Will Degenerative Changes Cause Issues for Whiplash Claims?

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Legally reviewed by:

Erik Abrahamson, J.D. May 10, 2017

Experienced Neck Injury Lawyers Helping Whiplash Victims in the Tampa, FL Area

person with whiplashCould you have a serious back injury and not know it? Degenerative disc disorder is a spinal cord injury that can form over time, and many people will not know that they have the disorder until they experience a traumatic event that triggers pain from their pre-existing condition. A car accident is a fairly common example.

Suppose you are driving in Tampa, and you get rear-ended in heavy traffic. At first you feel fine, but as the days go by, you start to experience pain, stiffness, and limited mobility in your neck and back. Could it be whiplash? You know whiplash is a potential consequence of a rear-end collision. But, you are also aware of the common conception that whiplash is a “fake,” or at best, a minor injury. You feel like your pain shouldn’t be this bad if you are “just” suffering from whiplash as a result of an accident.

Understanding Whiplash and Pre-Existing Degenerative Conditions

If any of this sounds familiar, there are two things you need to know. First, whiplash is a very real injury with very real medical consequences. Whiplash has the potential to cause chronic pain, sleeping disorders, memory loss, and a variety of other severe symptoms. Individuals diagnosed with whiplash following car accidents often face long roads to recovery – and, since rear-end collisions are usually the result of the rear-ending driver’s negligence, whiplash victims will often be entitled to significant financial compensation.

Second, if your pain and other symptoms are in fact disproportionate to the severity of the accident, there is a chance that you could be suffering from a degenerative injury. The discs in your spine could have suffered damage in a prior traumatic incident, or they could have been degenerating for years, and your collision may have aggravated or exacerbated a condition that you did not previously know existed.

When a Vehicle Collision Aggravates or Exacerbates a Pre-Existing Condition

In Florida, you can still recover compensation if a vehicle collision aggravates or exacerbates a pre-existing condition rather than causing a completely new injury. The general rule in personal injury cases is: If someone else’s negligence causes you harm, you are entitled to pursue just compensation. You weren’t in pain, but now you are, and someone else is to blame. That is enough to support a claim for compensation under Florida law.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that providing your claim will be easy. In fact, once the insurance companies and defense lawyers involved in your case learn that you have a pre-existing degenerative condition, you can be almost certain that they will view this as an opportunity to deny your claim. Negotiating a settlement or securing a verdict at trial won’t be impossible, but it will require the insight and strategic presentation of an experienced personal injury attorney.

When seeking compensation for whiplash-type injuries with a pre-existing degenerative condition, some of the key questions that will impact your case include:

  • Have you previously complained of back pain? If you have previously complained of back pain, this could potentially affect the value of your claim. You will need to be able to prove that the pain you are experiencing now is the result of the accident, and not solely the result of the same condition that was causing you to suffer before the accident occurred.
  • What do your prior medical records show? Do your past medical records provide any evidence of a pre-existing condition? If so, what are the condition’s typical symptoms and effects? Your lawyer will need to be able to successfully argue (with the help of medical evidence) that your whiplash injury is the most likely cause of your current pain and other symptoms.
  • What does your doctor say? In personal injury cases involving pre-existing conditions, medical records and testimony are critical evidence. Does your doctor believe that the accident worsened your pre-existing injury and triggered your pain? If so, can he or she communicate this effectively? We work with many experienced physicians who specialize in diagnosing and explaining accident-related injuries.
  • What percentage of your current condition is attributable to the accident? Generally speaking, the at-fault driver in a car accident is only responsible for the damage that he or she causes. Under the Florida Standard Jury Instructions, in pre-existing injury cases, the jury must, “attempt to determine what portion of the Plaintiff’s condition resulted from the aggravation.” If the defense can successfully argue that your pain and other symptoms are primarily the result of non-accident-related factors, this could significantly reduce your financial recovery.

What If I Knew About My Degenerative Disc Injury?

In the example above, we assumed that you had no prior knowledge of your degenerative condition. But, what if you knew about it? What if you had previously been diagnosed, and what if you were undergoing treatment at the time of the accident?

As the questions we just answered suggest, prior knowledge of your degenerative condition is not generally going to be a significant factor. Either the accident exacerbated your condition or it didn’t – whether you knew about the condition is less of a consideration. The more important issues are: (i) how your symptoms changed following the accident, and (ii) whether your doctor can demonstrate that the accident in fact aggravated or exacerbated your pre-existing injury.

More Whiplash Resources

At Abrahamson & Uiterwyk, we bring decades of experience to representing Tampa-area residents and visitors in personal injury cases involving whiplash injuries. If you are concerned that you may have whiplash, or if you have been diagnosed with whiplash and would like to learn more about your legal rights, we encourage you to review these free resources prepared by our attorneys:

Contact Abrahamson & Uiterwyk for a Free Consultation

After any type of vehicle collision, it is important to speak with an attorney as soon as possible. At Abrahamson & Uiterwyk, we offer free initial consultations, and do not charge any fees or costs unless we win your case. To contact our offices in Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, or New Port Richey, please call (855) 293-5630 or contact us online today.

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