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Back Injuries in Car Accidents

Our lawyers provide on this page information on back injuries and the factors that affect the settlement amounts of back injury lawsuits in car, motorcycle, and truck accidents.

Our law firm handles severe injury accident cases in Maryland and Washington, D.C. A significant portion of our caseload is back injury claims involving spinal cord and disc injuries. Our focus is on maximizing our client’s settlement compensation or jury payout.

If you want to discuss your case with a back injury attorney, call 800-553-8082 or get a free online case consultation.

In this article:

Back Injury Car Accident Cases

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 protects the spinal cord.

There are five major divisions of the vertebral column. In descending order, they are the cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, lumbar vertebrae, sacrum, 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 Maryland, 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 of death 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. Significant pain and suffering often result 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 of these cases in Maryland 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 result from trauma to the vertebral column. For individuals younger than 65, car crashes are the primary cause of trauma to the spine. A complete spinal cord injury completely interrupts motor and sensory function below the injury site. 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: Auto 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. A hernia occurs when a disc ruptures and its contents spill out. A herniated disc is even more likely to pressure nerve roots and cause severe 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 radiate from the pinched nerve to connected parts of the body are called radiculopathy. Herniated discs are a common cause of pinched nerves.

C4/C5 and C5/C6 Disc Injury Cases: These are the neck’s most common intervertebral disc injuries. 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 motor vehicle 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 explicitly associated with injuries to the spinal cord include respiratory, cardiovascular, urinary, and bowel complications, 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% 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

Back Pain

The cervical spine, or the neck, is the most commonly injured region of the spine in car crashes. Though still overwhelmingly beneficial, seat belt restraints allow the neck to bend forcefully to the front, side, or back while restraining the rest of the body. Colliding with seatbelts can also cause injuries to other areas of the spine.

In frontal-impact accidents, the head and torso are thrown forward. However, they may accelerate forward at different speeds, damaging the cervical spine area. 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 damaging 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.

Side-impact accidents typically cause more damage to those vehicle occupants sitting on the side of the 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 car door.

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 mainly at the neck in collisions, motorcycles have no seatbelts, meaning that the body bends naturally at the midsection. Injuries on multiple spine levels 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 Crash Back Injuries

The direction and speed of crashes are essential factors for spinal injuries. The faster cars travel 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 vehicle rolls during a crash, the likelihood of spinal cord injuries increases. When a vehicle rolls over, the body experiences more direction and speed changes than other crashes. The head may come into contact with the roof or other parts of the car, significantly increasing the risk of damage to the spine. Additionally, the body may be partially or entirely ejected from the car.

SUVs 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 and provide a false sense of security to their drivers.

Certain risk factors make one more likely to have a spine injury due to a car collision. 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 crashes. Individuals who weigh more will experience greater forces to their bodies upon impact.

Wearing a seatbelt reduces the risk of severe spinal injury. This is especially true in head-on and rear-end collisions, though seatbelts also help in rollover and side-impact accidents.

Average Settlement for 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, how a back injury settlement is calculated depends mainly on the type of injury sustained. Let’s look at the individual types of typical back injuries.

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, the average settlement for a car accident spinal injury lawsuit is typically assessed in the millions.

Intervertebral Disc Injuries

Next in line is disc injury cases. As a general rule, herniated disc injury cases usually get higher settlement amounts than ruptured or bulging discs.

Some herniated disc cases are million-dollar cases. Others are relatively typical injury cases that cause the victim little if any, long-term trouble. The settlement compensation payouts for these types of back injury cases hinge on:

  1. whether there is any prior damage to that part of the back,
  2. what the MRI/CT scan shows,
  3. the physical symptoms of the back injury and how the victim’s life is impacted, and
  4. how the injury is treated.

At the top end of the scale are herniated disc injuries that require back surgery. The decision to get surgery for a disc herniation in your back is difficult. 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 amount for a back surgery car accident case will almost always be higher than without surgery.

Most classic lumbar disc injuries from motor vehicle 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 in Maryland back injury cases 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 with epidural injections.

The compensation payouts awarded by juries in these back injury claims 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. Still, insurance companies put less stock in cases not involving surgery, even when injections are warranted. This is why non-surgery low back injury lawsuits are likelier 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. How much can you get for a back injury in a car accident with injuries like this? It depends. The settlement payouts in these claims will depend on:

  1. the credibility of the plaintiff and the severity of the injury,
  2. whether there are preexisting back injuries,
  3. how significant the impact was,
  4. which insurance company is involved, and
  5. 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 insurance 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.

