How Pre-Existing Conditions Impact Personal Injury Cases in NJ
“It was like that when I found it.” This childhood response to a parent finding a broken object is virtually identical to one of the most commonly invoked defenses in New Jersey personal injury lawsuits. Individuals against whom you bring a personal injury claim will often attempt to argue that you did not actually suffer an injury, but rather had a “pre-existing condition” that explains the damaging medical records produced in litigation. If you are seeking to file a personal injury claim in New Jersey and you had a pre-existing condition when you were injured in an accident, you may be wondering if you can still pursue damages. Here, we discuss how pre-existing conditions affect liability and compensation in personal injury lawsuits in New Jersey. If you have questions about your specific case, simply contact us today at (732) 303-7857 to speak with a knowledgeable NJ Personal Injury Lawyer who can help. Our attorneys has extensive experience in this area law and we are available to provide you with an absolutely free, confidential consultation.
What if I had a Pre-Existing Condition when I Suffered Personal Injury in New Jersey?
The primary way to prove liability in a personal injury lawsuit in New Jersey is by establishing negligence. To establish a negligence claim, you must prove that the defendant (the party you are suing) had a duty to act in a certain way, failed to fulfill that duty, and said failure caused you to suffer injury. Negligence is often described as the failure to exercise reasonable care. This can apply in any number of situations. For example, in a motor vehicle accident case, it may mean the at-fault driver failed to drive reasonably safely. In a slip and fall case, it may mean a store or restaurant owner failed to keep their premises free of dangerous hidden defects like standing liquid, ice, or faulty handrails. Or perhaps a doctor was negligent when he or she failed to perform your operation according to the medical standards reasonably accepted in the relevant medical specialty. All of these constitute negligence.
Pre-existing conditions typically become relevant in proving “injury” and “causation” in personal injury lawsuits. Imagine that you suffer car accident injuries caused by a negligent driver. You bring a lawsuit against them and produce medical records indicating that you suffered a back injury requiring months of physical therapy and time off from work after the accident. The defendant’s attorney or insurance company will likely request a copy of your prior medical records and scour them to find evidence that you had back problems prior to the accident. If the defendant identifies doctors’ notes or medical diagnoses in your records indicating that had back trouble prior to the accident, they will likely argue that you had a “pre-existing” back injury. In other words, the defendant’s negligent driving did not cause your injury, or cause any additional harm to you, beyond the injury that you were already experiencing.
Can I Still Obtain Compensation if I had a Pre-Existing Condition?
Even if you have a pre-existing condition when you are involved in an accident, New Jersey law still permits you to recover damages if a defendant’s negligence aggravated a pre-existing condition. In other words, if you can establish that your pre-existing injury was manageable before the accident, but became much worse because of the accident, this still entitles you to compensation. For instance, a back or shoulder problem that occasionally acted up could become significantly aggravated by additional physical trauma. Whether this means you are confined to a wheelchair, in increased pain on a continual basis, or require ongoing physical therapy or corrective surgery, all of these represent an escalation of your condition due to injury caused by the defendant.
The Eggshell Doctrine
There is a legal concept called the Eggshell Doctrine, which dictates that victims are still entitled to damages for personal injury if their pre-existing condition was stable at the time of the accident, and there was no indication that the condition would worsen in absence of harm caused by the accident. Typically, this plays a role in cases where the person injured may be unusually vulnerable to injury due to their physical state. An accident that may lead to minor injuries in a perfectly healthy person, may cause much more catastrophic damage to a person already susceptible to injury. With this in mind, the Eggshell Doctrine prevents a defendant (or his or her insurance company) from claiming no liability because of a physical condition that was present prior to the injury involved in the case.
Nevertheless, you must establish causation between negligence on the part of the person you are bringing the claim against and your injuries from the accident. It often requires detailed medical documentation and other supporting evidence to address the complexities of personal injury claims with pre-existing conditions, which is why it is essential to consult with an attorney who has extensive experience in this specific area of law.
Existing Injuries when I was in an Accident, What Next?
If you have a pre-existing condition that was aggravated by an accident, or you are concerned that existing injuries may lessen your likelihood of successfully recovering compensation in a personal injury case, contact the New Jersey Injury Lawyers at our firm for help. Call our local Monmouth County office at (732) 303-7857 or reach out online to speak with an attorney free of charge.