How the Eggshell Skull Rule Affects Personal Injury Compensation

Prior health issues shouldn’t keep you from fair injury compensation. See how the Eggshell Skull Rule protects victims with pre-existing conditions.

As many as 129 million non-elderly Americans (up to 50%) live with a pre-existing medical condition.¹

The older population has their share of pre-existing issues and are even more vulnerable to car accidents, slip and falls, and other events leading to injury claims.²

A pre-existing injury, medical condition, or advanced age shouldn’t prevent accident victims from pursuing personal injury compensation.

Most states have what’s commonly called an “Eggshell Skull Rule.” This means the at-fault party is liable for all the victim’s injuries, even when the victim’s prior condition made them more vulnerable to harm.

How the Eggshell Skull Rule Helps Victims

When an at-fault party’s negligence aggravates a victim’s pre-existing injury or condition, attorneys often use the Eggshell Skull legal doctrine, also called the thin skull rule or the crumbling skull rule. If this doctrine is applied successfully, it can prevent an insurance company from using a victim’s pre-existing vulnerability to escape liability.

The eggshell skull doctrine is a tort law that says the frailty, weakness, sensitivity, or feebleness of a victim cannot be used as a defense by the at-fault party in a personal injury claim.

The purpose of the eggshell skull doctrine is to encourage fair compensation for victims and punish the at-fault party for negligence. You are not entitled to receive compensation for an injury if it was not caused by an accident or someone’s negligence.

Definition of an Eggshell Plaintiff

An “eggshell plaintiff” is an injured person who files a personal injury claim and had some type of underlying medical issue before the event giving rise to the claim.

In personal injury law, the negligent party is said to “take their victim as they find them.” This saying means that the tortfeasor (at-fault party) who caused the harm cannot rely on the victim’s vulnerability to avoid liability.

It’s important to fully disclose pre-existing conditions to your attorney, or to the insurance company if you’re handling your own claim.

Injury attorneys take advantage of the eggshell doctrine by clearly differentiating the victim’s condition before and after the injury event.

Evidence in support of the eggshell doctrine might come from medical experts for severe injury claims.

Medical experts are often hired to:

  • Compare your past medical records and diagnostic tests to current ones to accurately determine how your pre-existing conditions were made worse by the accident
  • Use clinical records to compare your degree of pain, the extent of necessary care, or your disability both before and after the accident

Case Summary: Eggshell Skull Rule Applies to Claim for Victim’s Death

In 1989, a negligent truck driver rear-ended Loras Benn on icy roads in Iowa. Benn sustained a fractured ankle and a bruised chest in the accident.

In addition to the injuries, he had a health history of heart disease with a previous heart attack, and was an insulin-dependent diabetic. These factors increased his risk of having another heart attack.

Several days after the accident, Benn had another heart attack and passed away. His attending physician said that the accident, combined with his medical problems, was the reason for his death.

When the case went to court, the lawyer for the victim asked the judge to instruct the jury to use the eggshell doctrine when determining their verdict. The court denied the request.

Although the jury’s verdict was in favor of the victim, they did not find that the at-fault party’s negligence caused the victim’s fatal heart attack or his death. The jury awarded Benn’s estate $17,000 for his injuries but nothing for his wrongful death.

The victim’s attorney appealed to the state’s Supreme Court. On appeal, the court ruled that the trial judge should have instructed the jury on the eggshell skull doctrine.

The case was overturned and remanded back to District Court. In other words, the case was sent back to the District Court for a new jury verdict, but this time the jury would be told about the eggshell doctrine.

The victim’s family did not have to settle for less because of pre-existing health conditions.

Common Types of Pre-Existing Conditions

Nearly half of the adults in the United States have one or more pre-existing conditions. These are injuries, diseases, or illnesses that were already present when the victim sustained their new injury.

Common pre-existing conditions include:

  • Prior concussions
  • Old fractures
  • Depression
  • Heart conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Degenerative disc disease

While a pre-existing injury or condition can add to the complexity of a personal injury lawsuit, it should not keep you from filing a claim for a new injury. It’s not a valid excuse for an insurance company to deny compensation for your new injuries.

