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What Happens if a Car Accident Worsens a Pre-Existing Condition?

You have legal rights regardless of your medical history

A car wreck happens at a single moment in time, but your medical history can affect the way it impacts your overall health. People with certain pre-existing conditions can be especially vulnerable if they’re involved in a car crash or other type of accident – and they can be especially vulnerable to the insurance companies’ pressure tactics in the aftermath.

One common myth is that a pre-existing condition makes your case worth less, and of course, the insurance companies are all too happy to keep that myth alive. The reality is that in many situations, a pre-existing condition can actually make your case worth more, because the damage you sustained may be more severe if the car accident aggravated your pre-existing condition.

By law, you should be compensated for all your injuries, including those that aggravate a pre-existing condition. However, your legal situation also becomes more complicated if a previous injury or other pre-existing medical condition played a role.

Previous medical conditions that can be aggravated by a car accident

There are certain injuries and illnesses that are particularly vulnerable to being made worse in a subsequent accident, including:

  • Concussions and traumatic brain injuries (TBI): We’ve all read the heartbreaking stories about the cumulative effects of multiple concussions on former NFL players and other athletes. If you have a history of concussions and then hit your head in a car crash, the damage to your brain can be more severe and life-altering.
  • Brittle bones: Medical conditions such as osteoporosis and osteogenesis imperfecta can make you significantly more vulnerable to fractures in a car crash. A person with brittle bones is also more vulnerable to damage to organs protected by their bones, such as internal injuries and spinal cord injuries.
  • Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia is a debilitating condition that causes pain throughout the body. It’s not always clear where fibromyalgia comes from, but there are documented cases of car accidents either triggering the onset of fibromyalgia or causing pre-existing fibromyalgia to become worse.
  • Degenerative conditions: Conditions such as degenerative disk disease or arthritis can be aggravated by the force of a car crash, leading to more severe symptoms and chronic pain for the victim.

Note that a pre-existing condition might not even be something you were aware of at the time of the accident. A hidden disorder that caused only mild symptoms can still affect your body’s vulnerability in a wreck. Sometimes, it’s only the post-accident medical examination and diagnostic tests like X-rays or MRIs that uncover pre-existing conditions – but they can still affect your claim whether you knew about them or not.

The “eggshell skull rule” means all your damages from the accident should be covered

The eggshell skull rule, also known as the thin skull rule or talem qualem, essentially means that the person who caused your injury is responsible for all the damage you suffered due to their careless actions, even if you were unexpectedly vulnerable. The idea is that if someone had a skull as thin as an eggshell, and someone else unexpectedly caused a massive amount of damage by dropping an object on their head, that person would still be responsible for all the damage they caused. It is not a valid defense to say, “I didn’t know they had a thin skull.” Likewise, if someone causes a car accident and a person in the other vehicle has brittle bones, they’re responsible for the full amount of damage they caused, even if that damage is much greater than it might have been for a victim who did not have brittle bones.

In other words, the law is intended to protect everyone, including – indeed, especially – the most vulnerable among us. Having a pre-existing medical condition shouldn’t diminish your right to be made whole again after an accident caused by negligence.

A related rule is called the “crumbling skull rule,” which says that if you had a medical condition that would have naturally gotten worse on its own – that is, a degenerative condition – then the defendant (and their insurance company) can argue they’re not responsible for harm you would have suffered with or without the accident. However, they are still responsible to the extent that their negligence caused your condition to become worse.

Naturally, the insurance company is likely to interpret your overall medical situation in a manner that minimizes the damage done by the accident and maximizes the effects of pre-existing conditions. It’s in their financial interest to do so. That’s one of the reasons you need an attorney presenting your side of the story and protecting your interests.

Pre-existing mental health conditions and emotional distress

The concept of the eggshell skull rule doesn’t just apply to physical injuries; it applies to mental and emotional injuries as well. If the mental impact of the accident was worse for you because of pre-existing trauma or anxiety, then again, you can file a claim for emotional distress or mental anguish on that basis.

That said, the medical science of mental and emotional injuries is not as advanced as the science of physical injuries, and it can be more difficult to “unpack” how much of your emotional distress was caused by the accident versus the pre-existing condition. Again, these are situations where the right legal representation can make a significant difference.

How an attorney can help if you have a pre-existing condition

If you’re hurt in a car accident and you have a pre-existing medical condition, then as with any other accident, your first step should be to seek medical attention. Tell the doctor about both your current symptoms and your previous medical condition in as much detail as you can. This is important for your health, since your doctor needs that information to effectively treat you – and it’s important for your legal case, because it creates documentation of how the accident has affected your health.

Your immediate next step should be to contact an attorney. This is not a situation where you want to go up against an insurance company alone. Some of the ways a lawyer can help you in this situation include:

  • Reviewing any releases and other documents from the insurance company to make sure they can’t comb through your medical records for pre-existing conditions.
  • Working with you to craft a statement that protects your interests instead of letting the insurance company twist your words to their advantage.
  • Hiring medical professionals and other expert witnesses to document the full extent of your injuries and help untangle your accident-related injuries from your pre-existing condition.
  • Analyzing the applicable laws and advocating for the full compensation you deserve under Texas law.
  • Representing your interests in negotiations with the insurance company and, if necessary, litigation.

It’s impossible to overstate how important these steps can be. For example, if your pre-existing condition increases the likelihood that your injury will require surgery, a good lawyer who hires the right experts can help you pursue compensation for the cost of that future surgery – which may be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Likewise, your claim for non-economic damages like pain and suffering can be significantly affected by your pre-existing conditions.

Remember, you only get one shot at full compensation for your injuries in an accident. Once your case settles, that’s it. That’s why it’s essential that you hire a car accident lawyer who knows Texas law and has experience handling cases involving pre-existing conditions. We would be honored to listen to your story and explain your options in a free consultation.

Click here to download a printable PDF of What Happens if a Car Accident Worsens a Pre-Existing Condition article.

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