The Eggshell Plaintiff: Taking the Victim as you Find Him
If you are injured in an accident and you were already suffering from a medical condition or an injury from a previous incident, you may have a bit of a fight on your hands when it comes to collecting for the damages you sustained. You will not be able to recover any compensation for your pre-existing condition; however, you may be able to recover damages if your medical condition was aggravated or exacerbated.
A tortfeasor (defendant) is responsible for all of the consequences resulting from his/her negligent acts which lead to the injury to another person, even if that person suffers an unusually high level of damage because of a preexisting condition. What this means is that if the plaintiff has a pre-existing condition of health at the time of the injury which results in damages more serious and costly than they otherwise would have been, the plaintiff may recover those full damages. Flood v. Smith, 126 Conn. 644, 647 (1940). This legal concept is a well-established legal doctrine known as the eggshell plaintiff or eggshell skull rule. This legal doctrine does not shift the burden of proof to the defendant, because under this doctrine the eggshell plaintiff still must prove the nature and probable duration of the injuries sustained. Rowe v. Munye, 702 N.W.2d 729, 741 (2005).
Let’s say you are rear-ended in an auto crash. A month before the crash, you had back surgery. Lets further assume your back was re-injured and the benefits of your surgery were reversed because of the crash. It is not unreasonable that you would suffer considerably more damages than another person who had a healthy spine before the crash. The at-fault party is responsible for your additional damages under the eggshell plaintiff doctrine (an at-fault party must take the victim as they find them), even though they were made worse by their previous back condition.
However, the egg shell rule does not apply in all situations. For example, assume a hypothetical individual fell and cut their right hand but did not seek medical treatment for their injury. The next day the same individual is injured in an accident, through no fault of her own, and suffered a cut above their eye and a broken wrist on her left arm. The at-fault party is only responsible for the damages resulting from the eye and left wrist injury not the right hand.
Further, the injured party still must prove the negligent act would cause an injury the average reasonable person. In other words, if the negligent act was one which would not injure a reasonable person, it is irrelevant that it injured the eggshell plaintiff. For example, assume that the average individual is not injured when another person taps them on the shoulder to ask a question. However, the very act of touching another person, by itself, is a tortious act. In other words, just because the eggshell patient was injured when someone tapped them on the shoulder doesn't mean they would be able to collect damages. It is important to note that the eggshell plaintiff doctrine pertains to the damages a personal injury victim may recover, it does not affect the standards for liability when determining fault for the accident.
A pre-existing condition is one that existed prior to the current condition. If you make a claim to the at-fault party’s insurance company, they most likely will try to make an issue of your pre-existing medical condition. The at-fault party’s insurance company will review your prior medical records and treatment history and will most likely claim that your injuries were pre-existing and not caused by their insured’s negligence. They want you to believe that you cannot recover for a pre-existing condition. This is simply not true. Insurance companies are fully liable for their insured’s negligence which aggravates or exacerbates a pre-existing injury. You are entitled to compensation for any new injuries, aggravations, and exacerbation.
Case in Point: Benn v. Thomas
Lora Benn died of a heart attack six days after suffering a bruised chest and fractured ankle in a car accident caused after defendant’s vehicle rear-ended the van in which Benn was a passenger. Benn had a history of coronary disease and insulin-dependent diabetes. He had a heart attack in 1985 and was at risk of having another.
The issue was if the eggshell plaintiff rule was relevant in determining proximate cause and/or damages. The estate requested a jury instruction based on the eggshell plaintiff rule, but the trial judge denied the request and gave a general charge instead. The trial judge erred in not giving an instruction on the eggshell plaintiff rule. The court of appeals decision was affirmed and remanded for a new trial.
The eggshell plaintiff rule requires the defendant to take his plaintiff as he finds him, even if that means that the defendant must compensate the plaintiff for harm an ordinary person would not have suffered. Because the eggshell plaintiff rule rejects the limit of foreseeability that courts ordinarily require in the determination of proximate cause, the defendant can still be found liable for defendant’s death in a case where his negligence causes the death, even if the death would not have occurred in an ordinary person. Benn v. Thomas, 512 N.W.2d 537, 1994 Iowa Sup.
Don’t let a pre-existing injury stop you from filing a personal injury claim. Call our office at 704-714-1450 to speak with one of our experienced attorneys. We will schedule an appointment that meets your needs. There is no fee for the initial consultation.