What to expect from a workers’ compensation settlement for nerve damage. We’ll explain common nerve injuries, how to prove your losses, and average settlement amounts.
When most people think of accidents in the workplace, they envision dramatic industrial accidents.
To be sure, losing a limb or breaking your back in a workplace accident would be terrible, but they aren’t the only injuries that happen. Nerve damage may be a less dramatic injury, but it can be every bit as debilitating.
The effects and symptoms of nerve damage range from inconvenient (temporary numbness) to life-changing (chronic pain) to catastrophic (paralysis). Outside of total permanent disability cases, it can be difficult to value these claims. Part of the problem arises from the fact that pain and other symptoms from nerve damage are highly personal.
This article examines workers’ compensation claims and settlements for nerve damage injuries. We’ll take a look at common nerve damage claims, how to prove your injuries, and settlement ranges for different types of nerve injuries.
Nerve Damage in Workers’ Comp Cases
Nerve damage refers to injuries that affect your brain’s ability to communicate with your muscles and organs.
Depending on where the nerve injury is, the effects can destroy your career or your life.
At the most basic level, there are three kinds of nerves in the body:
- Autonomic nerves control the activities in your body that you don’t really have to think about, including organ functions like heart rate and digestion. Your spinal cord is the most important nerve in this system, as it carries a great deal of information necessary for life.
- Motor nerves control the movement of your body. For example, the ulnar nerve helps you move your forearm and parts of your hand.
- Sensory nerves transmit pain and other information from your body to your brain. An example of a sensory nerve is the optic nerve, which of course transmits visual information to the brain.
“Nerve damage” interferes with the functions of those nerves by blocking signals between them and your brain.
Nerve damage from an on-the-job injury puts the worker into one of four workers’ comp disability categories:
- Temporary Partial Disability: You can return to work with some restrictions.
- Temporary Total Disability: You cannot work at all for a short time while you recover.
- Permanent Partial Disability: You can return to work, but you’ll never be able to fully do your job again due to your disability.
- Permanent Total Disability: If you’re in this category, your nerve damage causes permanent impairment so extensive that you can never work again.
There are two main types of nerve damage commonly seen in workers’ compensation claims:
1. Nerve Damage Caused by Trauma
Abrupt force against the head or body can result in nerve damage. A slip and fall accident, for example, can break or displace bones that sever or compress nerves, causing pain or numbness. A damaged spinal cord can lead to paralysis or death.
2. Repetitive Strain Injuries
Unlike injuries caused by sudden trauma, repetitive strain injuries (also called RSI or repetitive stress injuries) happen over time. Constant, repeated motions put undue stress on nerves and surrounding tissues.
One of the more common repetitive use injuries is carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition, which has become more prevalent as more office workers spend their days at a keyboard, happens when the median nerve in the wrist becomes compressed and/or damaged over time.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can be very painful. Sufferers can also experience numbness, weakness, and decreased ability to use their hands. Though some cases can be treated with wrist braces and prescriptions, others require surgery.
Proving a Nerve Damage Claim
No workers’ compensation claim will get very far without medical evidence of your injury.
If the main symptom of your nerve damage is pain, it may be difficult to convince a skeptical insurer that your pain is real and deserving of compensation.
Make Sure You Have All of Your Medical Records
Presumably you’ve had conversations with your doctor about your pain level, and they should have made notes of their impressions on your condition. Though pain is always going to be a subjective report, having the opinion of a doctor on the matter can boost your case with the workers’ compensation insurance company.
Imaging studies, like X-rays and CT scans, can show displaced or fractured bones that may be causing a pinched nerve.
If you have ongoing nerve pain issues, your doctor will probably order a nerve conduction study. While this can’t exactly show your subjective experience of nerve pain, it can serve as a helpful record giving objective evidence of your nerve condition.
Your medical bills will be a key part of your workers’ comp nerve damage claim. Even carpal tunnel surgery, which is relatively low-risk, can be quite expensive — roughly $7,000 for the surgery alone, before any therapy or rehabilitation costs are added.
Workers’ compensation will also pay for future medical costs if you have them. (For example, you may need in-home care after becoming paralyzed.) You will have to prove this, of course, but if your doctor is already providing medical records and opinions, this evidence should not be difficult to come by.
Don’t Forget the Impact on Your Job or Your Life
In a workers’ compensation claim, the insurance company looks at how your injury impacts your ability to do your job. Wage loss is obviously important, but so is evidence about how your injury affects your work capacity.
Evidence from you and others in your workplace or industry explaining how the injury affects your ability to work will be key.
