$1.2 Million Award in Lake County Car Accident Arbitration

Lane & Lane Attorneys Discover Client’s Spinal Hardware Fractures That Her Physicians Had Overlooked

Attorney Raymond C. Steadmon and Partner Mark A. Brown secured a $1.2 million arbitration award on behalf of their 59-year-old client who was rear-ended while stopped at a stop sign as she exited a service drive for a Wal-Mart in Lake County, Illinois in October 2011. The client fractured pre-existing spinal hardware in her lower back, requiring multiple surgeries and significantly affecting her life.

Ray and Mark first made a claim with American Family Insurance, the company that insured the at-fault driver, and demanded the entire $50,000 policy limit available. American Family paid the full $50,000 demand right away. Unfortunately, this amount of money was not nearly enough to cover the extensive damages the client suffered in the accident.

As such, Ray and Mark made a claim with State Farm Insurance Company pursuant to the client’s own underinsured motorist coverage to compensate her for the remaining damages. The underinsured motorist claim was denied in total, and the resulting case that ensued was strongly fought and resisted by State Farm every step of the way. In fact, over the course of two years, Ray and Mark made four settlement demands, and each demand was met by State Farm’s refusal to offer even a penny.

State Farm’s overriding basis for denying the claim was its belief that the car accident did not cause the client’s injuries and that the client’s medical condition and functional status was unchanged by the collision. However, our attorneys’ hard work, preparation, knowledge, and persistence paid off. In the end, they were able to persuade the three-person arbitration panel that the client’s fractured hardware, need for the eventual surgeries, and all of the resulting functional limitations were caused, at least in part, by the motor vehicle collision—resulting in the $1.2 million award on behalf of their client.

Was the Impact of the Collision Hard Enough to Cause Spinal Hardware Fractures? Proving This Was Not a Low-Impact Collision

In Illinois, in order to be compensated for an injury, the injured party must prove that the negligent conduct contributed to cause the claimed injury. The negligent conduct need not be the first cause or the last cause, and it is acceptable if the negligent conduct combines with other causes to produce the ultimate injury.

In denying the client’s claim, State Farm argued that the car accident could not have contributed to cause the client’s fractured spinal hardware because it was a low impact collision incapable of producing such harm. However, the attorneys were able to show that State Farm’s position was baseless.

Despite there being no evidence of how fast the other driver was going and no photographs of the damage to the vehicles, the evidence showed that the collision was a significant impact. There was no evidence of screeching tires or locked up brakes, meaning that the at-fault driver did not slow down before she hit the client. From that, Ray and Mark argued that it must have been a high-impact collision because the client’s car was pushed 30-50 feet into the intersection despite the client having her foot on the brake at the time of impact. The client’s vehicle was pushed so far out into the intersection that an oncoming car was forced to swerve to avoid colliding with the client, and in doing so, the other driver collided with another vehicle causing a separate accident. In the end, it became clear that the collision was a significant impact.

The Other Driver was at Fault, But What Injuries and Harm Did the Accident Cause? Sorting Through a Medically Challenging and Complex Case

Sadly, Ray and Mark’s client had numerous severe and complex pre-existing medical conditions that she had been dealing with for nearly 10 years before the collision occurred. The client had severe degenerative disc disease with significant spinal stenosis and five prior back surgeries, including a five-level fusion of her lumbar spine with metal instrumentation to hold that portion of her spine together. She also suffered from “flat back syndrome,” meaning she walked bent over at the waist at a nearly 90-degree angle. The client was legally disabled and was forced to retire from her lifelong career as a nurse many years prior to the collision.

While the client’s pre-existing spinal issues certainly caused severe pain and significantly limited her activity level, she was mostly independent and actively engaged in her life the best she could be. She was able to walk (albeit slowly and carefully); drive; teach nursing part time at a local university; and help care for her elderly father, her sick husband, and disabled son. Ray had this to say about his client:

“She is an amazing woman. Many people with her unfortunate medical situation would have given up long ago. She never quit. She never felt sorry for herself. Instead, she battled and fought. She accepted her challenges and lived each day to its full potential without any pity or regret.”

