This page takes a look at the types of back injuries that occur in car, motorcycle, and truck accidents. Our lawyers also provide more general information on back injuries and the factors that affect their settlement value.
Our law firm handles serious injury accident cases. A significant portion of our caseload is back injury claims involving spinal cord and disc injuries. If you would like to discuss your case with an attorney, call 800-553-8082 or get a free online case consultation.
In this article:
- Types of Back Injuries
- Different Types of Car Accidents and Associated Back Injuries
- Factors That Affect the Severity of Back Injuries
- Valuing Car Accident Back Injury Claims
- Example Verdicts and Settlements
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that, along with the brain, makes up the central nervous system. The spinal cord extends from the base of the brain to the waist and is approximately 18 inches long. A column of ring-like bones called vertebrae protect the spinal cord.
There are five major divisions of the vertebral column. They are, in descending order, the cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, lumbar vertebrae, the sacrum, and the coccyx, or tailbone. In between each vertebra is an intervertebral disc, a gelatinous cushion that acts as a shock absorber.
Thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves branch off from the spinal cord. Spinal nerves send and receive signals that control movement, sensory perception, and unconscious bodily functions. They are the final links that connect the central nervous system to the rest of the body.
Damage to the spinal cord results in loss of function, mobility, and feeling. The spinal cord does not need to be severed to cause spinal cord injury. In most cases, the spinal cord is intact but peripheral damage causes pain and loss of function. About 260,000 people in the United States have a spinal cord injury.
Other back injuries, such as pinched nerves, ruptured disks, or spinal stenosis are not as debilitating but still result in pain, weakness, and numbness.
In the United States, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in people between the ages of 1 and 54. Motor vehicle crashes are also the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, accounting for 38% of all cases in the United States. Falls are the leading cause for older individuals.
Rollover accidents are rare but are the most likely to cause injury to the spinal cord. Common types of collisions include rear-end, head-on, sideswipe, and side-impact collisions, and common injuries include strains, damage to intervertebral discs, and pinched nerves.Types of Back Injuries
Whiplash: An extremely common injury in car accidents, whiplash is pain and stiffness that results from sudden overextension of the neck. Damage can occur even in low-speed accidents. Other symptoms include headaches, trouble sleeping, poor concentration, vision problems, tinnitus, weakness, depression, and pain in nearby areas of the body. Most cases go away within a few weeks and do not merit a lawsuit. It is possible, however, for whiplash to be more severe.
Fractured Vertebrae Spinal Cord Injury: Most spinal cord injuries are the result of trauma to the vertebral column. For individuals younger than 65 years old, car crashes are the primary cause of trauma to the spine. A complete spinal cord injury completely interrupts motor and sensory function below the site of injury. Incomplete spinal cord injuries only partially limit function. Other symptoms of spinal cord injuries include breathing problems and loss of bowel and bladder function.
Herniated or Bulging Disc: Car accidents can cause injury to the intervertebral discs. If there is inflammation in a disc due to an injury, it can swell. This irritates the nerves and causes pain. When a disc ruptures and its contents spill out, a hernia has occurred. A herniated disc is even more likely to put pressure on nerve roots and cause serious pain.
Pinched Nerve/Radiculopathy: The spinal column is tightly packed, and issues can easily arise when things are out of place. Changes in the tissues surrounding nerve roots can result in a pinched nerve. Pain, numbness, and weakness that radiates from the pinched nerve to connected parts of the body is called radiculopathy. Herniated discs are a common cause of pinched nerves.
C4/C5 and C5/C6 Disc Injury Cases: These are the most common intervertebral disc injuries in the neck. Symptoms include weakness and pain in the shoulders and arms. These symptoms are especially problematic for people with physically demanding jobs.
Degenerative Disc Disease: As we grow older, wear-and-tear can cause the intervertebral discs to deteriorate. Not everyone with degenerative disc disease experiences symptoms. A traumatic injury, such as a car accident, may speed up the process of degeneration, or either activate or reactivate symptoms.
Central Cord Syndrome: If the neck is forcibly extended, the spinal cord can be squeezed and damaged. The cord bleeds, swells, and bruises. The center of the spinal cord, which is most severely damaged in this scenario, controls the arms. Thus, weakness of the arms is a symptom of this injury, making it difficult to do everyday tasks. The legs and other areas of the body may also be affected.
