Fort Myers Spinal Cord Injury Attorney
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, about 17,700 new spinal cord injuries are reported each year, not counting those suffered by individuals who died from their injuries. Approximately 288,000 people are currently living with a spinal cord injury, and many will require life-long care. If you acquired a spinal cord injury in Fort Myers due to an accident that was caused by someone else’s negligence, you may qualify for compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. An experienced spinal cord injury lawyer can help you understand your legal options.
What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?
As explained by Mayo Clinic, a spinal cord injury (SCI) involves damage to any part of the spinal cord—including the vertebrae, ligaments, or disks—or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. The spinal cord is about 18 inches long, extending from the base of the head to near the waist. The spinal cord is divided into four groups, including:
- Cervical vertebrae, located in the neck
- Thoracic vertebrae, in the upper back
- Lumbar vertebrae, in the lower back
- Sacral vertebrae, in the pelvis
A traumatic spinal cord injury results from a sudden blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, compresses, or crushes one or more of the vertebrae. Motor vehicle accidents and falls are among the most common causes of this type of injury. Symptoms of SCI include:
- Extreme pain or pressure in the head, neck, or back
- Loss of sensation in the hands, fingers, feet, or toes or altered sensation, such as the inability to feel items that are hot or cold to the touch
- Difficulty breathing
- Partial or complete loss of function in a body part
- Urinary or bowel incontinence
- Exaggerated reflexes, or spasms
- Difficulty with walking or balance
- Unusual lumps on the head or spine or an oddly positioned neck or back
Doctors will evaluate individuals with a suspected spinal cord injury using diagnostic tests, according to American Nurse Today. The tests used to diagnose SCI include radiologic evaluations as well as standardized testing tools. SCIs are then rated as to the type of damage that has been done based on the lowest normally performing area of the spine and the ability of the limbs to function. There are two types of SCI:
- Complete: All feeling and ability to control function below the damaged area of the spine.
- Incomplete: Some sensation and/or motor function exists below the site of the injury.
Paralysis, which is the loss of sensation and motor function, is categorized as either:
- Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, which features loss of sensation and motor function in the arms, legs, trunk, and pelvic region of the body, or
- Paraplegia, which is loss of sensation and motor function in the trunk, pelvis, and legs.
Men constitute 78 percent of new SCI cases, with the average age of those suffering a spinal cord injury up from 29 years in the 1970s to 43 years currently. More than 38 percent of SCIs are caused by motor vehicle accidents, with falls as the cause of another 31.6 percent. Other causes include sports, violence, and medical or surgical procedures.
Spinal cord injuries in the U.S. come with a societal cost of about $9.7 billion a year. $1.2 billion of that cost is the result of the treatment and complication of pressure sores, which are commonly suffered by those with SCI.
What Is Involved in the Treatment of SCI?
The treatment of SCI usually begins before the patient even reaches the hospital, when the emergency medical responders immobilize the spine at the scene of the accident. This early treatment then proceeds in the emergency room with further stabilization as well as diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, and addressing immediate, life-threatening complications of the injury. Afterward, treatment may include:
- Traction to bring the spine into proper alignment and improve blood flow to affected organs and limbs.
- Surgery to relieve compression of a herniated disk, blood clots, or other lesions on the spinal cord.
- Maintenance of regular blood pressure.
- Monitoring of cardiovascular function.
- Adequate ventilation and lung function.
- Preventing and addressing infection and other complications from the injury.
The most common complication of SCI is the impairment of the respiratory system, which may result in the patient needing to be intubated for mechanical ventilation. The higher up on the spine the injury is, the more likely that the patient will have to remain on a ventilator for the rest of his or her life.
In any given year, about 30 percent of all Americans suffering from a spinal cord injury will be re-hospitalized due to complications of the injury. Ongoing medical issues that can lengthen the patient’s stay in the hospital or can cause them to be re-hospitalized include:
- Temperature deregulation, due to the patient’s inability to sweat or shiver
- Acute gastrointestinal problems
- Urinary retention issues that require the placement of a catheter
- Muscle spasticity that can result in chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and bone density loss
- Pressure sores, also known as bedsores, as well as skin problems relating to low blood pressure, friction, moisture, and poor nutrition
The vast majority of patients with SCI are discharged from the hospital before their recovery is complete. After discharge, additional medical interventions will likely be necessary, including:
- Rehabilitation in either a medical facility or in-home
- Assistance with personal care and management of complications from the injury
- Medications to help with effects of the spinal cord injury, including medications that control pain and muscle spasticity, and those used to improve bladder control, bowel control, and sexual functioning
- Psychological counseling for the patient and his or her family members as they cope with the stresses that the injury caused
Most of a patient’s ability to recover will take place within the first six months after injury, though some people experience small improvements for as long as a year or two.