Insurance carriers are known for doing everything they can to minimize or deny injury claims. They will attempt to use your pre-existing conditions against you to lower any settlement you could receive.

To help fight the insurance company and maximize their compensation, many injured victims choose to hire a personal injury lawyer to handle their insurance claim and, if necessary, their personal injury lawsuit.

An attorney can use your past and current medical records as well as testimony from medical experts to prove your claim. They will show that even though you have a prior injury, your current losses are due to your new injury, or show that the accident aggravated your old injury.

How Age Impacts Injury Compensation

No matter the age of a personal injury victim, they should receive fair compensation for their injuries. However, what damages they receive payment for and how much they receive can vary based on the victim’s age and the facts of the case.

Damages are the losses the injured person suffers as a result of the other party’s negligence. There are economic losses such as medical bills and lost wages, as well as non-economic damages like pain and suffering and loss of consortium.

Age-Related Risk for Injuries and Complications

As people age, their bodies experience many changes that can make them more likely to suffer an injury. Not only are seniors more prone to injury, but they are also at higher risk of severe injuries and related complications.

Older adults tend to incur different damages than younger people facing an identical injury.

No matter what type of personal injury an older victim suffers, they are at an increased risk of complications. Complications from trauma, sedation, and surgery are more common in the elderly.

Potential complications for elderly victims include:

  • Infection
  • Delayed healing
  • Blood clots
  • Mental confusion

Medical conditions can quickly take a turn for the worse in the elderly population. Personal injuries can also lead to severe declines in their overall physical functioning for the remainder of their lives.

Injury claims for younger victims include compensation for past and future lost wages. Damages for lost wages will be minimal for seniors because they are already retired or have little time left in the workforce.

Older adults might receive more compensation, though, for their non-economic damages. Many older injury victims already have pre-existing conditions that could make their injury more serious, increasing the value of their claim.

Because seniors may face a longer, more painful recovery than a younger person would, the older injury victim will seek a larger settlement amount for their pain and suffering.

Example: Eggshell Doctrine Leads to Larger Insurance Settlement

Elizabeth is 75 years old and has osteoporosis and diabetes. She also takes a blood thinner to prevent blood clots. One day while driving, a texting driver T-boned her car.

Due to her physical condition preceding the accident, she required multiple surgeries for a broken leg, took 18 months to heal, and now relies on a walker. She also lost a substantial amount of blood after the accident, putting her life in danger.

The at-fault driver’s insurance company accepted liability for their insured, but they tried to minimize this high-dollar injury claim, offering less than half of the amount demanded by Elizabeth’s attorney.

During settlement negotiations, the adjuster argued that Elizabeth’s osteoporosis made her more likely to break a bone. Further, her diabetes caused delayed healing, and her medication caused her to lose so much blood.

Elizabeth’s attorney responded by pointing out that under the eggshell skull doctrine, the at-fault driver does not owe Elizabeth compensation for her pre-existing conditions. However, the driver has to compensate her for all accident-related physical injuries and medical complications, despite her pre-existing conditions. The attorney also alluded to a willingness to explain the eggshell rule to a jury.

Rather than risk having to defend a clearly negligent driver in court, the insurance adjuster finally agreed to settle with Elizabeth’s attorney for the full value of her injury claim.

Hire an Injury Attorney to Maximize Compensation

When you or a loved one are severely injured, pre-existing conditions can make your claim more difficult to prove or even worth more.

This means that personal injury cases involving prior injuries or medical conditions can be complicated. Winning fair compensation for severe injuries typically entails medical testimony to establish causation, financial and actuarial reports, and the possibility of a lawsuit.

Get the professional help you need to pursue a fair settlement. An experienced lawyer can use many strategies to ensure that you receive fair compensation for all your physical and emotional injuries.

Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation to accident victims. You won’t have to pay anything upfront if you hire an attorney on a contingency fee basis. Unless the lawyer settles your claim or receives a court award on your behalf, you owe them nothing.

Don’t let prior injuries or advanced age keep you or someone you love from seeking compensation for preventable injuries. Call an attorney today.

Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>