Associated Complications and Injuries: Secondary complications associated specifically with injuries to the spinal cord include respiratory, cardiovascular, urinary, and bowel complications, as well as muscle problems, pain, pressure ulcers, sexual and fertility difficulties, osteoporosis, bone fractures, and depression.
Additionally, studies have found a link between spine injuries and head trauma. Patients with spinal cord injuries are later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury 24 to 50 percent of the time. About one-third of patients with cervical spine or spinal cord injuries also have moderate to severe head injuries.Types of Car Accidents and Associated Back Injuries
The cervical spine, or the neck, is the most commonly injured region of the spine in car accidents. Seat belt restraints, though still overwhelmingly beneficial, allow the neck to bend forcefully to the front, side, or back while restraining the rest of the body. Colliding with seatbelts can cause injuries to other areas of the spine as well.
In frontal-impact accidents, the head and torso are thrown forward. However, they may accelerate forward at different speeds, damaging the cervical area of the spine. Tears and herniation of intervertebral discs in the neck are common, especially in the C5/C6 vertebrae. Severe spinal cord injuries in the neck happen in frontal accidents after the seat belt stops the forward motion of the torso but the head continues to move forward. High-speed accidents can also cause a Chance fracture in the thoracic or lumbar spine due to the bending of the spine against the seatbelt. In a Chance fracture, the front of the spine is compressed together, and the back of the spine is cracked apart, potentially crushing or tearing the spinal cord.
In rear-end accidents, the struck car accelerates forward, pushing the occupant’s torso into the seatback. The torso pushes back and upward until caught by the lap restraint, putting pressure on the thoracic vertebrae and discs. Meanwhile, the neck snaps backward, causing whiplash and potentially damage to the cervical vertebrae, discs, ligaments, or spinal cord. The lumbar area of the spine may also be affected by the lap restraint and from being pushed into the seatback. Chace fractures are also seen in rear-end accidents.
Side-impact accidents typically cause more damage to those vehicle occupants sitting on the side of impact. In contrast to rear- and frontal-impact accidents, in which the body primarily moves forward or backward, side-impact accidents cause the body to move sideways. In these crashes, the seatbelt holds the lower body in place but does little to hold the torso, neck, or head in place. The upper body may slip out of the seatbelt, resulting in even more damaging sideways bending and impact with the door of the car.
In motorcycle accidents, the thoracic spine is the most commonly injured region of the spine. Whereas cars have seatbelts that cause the body to bend largely at the neck in collisions, motorcycles have no seatbelts, meaning that the body bends naturally at the midsection. Injuries on multiple levels of the spine occur in over half of motorcycle accidents. Motorcycle accidents that result in spinal injuries are fatal about 10% of the time.Factors That Affect the Severity of Car Accident Back Injuries
The direction and speed of crashes are important factors for spinal injuries. The faster that cars are going when they collide, the higher the risk of severe injury. The best way to avoid a spinal injury is to observe posted speed limits, drive defensively, and never ride in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver.
Additionally, when a car rolls during a crash, the likelihood of spinal cord injuries increases. When a vehicle rolls over, the body experiences more changes in direction and speed than with other crashes. The head may come into contact with the roof or other parts of the car, greatly increasing the risk of damage to the spine. Additionally, the body may be partially or entirely ejected from the car.
SUV’s roll over about twice as often as other cars, and are more likely to be associated with spinal cord injuries even when they don’t roll. SUVs are more top-heavy, making it easier for them to flip over. Their large size can result in more severe accidents, as well as provide a false sense of security to their drivers.
Certain risk factors make one more likely to have a spine injury as a result of a car accident. Young adult males are at the highest risk since they are more likely to drive recklessly.
There is also a correlation between weight and body mass index (BMI) and the risk of injury in car accidents. Individuals who weigh more will experience greater forces to their body upon impact.
Wearing a seatbelt reduces the risk of serious spinal injury. This is especially true in head-on and rear-end collisions, though seatbelts certainly help in rollover and side-impact accidents as well.Valuing a Car Accident Back Injury Case
How much money should you expect from your back-injury case? This is a fair question. The civil justice system can offer you money to help with the expenses, pain, and lifestyle changes associated with a severe back injury.
