Catastrophic spinal cord injuries

Personal injury claims and clinical negligence

Spinal injuries and spinal cord injuries

An injury is considered “catastrophic” when it leaves the victim with life-changing, and long-term consequences.  Catastrophic spinal cord injuries are amongst the most common type of catastrophic injury.  Catastrophic spinal cord injuries may be caused by

  • Heavy contact sports such as rugby
  • Sports such as horse-riding and skiing
  • Road traffic accidents
  • Accidents in public places
  • Accidents in the workplace

Here we will take a closer look at the causes of catastrophic spinal cord injuries, the long term impacts, and the role of expert witnesses in claims arising from catastrophic spinal cord injuries.

Catastrophic Spinal Cord Injuries

What causes catastrophic orthopaedic spinal injury?

Spinal injuries range in severity from minor soft tissue damage to catastrophic spine and spinal cord trauma.  The Judicial College’s guidelines for the assessment of general damages in personal injury claims classifies injury into severe, moderate and minor.

Spinal injuries result from injury to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column, and in catastrophic cases, to the spinal cord itself.  This type of injury is typically associated with a significant traumatic blow and potentially extreme flexion or hyperextension of the spine.  This can cause the bones of the spine to fracture, dislocate, compress, or crush, and, in turn, harm the fragile spinal cord.

Catastrophic spinal cord injuries typically occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents, falls, violent acts, medical negligence, and heavy contact during sports.  Regardless of the cause of a spinal cord injury, receiving timely expert medical treatment from a specialist in orthopaedic trauma is vital in achieving the best possible outcome for the patient.

What are the long term impacts of catastrophic spinal cord injuries?

The long term impacts of catastrophic spinal cord injuries depend on the severity of the injury suffered, whether the victim received prompt and effective immediate treatment, the success of any surgery or other medical intervention, and other factors such as whether the patient has access to a high-quality rehabilitation service.  People who sustain spinal cord injuries often go on to suffer long term loss of limb function, severe pain, loss of bladder and/or bowel control, impaired breathing and circulation, pain, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Other patients may, however, go on to make a complete recovery.  Often it can take several weeks or months for the true impact of a spinal injury to emerge.  In addition, the health of those with a spinal cord injury may initially worsen as a result of immediate swelling and infection.

What is the role of expert evidence in cases of catastrophic spinal injury?

The legal test for personal injury and clinical negligence is essentially the same; when a claimant claims personal injury, it is a claim in negligence.  To establish negligence, it must be shown that:

  • a duty of care was owed to the claimant, and
  • the duty of care was breached, and
  • the claimant suffered harm as a result of the breach

As well as establishing causation, a claimant who claims personal injury or clinical negligence will need to evidence the prognosis, how this may be affected by treatment, and the likely costs of such treatment.  Experts may also be asked to comment on the prospects of the claimant returning to the workplace to assist in determining other losses such as loss of future earnings.  Because compensation is there to put the claimant back in the same position as if the cause of the injury had not happened, expert witnesses are often instructed to provide “quantum reports” to help the court in deciding the amount of the award to be granted for the injury.

Personal injury and clinical negligence claims arising from catastrophic spinal cord injuries may require the instruction of more than one expert.  The injury may require the expert opinion of a neurosurgeon who specialises in the spinal neurosurgery and/or an orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in spinal surgery.  However, other expert witnesses may be required to comment on loss of function and prognosis, including musculoskeletal physiotherapists, occupational therapists and where there is associated psychiatric sequalae, psychiatrists.

Examples from the workplace

In 2017, the retailer, Wilko, pleaded guilty to four breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc.  Act 1974 after a member of staff suffered substantial spinal injuries after a metal cage containing tins of paint fell on her while it was being manoeuvred from a lift.  As a result, Wilko was fined £2.2m following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).  In another case, ECS Groundwork Ltd was fined £40,000 in 2021 after a worker fell 11 metres while constructing a new hospitality and seating area at Watford FC’s ground.

In claims of spinal injuries and spinal cord injuries due to medical negligence, expert evidence would be required to establish duty of care, whether that duty of care was breached (e.g.  failure to refer the patient to a cancer specialist), and the extent of the severity of the spinal injury or spinal cord injury which resulted from the breach.

How can Expert Court Reports Ltd help?

At Expert Court Reports, we have several experts who may provide expert evidence in claims arising from spinal injuries and catastrophic spinal cord injuries.  Francis Brooks, is an experienced consultant orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in spinal surgery.  We also have musculoskeletal physiotherapists, occupational therapists and where there is associated psychiatric sequalae, psychiatrists.

Francis Brooks

Instructing our experts

Our experts may be instructed by the claimant, the defendant, or as a single joint expert witness.  If you would like to find out more about how our experts could assist you, please call us on 01865 587865, email, or request a quote by completing our online form.