By Cory Bilton
Recently, I read a unique article in the New York Times about what it is like to be a pedestrian run over by a vehicle. The author was run over by a delivery truck while in a crosswalk in 2007. She recounted her injuries, anecdotes from her recovery, and the challenges she continues to face 7 years after the incident. She also tells the stories of three of her coworkers who were also pedestrians struck by motor vehicles. While each individual story differs in some respect, there is significant similarity in each person’s response to the trauma. Unless you have been injured in an accident yourself, I think it is difficult to understand the challenges, difficulties, and memories that an injured person faces.
While reading this article, and because of some questions I’ve gotten from my friends and family lately, I think it is useful to discuss the types of damages that an injured person can recover from a wrongdoer. It is critical to note that money is not a cure for any injury. People I’ve met who were injured in accidents invariably would prefer to have not been injured as opposed to receiving financial compensation. A wrongdoer’s payment for the injuries he causes is an imperfect remedy at best. However, in trying to quantify the damages resulting from an accident, these are the categories that a wrongdoer can be legally liable for:
1. Medical Expenses
An injured person often requires various types of medical treatment due to her injuries. Medical expenses include everything from the cost of the ambulance ride from the scene of the incident, to the cost of hospitals, doctors, diagnostic studies, and physical therapy. A wrongdoer who intentionally or negligently causes someone to be injured is liable for all of the person’s medical expenses that are needed to attend to those injuries. In Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland, wrongdoers are liable for the full cost of the medical expenses they impose upon an injured person, even if that person’s medical expenses are covered by health insurance (this is called the collateral source rule). This category also includes future medical expenses, if they are relatively certain to be needed.
2. Lost Wages
If your injuries cause you to miss time from work, the time you missed is also an element of your damages. For example, if you miss five 8 hour days of work as a result of being injured in an accident, and you earn $17 per hour, then the wrongdoer is liable to you for $680 (40 hours X $17 per hour) for your lost wages. This is true even if you were compensated by your employer because you used “sick days” or “vacation days” for the time you were out of work. The reason for this is that you have only a limited number of sick or vacation days per year, so your injuries have still caused a financial loss because you have fewer sick or vacation days remaining to use for other reasons. Lost wages aren’t always just short-term losses. For serious injuries, long-term lost wages may result from major career disruption or the complete inability to work.
A wrongdoer is liable for any cost that an injured person incurs because of her injuries. So, for example, prescription drugs, crutches or a cane, or additional transportation expenses fall into this category. Often the victim of an accident has numerous expenses from normal daily activities that the she can’t perform anymore. This may include a maid service, child care, or the cost of having the lawn mown (if these activities are ones that the injured person would normally do personally, but for her injuries). The basic rule for expenses is that if there is some economic cost that is incurred because of the victim’s injuries, then the wrongdoer is legally liable for the cost.
4. Pain, Suffering, and Intangible Damages
Pain and suffering is the least understood and hardest to measure category of damages for which a wrongdoer is liable. It is a broad category that includes pain, suffering, mental anguish, inconvenience, and diminished enjoyment of life. It is the category that includes all of the intangible consequences of a person’s injuries. These intangible consequences are highly individualistic; two people can endure similar accidents but be affected differently. The impact of a person’s injuries can be greatly affected by their role, status, or circumstances in life. Pain and suffering damages are also greatly affected by duration; some injuries heal quickly while others are permanent. Even though pain, suffering, and intangible damages differ from victim to victim, it is almost always the most significant element in the overall damages calculation.
Settlements and Judgments Often Aren’t Itemized
Although there are distinct categories of damages to an injured person, settlements are rarely itemized. Since most personal injury cases settle, this means that at the end of the day, no one is going to know how much is allotted to each of the categories above. The categories of damages are useful to demonstrate how an injury impacts a person’s life. It’s a way of breaking a complex situation into smaller, more manageable pieces. As detailed in the recent NY Times article, healing and recovering from an accident can have a wide variety of impacts, some of them unexpected or long-lasting, on a victim’s life and well-being.
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