The median award for back injury cases is $212,500. However, the value of a case depends largely on the type of injury sustained. More information about the factors involved in valuing a case by specific injury can be found below.Spinal Cord Injuries
The value of back injury cases depends on the type of injury. At the top of the value chart is clearly spinal cord injuries. This means cases where the spinal cord was injured, including by a fractured or dislocated vertebra. Assuming adequate insurance, these cases are typically assessed in the millions.Intervertebral Disc Injuries
Next in line is disc injury cases. As a general rule, herniated disc injury cases are usually valued at more than ruptured or bulging discusses.
Some herniated disc cases are million-dollar cases. Others are relatively minor injury cases that cause the victim little, if any, long-term trouble. The settlement value of these types of back injury cases hinges on:
- whether there is any prior damage to that part of the back,
- what the MRI/CT scan shows,
- the physical symptoms of the back injury and how the victim's life is impacted, and
- how the injury is treated.
At the top end of the scale is herniated disc injuries that require back surgery. The decision to get surgery for a disc herniation in your back is a difficult one. The risks of surgery include infection, thrombophlebitis, spinal fluid leak, and death in rare cases. On the other hand, surgery may provide more relief than conservative treatment. The settlement value of a surgery case will almost always be higher than a case without surgery.
Most classic lumbar disc injuries from car accidents will improve in 90% of patients without surgery with conservative treatment or steroids.Epidural Steroid Injections Without Surgery
Our lawyers see many of our clients with radiating pain getting at least some relief with epidural steroid injections. The literature is less clear about the usefulness of injections for chronic non-radiating back pain, but we have had clients report progress.
The trial value of these cases can be very high. Jurors often understand that having to put a needle (we show jurors the needle) in your back is a strong indicator of real suffering. Insurance companies put less stock in these cases which is why they are more likely to go to trial (or settle in the days before trial).Soft Tissue and Whiplash Injuries
At the bottom end of the scale for the amount you can expect in a back-injury settlement are soft tissue back injuries that cannot be confirmed by any diagnostic testing. This includes things like whiplash. The value of these cases is going to depend on:
- the credibility of the plaintiff and the severity of the injury,
- whether there are pre-existing back injuries,
- how significant the impact was,
- which insurance company is involved, and
- the jurisdiction of the case (jurisdiction matters in every state but it particularly matters in Maryland where the value of the case can double or be cut in half depending on the county that has jurisdiction over the case)
The victim's credibility is critical in a personal injury case. This is particularly true in back injury cases. Juries approach back injuries with healthy skepticism since back injuries are an incredibly common complaint. Moreover, with back injuries, the extent of the injuries and symptoms often don't line up with the radiological findings.Pre-Existing Injuries and Back Injury Settlements
The toughest back-injury cases involve preexisting injuries. Herniated disc injuries can be difficult since many people have preexisting compromised discs without knowing it because they’ve never experienced symptoms before. Insurance companies can use MRIs to argue that a plaintiff's back was already faulty at the time of the car accident.
Still, favorable settlements and jury verdicts can be had in many cases with previous injuries. Ultimately, the law in Maryland is that compensation should account for the change to a plaintiff’s condition after a crash, assuming it caused the change. In other words, if you did not have pain before an accident and you do have pain after the accident, the accident was likely the cause of your pain.
The key to winning these cases is having an attorney and doctors who can articulate the difference between your problems and treatment before the accident and your current condition. If the crash trauma did not cause a change in your condition, your chances of getting a favorable settlement are slim. If, on the other hand, there is an evident change in your injuries from before the accident, the likelihood of a quality settlement is high.
- Sample Insurance Demand Letter
- Valuing Car Accident Claims
- Is There a Back-Injury Settlement Formula?
- Personal Injury Victim Help Center
- Personal Injury Frequently Asked Questions
Below are examples of past cases that found in favor of plaintiffs with back injuries from car accidents. We provide these as a resource to help you understand what cases look like and what they are worth. Many are from Maryland, but others are from around the country.
- 2019, Maryland: $200,000 Settlement Our client is rear-ended while stopped at a red light in Prince Georges County. He suffers a lower-back sprain with some residual symptoms and mobility limitations. He has no broken bones, no herniated discs, and all his diagnostic test results are negative for an objective injury. Despite these findings, he really is in pain. The insurance company offers us $17,000. We file suit against both Allstate and GEICO. Before trial, the offer jumps to $38,000. Finally, Allstate and GEICO make a joint offer of $200,000 to resolve the case in the middle of the trial.