Just when her medical condition seemingly could not get any worse, the accident changed her life forever. However, being able to prove that the accident changed her life was a difficult task. Our attorneys were up to the challenge.

State Farm argued that since the client did not have any major low back complaints immediately after the accident, and because she suffered from such severe pre-existing spinal conditions well before the accident, no physician could say, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the accident caused her injuries and resulting functional limitations. State Farm went so far as to hire David Fardon, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, to review the client’s entire medical history and case file. Dr. Fardon provided a 21-page single-spaced medical report supporting State Farm’s arguments to help them try and win the case.

One major medical hurdle the attorneys had to overcome was the fact that, at the scene of the accident, the client did not report any injuries whatsoever to the paramedics or police officers, and she refused medical treatment. State Farm argued that if the client really hurt her lower back and fractured her spinal hardware in the accident, she would have been in severe pain immediately. However, right after the collision, the client was in a lot pain, but she just didn’t tell anyone. The client was always in a lot of pain, so it was difficult for her, at that moment, to tell how severely she was actually injured by the collision. There was no need for her to report being injured until she actually knew that she was injured in the accident as opposed to simply feeling the same pain she had for quite some time in the past.

The next major hurdle was that fact that the client did not seek any medical treatment for three weeks after the accident. State Farm argued that if she was really injured, she would have gone to the emergency room right away. However, rather than going to the emergency room, the client chose to wait and see her longtime orthopedic spine surgeon who knew her spinal condition best. Unfortunately, the first available appointment to see the spine surgeon was three weeks after the collision. The attorneys were able to show that the client’s decision to wait and see her surgeon instead of going to the ER was not unreasonable because the emergency room personnel did not know her medically complex spinal condition best, and they would have likely suggested that she follow up with her surgeon anyway.

At the first visit with her spinal surgeon three weeks after the accident, the attorneys were met with another hurdle. At that visit, the medical record indicated that the client’s complaint was “primarily pain in her neck,” not her lower back. State Farm argued that if the client really hurt her lower back in the accident, she would have reported that to the surgeon at her first visit.  However, Ray and Mark were able to show that she did complain of lower back pain, but that the surgeon did not note it in the record. First, the doctor wrote “primarily pain in the neck,” not “only pain in the neck,” so she must have complained of pain somewhere other than her neck. Second, every time the client has gone to that surgeon, she had lower back pain, so it was reasonable that the surgeon did not note her lower back pain every time she was there. Third, the doctor ordered a lower back x-ray at that visit, which he would not have done unless the client mentioned pain in her lower back to him. In any event, the orthopedic spine surgeon only diagnosed her with whiplash and ordered physical therapy for her neck at that visit. No diagnosis was made with respect to her lower back.

Over the next two months, the client’s lower back pain became increasingly severe. In January 2012, she returned to her orthopedic spine surgeon. The surgeon ordered a CT scan of her spine because of concerns that she may have damaged her spinal hardware. Damage to spinal hardware can be dangerous because the spine is unstable. Interestingly, the client was told that the CT scan did not reveal any abnormalities that she did not have prior to the accident. As a result, the client was sent home.

Over the next year, the client continued to experience excruciating pain in her back, much worse than it had been before the collision. She saw numerous doctors during that time, none of which found any additional complications.

More than one year later, in March 2013, the client’s orthopedic spine surgeon ordered another CT scan of her spine. This scan revealed that she had fractured her spinal hardware. Significant medical treatment immediately ensued due to the instability of her spine. The client ultimately underwent three surgeries to repair the fractured hardware and to extend her fusion from 5 levels to 11 levels. However, the question remained: did the October 2011 car accident contribute to cause the spinal hardware fractures that were discovered 1.5 years later in March of 2013?

