition”, and a completely benign one (no pain!). What was there AFTER the accident was a painful disability, caused by the physical trauma of the accident.
We believe our clients are entitled to full compensation for the symptoms that the accident caused, regardless of whether underlying asymptomatic “degenerative changes” were already there. And many, but not all, juries agree with us. But in the end, it is the client’s decision whether to risk a trial, where a jury may decide to discount his or her injury because the underlying condition was “pre-existing”, or to settle, sometimes for less than they deserve, with the insurance carrier.
And we always support our clients, no matter what they decide.