- 2019, Texas: 38,000 Settlement A minor is a passenger in a car that is involved in a car accident. She suffers ruptures and sprains in her cervical spine. The defendant denies liability. The parties settle in the amount of 38,000, some of which will go toward medical and legal expenses while the rest will be paid to the minor and her family in installments.
- 2019, New Jersey: $1,000,000 Verdict A 35-year old woman is rear-ended by another car. Her car launches forward into a third car, which is stopped in front of her. The defendant driver admits fault but alleges that the woman’s injuries are only muscle strains. In fact, she has three herniated discs which the plaintiffs claim will permanently disable her. A jury awards $1,000,000. Damages include pain & suffering, the loss of services by a spouse, and past medical expenses.
- 2019, California: $20,100 Verdict The plaintiff is involved in a chain-reaction collision. He is stopped at a traffic light behind another car and is rear-ended, causing his car to collide with the car in front of him. He is awarded $20,100.
- 2019, Illinois: $1,700,000 Verdict The plaintiff is riding as a passenger in a car traveling through a green light. The vehicle is struck by a car attempting to make a left turn from the opposite direction. The plaintiff suffers a fractured vertebra with a spinal cord injury which requires surgical decompression of her spine. The at-fault driver, as claimed by the plaintiff, was looking for his cellphone at the time, driving too fast, and failed to yield right away or otherwise avoid a collision. The defendant disputed the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, but a jury awards the plaintiff $1,700,000.
- 2018, Florida: $120,000 Verdict A husband and wife are walking through a parking lot when they are struck by a car. The wife is diagnosed at the hospital with a fracture of her seventh thoracic vertebra and the husband with a fractured pelvis. Neither of the plaintiffs has a permanent injury. They only seek compensation for their past medical expenses. The defendant argues that the couple was partially at fault for the accident because they walked out in front of the vehicle. The wife’s back pain, the defendant continues, may have already existed before the accident. The jury finds the defendant 60% negligent and the plaintiffs 40% negligent. Each plaintiff is awarded $60,000 for their medical expenses.
- 2017, Maryland: $265,000 Verdict Our client has a preexisting back injury that is exacerbated in a rear-end accident. She requires five epidural injections. The defendant claims she would have needed this treatment anyway. The case settles two weeks before trial.
- 2017, Maryland: $10,000 Verdict The plaintiff, a 32-year-old customer service rep, is rear-ended by a Montgomery County Ride-On Bus at the Metro service exit on the ICC. The plaintiff sues the County, alleging lumbar disc herniations. The County admits liability for the accident but disputes whether the back injuries were actually the result of the accident. The jury awards damages of $10,000, which is significantly less than what the Plaintiff was seeking.
- 2017, Maryland $60,000 Verdict The plaintiff is a 34-year cheerleading coach. She is rear-ended on Route 27 in Mount Airy and allegedly suffers cervical disc herniations with radiculopathy. Liability is admitted and only damages are at issue. The jury in Carroll County awards $60,000.
- 2017, Oregon: $618,000 Verdict Plaintiffs are traveling in their vehicle and are stopped at a red light. The defendant's vehicle, a large gas truck, strikes the rear of their vehicle. As a result of the collision, one plaintiff sustains neck and back injuries including disc bulges requiring surgery as well as headaches and vertigo. He alleges the possibility of future fusion surgeries. The second plaintiff sustains a facet joint injury in his back that requires ablation procedures every six months and alleges the possibility of a future back surgery. A jury returns a verdict of $313,000 in economic damages for the first plaintiff and $231,000 in economic damages for the second plaintiff, in addition to $37,000 in non-economic damages for each.
The average settlement value for a back injury in an auto accident lawsuit can be anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. The median compensation award for back injury cases is twice as high.
Why such a wide value range? Back injuries in auto accidents have a very broad range of severity. Our lawyers see cases ranging from soft tissue injuries to spinal cord injuries. This is why the average back injury settlement is a relatively meaningless number without knowing what type of back injury the victim has.
The most money my firm has ever gotten for a client in a back injury settlement was $2.3 million. Our client's primary injuries where herniated discs in his back.