But the reality is that any fair back injury settlement without surgery in Maryland and Washington, D.C. will require good lawyering and a good fight.

Preexisting Injuries and Back Injury Settlements

The most challenging back injury cases involve preexisting injuries, like degenerative injuries like spinal stenosis and spondylosis. 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 during the car accident.

Still, favorable settlements and jury verdicts can be had in many insurance claims 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.

More information:

Back Injury Settlements and Verdicts

Below are examples of past insurance claims that were found in favor of plaintiffs with back injuries from car accidents. Our attorneys provide these as a resource to help you understand what cases look like and what they are typically worth. Many are from Maryland, where our back injury lawyers primarily practice.

This will not give you an average settlement amount for your car accident back injury claim.

  • 2022, Maryland $1,282,000 Verdict. Our client’s preexisting degenerative disc disease and chronic pain were exacerbated due to the incident. Despite rigorous physical therapy and epidural steroid injections, her recovery was not optimal. The defense thought little of our case, thinking that highlighting her prior injuries would save the day for them. It did not  The jury was convinced that the incident was the tipping point that caused her ongoing problems.
  • 2020, Maryland: $562,797 Verdict A man was sideswiped. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a C3-4 herniation, an L5-S1 bulge, a rotator cuff tear, subacromial impingement syndrome, left bicipital tendonitis, a head laceration, left eye irritation, and left foot paresthesia. The man developed post-traumatic headaches, post-concussion syndrome, cognitive issues, dizziness, and lumbar radiculopathy. He alleged that the at-fault driver’s negligence caused his injuries. The man claimed he failed to yield the right-of-way and make an appropriate lane change. After the defendant denied liability, the victim hired a Maryland back injury lawyer. A Prince George’s County jury awarded $562,797. With a lawsuit like this, the challenge is speculating what portion of his case is attributable to the back injury and what should be apportioned to the other injuries.
  • 2020, Maryland: $145,000 Verdict A phantom vehicle struck a woman. It fled the scene. The woman suffered cervical, thoracic, and lumbar strains. She also sustained cervical radiculopathy, sciatica, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The woman underwent physical therapy and chiropractic care. She alleged that the phantom driver’s negligence caused her injuries. The woman made a UIM claim against Erie. A Baltimore City jury awarded her $145,000.
  • 2020, Maryland: $67,290 Verdict A woman was rear-ended. She suffered the aggravation of her preexisting cervical radiculopathy. The woman alleged that the at-fault driver’s negligence caused this injury. She claimed he drove while intoxicated and failed to maintain a proper lookout. The Baltimore County jury awarded $67,290.
  • 2019, Maryland: $200,000 Settlement This case underscores how the average settlement payout in a back injury case is often exponentially higher if the attorneys are willing to push the case to trial. Our client is rear-ended while stopped at a red light in Prince George’s 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. Our lawyers 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, 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 that 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 low 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 from the collision. 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 the vehicle. As a result of the collision, one plaintiff sustains neck and lower 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.

How Much Compensation for a Back Injury in a Maryland Car Accident Case?

The average settlement value for a back injury in an auto accident lawsuit ranges from $10,000 to $100,000. That is the average compensation payout our lawyers have had in back injury cases that settle in the millions.

Why such a wide value range? Back injuries in auto accidents have an extensive 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.

What Is the Biggest Settlement Your Firm Has Obtained in a Back Injury Case?

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 were herniated discs in his lower back.

To get a settlement like this in a back injury case, the victim must have a permanent injury and plenty of insurance to cover the harms and losses the plaintiff endured.

What Impacts the Value of Back Injury Car Accident Cases?

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 plaintiff’s age. Younger plaintiffs fare better because they are less likely to have preexisting or degenerative back issues.

Are Back Injuries Hard to Prove in A Lawsuit?

Certain types of back injuries can be difficult to prove in court definitively. 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 tend to be more subjective. However, some back injuries can be objectively diagnosed with X-rays or MRIs. These cases are easier to prove in court.

Can I Still Get Compensation for a Back Injury Even if I Have a Preexisting Back Condition?

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 preexisting 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 a compensation payout if your back was injured in a car accident.

Contact Us

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. Our Baltimore car accident lawyers 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.


Supporting Literature

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

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