Once you’ve reached Maximum Medical Improvement (your doctor says you won’t get any better with treatment) you’ll be given an impairment rating. Only a medical doctor can determine whether your nerve injury has left you with a “total” or “partial” work disability.
If the workers’ compensation adjuster questions the extent of your injuries, you will be sent for an independent medical exam (IME) with a physician chosen by the insurance company.
Workers’ Comp Settlements for Nerve Damage
Because nerve damage cases are usually not as severe as other kinds of workplace injuries, a settlement higher than the mid-five figures is rare.
Remember that you can’t recover amounts for pain and suffering through the workers’ compensation system like you could in a personal injury lawsuit. Your pain is only relevant to your claim to the extent it keeps you from working.
Wage replacement benefits are two-thirds of your pre-accident income in most states, with caps on weekly wage benefits. For example, Florida caps workers’ comp wages at $1,011 per week for 2021. The wage portion of a workers’ comp settlement will be based on the state limits.
Workers who are left with a permanent loss of function may be offered a lump sum settlement based on a state “schedule” of benefits allocated for the affected body part or function.
Many states require workers’ comp settlement agreements to be approved by a judge or the workers’ compensation commission.
Example: Femoral Neuropathy from Workplace Fall
Ryan, a 25-year-old man making $15/hour, slipped and fell on a wet floor in his office. He suffered a hip injury in the fall. The injury blocks the signals from his femoral nerve, resulting in leg pain, numbness and difficulty walking. He is temporarily totally disabled while his hip heals, and with non-surgical treatment, his nerve issue will resolve in a year.
Prior medical expenses and diagnosis: $5,000
Cost of physical therapy and future medical treatment for femoral neuropathy: $15,000
6 weeks of lost earnings (66.6 % of $600 = $400): $400 x 6 weeks $2,400
Estimated Workers’ Comp Settlement Value: $22,400
Example: Truck Accident with Paraplegia
Chris has been a long-haul truck driver for 20 years. He makes $42/hour, or $1,680/week. While driving one night, the brakes on his truck fail (through no fault of his own) and he has a wreck on the interstate. In the crash, he suffers a spinal cord injury that leaves him paralyzed for the rest of his life. He is unable to work.
Prior medical expenses: $20,000
Future medical expenses (30 years with paraplegia): $2,588,000
Lifetime disability benefits (66.6% of $1,680/week earnings for the rest of his life, estimated here as 30 years): $1,745,452
Estimated Workers’ Comp Settlement Value: $4,353,452
If Chris accepts a settlement that includes an amount for future medical expenses, workers’ comp will have no further obligation to pay his medical bills. Chris can’t go back to workers’ comp for more money, even if he develops unforeseen complications.
Workers’ Comp Lifetime Benefits Explained
Only workers who are totally and permanently disabled may qualify for “lifetime” wage benefits. In some states and situations, you have to make a choice. The law will allow you to either settle your claim for a lump sum or receive lifetime workers’ compensation benefits, but not both.
If you settle your workers’ comp claim, you might be responsible for any future medical expenses. Speak with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer to figure out the options in your state before you have to make a decision.
The advantage of a lump sum is getting the money all at once. You would then decide how best to spend it. If you develop another condition in the future, though, you can’t ask for more money.
In some states, like West Virginia, disability wage benefits terminate when the worker reaches the age of 65 and is eligible for Social Security.
The exact amount and timing of lifetime benefits will differ depending on the applicable law of your state, unless you’re a federal worker, in which case the Federal Employees Compensation Act will apply.
Example: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Katherine is an accountant who makes $27/hour and spends the majority of her day typing at a computer. The constant typing gives her a repetitive stress injury in one of her wrists, and she is diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. After several treatments, her doctor says she will need “release” surgery in order to fully recover. She will be unable to work for two weeks after the surgery.
Prior medical expenses: $5,000
Carpal tunnel release surgery: $7,000
Two weeks of lost earnings (66.6% of $1,080/week= $719.28): $719.28 x 2 weeks = $1,438.56
Estimated Workers’ Comp Settlement Value: $13,439
In this scenario, Katherine will be back to work in less time than it would take to negotiate a settlement. Since a settlement would require Katherine to give up any future claims regarding her wrist, she may be better off collecting her weekly wage benefits and letting the insurance company pay for her medical bills.
Healing and Moving Forward
Nerve damage is an unfortunate side effect of many different kinds of work-related injuries. Its impact can range from annoying to excruciating to utterly debilitating. If you’re an injured worker and suffered nerve damage, you need to get appropriate compensation.
If you or a loved one have been injured at work, keep in mind that there are time limits for bringing workers’ compensation claims in every state. You should get legal advice regarding your workers’ comp claim as soon as possible.
Contact a qualified workers’ compensation attorney in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.
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