The Turning Point in the Case: Lane & Lane Attorneys Discover the Hardware Fractures Doctors Missed on the CT Scan Performed Soon After the Accident

In Illinois, in order to be compensated for an injury, a qualified physician must opine that the negligent conduct (in this case the car accident) contributed to cause the injury (in this case the spinal hardware fractures). As such, our attorneys reached out to the client’s orthopedic spine surgeon to obtain his opinion of whether the car accident in any way contributed to cause the client’s spinal hardware fractures. This spine surgeon did not believe that the car accident could have caused the spinal hardware fractures. He believed the spinal hardware fractures occurred approximately 1.5 years after the accident—as shown by the March 2013 CT scan. He believed that if the hardware fractures occurred in the car accident, the fractures would have been discovered within a few months of the accident and would have been seen in the January 2012 CT Scan. Since he did not see the hardware fractures, he would not support the case. The case was heading in the wrong direction.

Our attorneys, however, kept fighting. Something did not add up. The client had been in excruciating pain since the car accident, but why? How were the attorneys going to prove that the spinal hardware fractured in the car accident and not 1.5 years later? Ray and Mark began to dig deep into the thousands and thousands of pages of the client’s medical records in search for an answer. What they found turned the entire case around.

As the attorneys were studying and pondering CT scans and reports, they made a shocking discovery. They compared the March 2012 CT scan from a few months after the accident to the March 2013 CT scan taken 1.5 years after the accident. The comparison showed the same hardware fractures on both CT scans. In other words, the same fractures that were first seen in March 2013 were also present in March 2012, but the physicians had missed them all along!

The attorneys immediately called the client’s spine surgeon and pointed out their discovery. To the surgeon’s amazement, the attorneys were correct; the CT scan from after the car accident actually did show the spinal hardware fractures. Based on this new finding, the spine surgeon changed his opinion. He now believed that the car accident did contribute to cause the client’s spinal hardware fractures because, as he would expect, there was evidence that the fractures were present within a few months of the accident. The tide had turned.

One Battle Was Won, But the War Was Not Over Yet. Proving Accident Losses for Victims With Pre-Existing Medical Conditions Is a Difficult Task

Now that the attorneys were able to prove that the accident was caused by the other driver and that the spinal hardware was fractured in that accident, the question became: given how bad her spinal condition was to begin with, what did our client really lose?

It is difficult to articulate what someone “lost” in a legal sense when pre-accident medical conditions are so severe. In this case, however, the attorneys were able to provide persuasive evidence that the crash worsened the client’s already debilitating condition and changed her life forever. While previously independent with most activities, the accident marked the start of a clear loss of function. The client is largely bedbound now. It takes 30 minutes for her to walk, with assistance, the 10 or 15 feet from her bedroom to the bathroom and back in her home. She is no longer teaching or driving. She is no longer able to care for her elderly father or disabled son as she had grown accustomed to. Instead, she is now the one who requires the around-the-clock care. During closing arguments, Ray analogized the client’s situation to the following:

“When a person has two eyes, and that person loses one of those eyes, there is no doubt that the injury is severe, but that person can still see. On the other hand, when a person only has one eye to begin with, and that person loses that remaining eye, the loss is so much worse even though the injury is the same…because that person can no longer see.”

It made sense. That was the situation the client was in. There is no doubt that her pre-existing back conditions and daily pain were horrific long before the accident, but she could still function independently and do the things she enjoyed. In other words, “her injury was severe, but she could still see.” After the accident, her back condition and pain became so much worse, so much more severe, and she lost her ability to function independently. She can no longer do the things she used to enjoy. “The accident caused an injury to her already injured back, but this injury was so much worse because she can no longer see.”

The three-person arbitration panel agreed and awarded the client $1.2 million for the injuries she sustained the car accident. Mark had these kind words to say about the efforts that were made and a job well done:

“Putting together the puzzle that made up this case was extremely complex. Ray did an exemplary job of piecing together the client’s many years of medical issues and distinguishing those issues from the injury suffered in crash in order to provide a clear picture to the arbitrators that led to this great result. Ray was able to figure out the cause of the client’s hardware failure before her doctors did.”

If you or a loved one has been through a similar experience, or if you are struggling with a complex accident claim, don’t hesitate to contact our Chicago car accident attorneys at 312-332-1400.

Awarded: $1,200,000.00

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