As reported by the University of California, San Francisco, the common protocol for evaluating, diagnosing, and treating new spinal cord injuries has been somewhat ineffective due to the presence of other injuries that may cause the patient to seem less mobile than he or she really is. Doctors at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center have now set a new standard of care for their patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. This standard includes:
- Tests that check for the patient’s own blood flow to the spine so that they can artificially boost the blood flow to reach the individual’s own resting pressure rather than simply artificially increasing everyone’s blood pressure to the spine in the same way and to the same number, regardless of the age or general health of the patient.
- Getting the patient into surgery sooner, preferably within the first 12 hours after the injury takes place. Previously, surgery was held off for at least two days so that doctors could evaluate the patient’s mobility. However, by performing the surgery earlier, decompression of the spinal cord can happen sooner, as well as a fusion to stabilize the vertebrae.
By improving blood pressure to the spine and operating sooner rather than later, patients are achieving a faster and better recovery. One patient who underwent this new protocol was walking with the aid of a walker within a month and a half, and had gained most of his motor control within four months. He can now walk unassisted for more than a mile, climb stairs, and even lift weights. At the time of the UCSF publication, that patient continued to work on improving his hand dexterity.
Another treatment showing promise for those suffering spinal cord injuries is the use of stem cell injections. As explained by the Mayo Clinic, which is currently conducting a stem cell therapy clinical trial on SCI patients, the injection of stem cells is designed to enable recovery without the use of surgery or medications.
The stem cells are harvested from the patient’s own tissue from the abdomen or thigh. The cells are then developed into the type of cells needed for the patient after four to six weeks in the lab. They are delivered to the patient without the use of an implantable device or surgery and it does not require maintenance of the device throughout the patient’s life. Mayo has already conducted successful clinical trials using stem cell therapy for neurodegenerative disease. The hope for SCI patients is that the stem cells will reduce inflammation following SCI and promote regeneration of spinal nerve fibers to promote function.
The Mayo Clinic stated in its search for clinical trial candidates that, while scientists already know that stem cells promote nerve regeneration, questions still need answers, such as the optimal time for the treatment, the most effective mode for delivering stem cells to the body, and the optimal number and type of stem cells. Phase 1 of the Mayo study is scheduled for completion in late 2023.
How Does Florida Law Protect Those Suffering from SCI?
Depending on factors such as the severity of the injury, neurological impairment, and the educational and employment history of the patient before the accident, those suffering from SCI can expect expenses related to the injury of up to a million dollars or more for the first year, and more than $100,000 per year for the rest of their lives. The life expectancy of someone dealing with SCI is significantly lower than those who are not. Premature death due to SCI complications most commonly feature pneumonia and septicemia.
Because a spinal cord injury is such a significant injury, Florida’s personal injury law allows for victims to seek compensation for SCIs caused by someone else’s negligence or recklessness, even in the case of car accidents, where there is a serious injury threshold that must be met before a personal injury suit can be filed.
The Florida serious injury threshold includes injuries that:
- Cause significant and permanent loss of an important body function
- Are permanent, within a reasonable degree of medical probability
- Cause significant or permanent scarring or disfigurement
- Lead to the claimant’s or the claimant’s loved one’s death
To obtain compensation from an at-fault party in a personal injury lawsuit, a plaintiff must be able to prove that the at-fault party’s actions were negligent. Negligence is established by proving the following:
- The defendant (at-fault party) owed the plaintiff (claimant) a duty of care. This duty of care depends on what was happening when the accident occurred. For example, the duty of care in a car accident case would be the duty to obey traffic laws and drive the vehicle safely.
- There was a breach in this duty of care that resulted in an accident.
- The accident was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries and financial damages.
A personal injury lawsuit may result in compensation for the following expenses:
- Past, current, and future medical expenses
- Lost wages from work, including time spent traveling to and from appointments
- Permanent disability
- The cost of hiring someone to complete household chores that you can no longer do
- Emotional distress, including anxiety or depression
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium, which means the injury has interfered with your familial relationships
- Any property that was damaged in the accident
- Other expenses that were a direct result of your injury including the cost of wheelchairs and adaptive features on your car or in your home
Even if you were partially responsible for the accident that caused your injuries, you may still qualify for compensation through Florida’s comparative negligence standard. This standard means that you may file a personal injury lawsuit, but a court will reduce your damages award by the amount of responsibility you bear. For example, if you are 20 percent responsible for causing the accident that resulted in your injuries, a court will reduce your award by 20 percent.