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Soft-Tissue Injury: Even a Fender Bender Can Potentially Wreak Havoc

Is it true that the lower the impact of a car crash, the more minor the injuries to the drivers or passengers should be? Intuitively it seems true, but it is not always so. Just because a vehicle moves slowly before contact and causes little physical damage to the other car, it does not necessarily follow that the occupants of the car that is struck will suffer little or no injury.

Low-impact car accidents are usually defined as those that occur at less than 10 mph. Despite the slower speed, these accidents often cause soft-tissue injuries to drivers or passengers, regardless of the lack of vehicle damage. Treatment and medical costs for soft-tissue injuries are a continuing controversy between injured passengers and the automobile insurers responsible for the accident costs.

Often a low-impact crash is comprised only of bumper-to-bumper contact between the cars. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the purpose of a bumper is to protect the vehicle from damage. On its website, NHTSA states that a bumper "is not a safety feature intended to prevent or mitigate injury severity to occupants in the passenger cars." (Emphasis in original.) While the bumper may protect the vehicle from damage in low-impact crash, the energy from the impact can still cause sudden, unexpected and potentially harmful motion to the bodies of passengers.

What Are Soft-Tissue Injuries?

Soft tissue refers to body tissues that are not made of bone, including muscles, skin and connective tissues like ligaments, cartilage and tendons. Examples of forceful soft-tissue injury include:

  • Whiplash
  • Bruising
  • Organ damage, including brain injury
  • Nerve damage
  • Muscle or connective-tissue tearing or strain
  • Ligament sprain
  • Neck and back soreness
  • Chest and rib pain

A fractured bone is a clear-cut, quantifiable injury that can be seen on an X-ray and is by definition serious and painful. But an injury to soft tissue may not be observable to the eye or in an objective test result. The victim's credibility is automatically at issue when the proof of injury is subjective and can only be perceived by others through the injured person's verbal description of his or her symptoms.

An additional problem for such victims is that pain and other symptoms from soft-tissue injury may not show up right away after the accident, so the need for medical treatment is not initially apparent and may be discovered days later. The victim's credibility may be questioned when he or she suddenly needs medical care after no previous complaints of problems from the accident. In addition, pain and other symptoms from soft-tissue injuries can last for weeks or months, or even permanently.

The Truth About Whiplash

Whiplash is an extremely common soft-tissue neck injury to the driver and passengers in the impacted car, usually in a rear-end collision, but possible in other collision types as well. Named for the resulting whip-like motion of the upper body, neck and head upon impact, whiplash normally manifests in the victim within a day of the accident, and can harm neck ligaments, muscles, nerves and vertebrae.

Symptoms may include neck and shoulder pain, headache, numbness or tingling, neck stiffness or sensitivity, trouble swallowing, jaw discomfort, dizziness, blurry vision, memory problems, ear ringing and reduced hearing capacity, and arm weakness. Whiplash can range from mild to life threatening. Serious, long-term symptoms from whiplash are relatively rare, but entirely possible.

Studies have shown that women, children, the elderly and those with previous injuries are more prone to serious whiplash injury because of weaker or smaller necks, and reduced head-rest effectiveness, relative to men. However, not all of the mechanics of whiplash are completely understood.

A 1999 study estimated that the annual economic cost of whiplash in the U.S. is around $4.5 billion, considering lost wages and productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.

The Problem With Soft-Tissue Trauma

Unfortunately, an unscrupulous insurance company can take advantage of the inherent weakness in proof in soft-tissue cases. Innocent car-accident victims may find themselves immediately on the defense just because some in similar situations may have exaggerated about symptoms in the past to unfairly collect more damages. After all, the whiplash victim has become the stereotypical image of an exaggerating, dishonest plaintiff.

But just because stigma is attached to an injury does not mean it is not real. The dishonesty of some should not cast an automatic cloud over future victims with similar injuries.

Insurance Company Response

The media has widely reported that insurance companies in the last couple of decades have become harsher in the way they process low-impact soft-tissue claims, especially where there is little visible damage to the vehicles involved or to the bodies of the victims.

Some insurance companies - Allstate, State Farm and Nationwide have been mentioned - have staff who specialize in low-impact cases, taking tough approaches to paying medical costs, engaging in hardball settlement tactics and forcing injured parties into court to try to collect full payment for treatment and other related costs.

To determine the worth of such claims, some insurers use computer software such as Colossus, designed to place dollar values on particular types of accidents by feeding in the details of the crash and its resulting damage and injury in comparison to other similar accidents. The number generated by the program in a particular case may be given too much weight in settlement negotiation considering the subjective nature of soft-tissue injury. How can something experienced only by the victim personally like pain be evaluated by a computer program?

While the insurers claim they are fighting these claims harder to battle the potential for fraud, critics say the real reason is to increase profit by taking advantage of the difficulty in proving pain and other subjective symptoms in soft-tissue injury. One theory advanced on behalf of injured victims is that such practices constitute unethical or even illegal bad faith. Depending on the insurance contract and the jurisdiction, bad faith refusal to pay a legitimate insurance claim might entitle the injured party to punitive damages - money meant to punish the wrongdoer above and beyond that which covers the actual costs of the injury.

See Your Doctor and Your Lawyer

When you or a loved one is involved in a low-impact car crash, internal injuries may not be immediately apparent, so consult a medical professional even when you are not sure of the extent of injury.

Because soft-tissue injuries take time to discover or can exhibit symptoms that you may not readily associate with a serious injury, it is important to contact a local personal injury attorney as soon as possible after an accident and before you contact your insurance company. An experienced personal injury lawyer can approach and deal with your insurance company on your behalf from the beginning. You do not deserve to be bullied when you request compensation for real pain and suffering, even if it isn't readily apparent at first glance.

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Richard C. Tallo

The Law Offices of Richard C. Tallo
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Providence, RI 02908

Phone: 401-228-7077
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