To get a settlement like this in a back injury case, the victim must have a permanent injury and there must be plenty of insurance to cover the harms and losses the plaintiff endured.
The primary factor that drives the potential settlement value of a back injury auto accident case is always going to be the severity of the plaintiff's back injury. Auto accident back injuries can range from very minor (e.g., back sprains) to very serious injuries resulting in permanent disability (e.g., fractured vertebrae).
The more severe the injury and the more treatment it requires, the higher the settlement value of the case. Another factor that impacts the value of back injury cases is the age of the plaintiff. Younger plaintiffs fair better in better injury cases because they are less likely to pre-existing or degenerative back issues.
Certain types of back injuries can be difficult to definitively prove in court. Back sprains and similar types of "soft-tissue" back injuries cannot be identified on x-rays or other types of diagnostic imaging tests. The diagnosis of these injuries must be based on physical examination and criteria that tends to be more subjective. However, some back injuries can be objectively diagnosed with x-rays or MRI. These cases are easier to prove in court.
You can still get compensation for the harm done to you even if had a back injury before the crash. If the plaintiff has a history of back problems, a pre-existing back injury, or a degenerative back condition, may reduce the potential settlement value of their case if the jury believes that some portion of the pain is the result of a prior or chronic injury. But this will NOT prevent you from getting compensation if your back was injured in a car accident.
Our advocates fight to get our clients who have suffered severe back injuries the value they deserve, either by settlement or, if necessary, at trial. We are based in Maryland, but we handle serious back injury claims throughout the country. Call us to discuss your case at 800-553-8082 or get a free online consultation.Sources
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons
- Shepard Center
- World Health Organization
- Columbia University Department of Neurology
- National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center
- University of Rochester Medical Center
Motor Vehicle Collisions by Tammy Toney-Butler and Matthew Varacallo, StatPearls Publishing LLC., 2019.
Lumbosacral Disc Injuries by Chester Donnally et al., StatPearls Publishing LLC., 2019.
Do Corticosteroids Still Have a Place in the Treatment of Chronic Pain? by Nebojsa Nick Knezevic et al., Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2018.
Seatbelt use and risk of major injuries sustained by vehicle occupants during motor-vehicle crashes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies by Nicole Fouda Mbarga et al., BMC Public Health, 2018.
Surgical Site Infection in Spine Surgery: Who Is at Risk? by Reina Yao et al., Global Spine Journal, 2018
Spinal injury resulting from car accident: Focus to prevention by Esmaeil Fakharian et al., Asian Journal of Neurosurgery, 2017.
Frequency of acute cervical and lumbar pathology in common types of motor vehicle collisions: a retrospective record review, by Rami Hashish and Hasan Badday, BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 2017
Mechanisms and Mitigation of Head and Spinal Injuries Due to Motor Vehicle Crashes, by Paul Ivancic, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 2016
Chronic complications of spinal cord injury by Nebahat Sezar, World Journal of Orthopedics, 2015
Prevalence and risk factors of deep vein thrombosis in patients after spine surgery: a retrospective case-cohort study by Si-Dong Yang et al., Scientific Reports, 2015
Epidemiology, Causes and Prevention of Car Rollover Crashes with Ejection by H El-Hennawy et al., Annals of Medical & Health Sciences Research, 2014
Rates and causes of mortality associated with spine surgery based on 108,419 procedures: a review of the Scoliosis Research Society Morbidity and Mortality Database by Justin Smith et al., Spine, 2012
The Importance of Vehicle Rollover as a Field Triage Criterion, by Howard Champion et al., The Journal of TRAUMA Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, 2009
Thoracolumbar junction injuries after rollover crashes: difference between belted and unbelted front seat occupants by Joji Inamasu and Bernard Guiot, European Spine Journal, 2009
Relative risk of spinal cord injury in road crashes involving seriously injured occupants of light passenger vehicles, by Peter O’Connor and Doug Brown, Accident Analysis & Prevention, 2006
Spinal Injury Patterns Resulting From Car and Motorcycle Accidents by Angus Robertson et al., Spine, 2002.
Epidemiology of Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury: The Scope of the Problem by Elie Elovic and Steven Kirschblum, Topics in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation, 1999
Association of head trauma with cervical spine injury, spinal cord injury, or both by Iida Hideo et al., The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, 1999