Head injuries are among the most serious type of car accident injuries. They can occur at low and high speeds, and even if the head doesn’t hit a solid object. Injuries range from minor cuts and bruises to the face and scalp, to brain concussions, skull fractures, hematomas (blood clots), and death.
Any type of head injury is serious and requires immediate medical care. If you, a friend, or loved one was in a car accident and suffered even a mild head injury, delaying medical treatment can be life-threatening. In this section, we cover:
- Car accident head injuries
- Liability and evidence
- Hiring an attorney
Common Head Injuries
Even with all the safety technology in modern vehicles, a human head remains vulnerable to trauma in a car accident. Although statistics show head injuries occur more frequently in side-impact collisions, there are still many that occur in rear-end and head-on collisions. When a driver or passenger fails to wear a seatbelt, the probability of head injuries rapidly increases.
The force generated in a car accident can drive a person’s head into side windows and the vehicle frame. The force can violently shake the head from side to side and front to back. Loose objects in the car can crash into the head, eyes, and scalp. Drivers and passengers, especially those not wearing seatbelts, can also smash through windshields and sunroofs headlong onto the pavement.
Today’s cars are still mostly steel. Steel frames meant to protect people in the event of a collision surround them. Unfortunately, this steel frame can also injure a person if his head hits any part of it. In a car accident, the head is just as vulnerable as any other body part. The problem is, most parts of the human body can heal without being permanently damaged; the brain isn’t so lucky.
Closed Head Injuries
A closed head injury is one that doesn’t penetrate or open the skull. Instead, the injuries are internal. The most common closed head injury is a brain concussion. The skull encases and protects the brain. Inside the skull is a cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain upon impact. When the impact is severe enough, the cerebrospinal fluid moves, and the brain hits the skull.
When the brain strikes the skull, it can interrupt the brain’s electrical impulses. Most brain concussions don’t result in permanent brain injury. The majority result in transient injuries such as brief loss of consciousness, nausea, trouble with cognitive functions, irritability, depression, loss of appetite and sleep.
In some cases, the symptoms of a closed head injury don’t show up immediately. Unfortunately, those suppressed and delayed symptoms can be life-threatening.
When the impact in a car accident is violent enough, the brain can begin to bleed and swell inside. The problem is, when the brain bleeds, there’s no place for the blood to go. If the bleeding is significant enough, brain tissue can absorb the blood, causing damage. Depending on where the damage is in the brain tissue, it can disturb critical areas of brain function.
The medical term for bleeding in the brain is Intracranial Hematoma (ICH). There are two main types of intracranial hematomas: epidural and subdural/acute.
An epidural hematoma occurs when blood clots within the skull, but the clot is on top of the cerebrospinal fluid and away from the brain.
Subdural and acute hematomas
A subdural hematoma occurs when blood clots within the skull and penetrates the cerebrospinal fluid. At first, the blood doesn’t penetrate the brain’s soft tissue. When the blood makes its way through the cerebrospinal fluid and begins to penetrate the brain’s soft tissue, the hematoma changes from subdural to acute.
An acute subdural hematoma is very dangerous. Once the brain tissue saturates with blood, it quickly ceases to function and dies. The results can range from diminished cognitive functions, to paralysis, and death.
Symptoms of Closed Head Injuries
If you have a car accident, you should always seek medical care. If you choose not to, then at least pay attention to any symptoms of a closed head injury. Your failure to respect warning signs can have dire consequences. Common symptoms of a closed head injury are:
- Loss of consciousness, even briefly
- Confusion, inability to concentrate, or short-term memory loss
- Problems with sight, smell, or hearing
- Weakness or numbness in your legs, arms, fingers, or hands
- Pain in your jaw (temporomandibular joint pain, or TMJ)
- Nose bleeds
If you experience any of the above symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
Open Head Injuries
An open head injury is one where the force of an impact on the head is significant enough to penetrate the soft tissue of the head and scalp into the skull. When this occurs, the skull can fracture.
There are several types of skull fractures commonly seen in car accidents:
Linear skull fractures
Linear skull fractures are the most common in car accidents. The skull fractures but not enough for it to expose the brain’s soft tissue.
Depressed skull fracture
A depressed skull fracture is more serious. It occurs when the force of the impact presses down the skull, or presses on top of the cerebrospinal fluid. Surgery is required to remove the depressed portion of the skull.
Diastatic skull fractures
A diastatic fracture occurs at the part of the skull that fused as we grew from childhood to adulthood. Surgery is required to reattach the parts.
Basilar skull fracture
A basilar skull fracture is the most serious. The fracture occurs at the base of the skull closest to the spinal cord. A basilar facture always requires surgical intervention.
In a car accident, loose objects in the car can fly into the head at high speed. Computers, books, clipboards, pens, and other solid objects can cut the face or scalp’s soft tissue and fracture the skull. Contact with the steering wheel, dashboard, and pavement can also cause a skull fracture.
When the skull fractures, an object can enter the skull and pass through the cerebrospinal fluid, eventually hitting the brain. Because soft tissue makes up the brain, any object thrust into it can easily cause brain damage. Traumatic brain injury, called TBI, can result in mild to severe brain damage. Open head injuries resulting in TBI include, but are not limited to, dementia, paralysis, loss of body functions, and death.
The human eye is sensitive to trauma. The retina is a membrane in the back of the eye that sends images to the brain. In car accidents, when the head hits a solid object like a steering wheel or dashboard, the retina can detach from the cornea (the filmy eye covering). Retinal detachment is a common injury boxers suffer from getting punched, even with padded boxing gloves.
Symptoms of retinal detachment don’t necessarily appear immediately. When the symptoms do appear, they can include blurred vision, small bursts of light, or floating particles in the eye.
Liability for Injuries
We can’t emphasize it enough, if you’ve suffered a car accident head injury, seek immediate medical care. Being a “hero” and going on to work, the gym or home can be very dangerous to your long-term health. If your head hit something during the collision, no matter how slight the impact, you may have a brain concussion.
Not only can medical care save your life, it can also serve to support your claim of damages if you intend to file a personal injury claim against an at-fault driver.
All personal injury claims require evidence of loss. To recover compensation from an at-fault driver’s insurance company, you must show that the driver’s negligence was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the accident and your subsequent head injury.
If you break the chain of events from the date of the collision to the onset of your symptoms, you may have trouble convincing the insurance company their insured was responsible for your head injuries. If you don’t see a doctor until several days later when the symptoms begin to show up, the insurance company may say some intervening force apart from the collision caused your concussion.
All drivers have a legal duty of care (obligation) to drive responsibly. This includes looking out for other drivers, following applicable traffic laws, and generally driving safely. When a driver speeds, runs a stop sign, or drives recklessly, he’s negligent. Whether or not these actions result in a car accident, the driver is still driving negligently. When that negligence does result in a car accident and someone is hurt, the driver is responsible for compensating the injured victim.
If the accident occurs in a traditional tort liability insurance state, the injured party has a right to seek compensation for any damages the negligent driver caused. If the accident occurred in a no-fault state, the victim must seek compensation from his own insurance company.
If you suffered a car accident head injury because of the negligence of another driver, you need to come up with enough solid evidence to show the following:
- The at-fault driver failed to drive safely
- His actions directly caused the accident and your injuries
- You didn’t contribute to the accident
- You suffered real injuries requiring medical treatment
Here’s the evidence you need:
Medical records are crucial in a head injury claim. They must link your head injury directly to the accident. Get copies of your hospital admitting chart, doctor’s notes or narratives, and prescriptions. If you saw your own doctor, make sure you get her to write a clear medical narrative diagnosing your head injury and linking it directly to the car accident.
If you delayed seeing the doctor because you weren’t having any symptoms, make sure you ask the doctor to clearly state that delayed symptoms are typical in your type of head injury. This will stop the insurance adjuster’s attempts to say some intervening force other than the accident caused your head injury.
Photographs of the accident scene are very important. Use a camera or your cell phone to photograph the point of impact, skid marks, damaged road signs and foliage. Look for any open alcohol containers or drug paraphernalia, and photograph them. Make sure you report to the police any findings of alcohol or drugs.
Someone will clear the accident scene rather quickly, so take as many photographs as possible. You won’t get another chance. Also, take photos of your injuries and any damaged or bloody clothing.
Witnesses are always important. Look for any you can find. Get their contact information. Ask them what they saw or heard, especially if what they saw or heard tends to show the other driver’s negligence.
For example, did the witness see the driver on his cell phone? Was the driver distracted? Did he run the light? Statements from the driver are also important, especially if they’re admissions against his own interest, such as, “I didn’t see the car coming,” or “My brakes aren’t very good,” or other statements that tend to support his negligence.
Police reports are arguably the best evidence when trying to prove the other driver’s negligence. In most cases, the officer doesn’t know you or the other driver, so his opinion is seen as impartial. His report includes a diagram of the accident and his determination of fault. If the officer issued a traffic citation to the driver, that’s recorded as well. The police will sometimes measure skid marks and interview witnesses.
You can pick up a copy of the report at the police station three or four days after the accident. They usually don’t charge more than a few dollars for a copy.
Do you need a lawyer?
Almost all head injury claims require an experienced personal injury attorney. There’s just too much at stake to try handling the case yourself. There are some exceptions, however. If you and your doctor are absolutely sure you only suffered a mild brain concussion without lingering effects, you may handle your own claim.
If there’s any doubt about the severity of your head injury, or there’s a possibility of delayed symptoms, speak with an attorney immediately. Most personal injury lawyers don’t charge for an initial office visit. With head injuries, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
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