Will a Pre-Existing Injury Affect a Current Car Accident Claim?

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In the summer of 2020, a 14-year-old rode his bicycle to Kenny’s Roller Ranch in Burlington. The boy was cruising down Summer Street when she met Shelby Whittaker.  

Shortly before 9 p.m., 24-year-old Whittaker turned down Summer Street in her 2001 Toyota Avalon. It was a dimly lit street where she crossed the centerline. Failing to see the boy, she plowed him down. 

The boy was rushed to the hospital with severe injuries. He was treated for fractures to his head, spine, arm, leg, and foot—the nerve roots that controlled his left arm were ripped away from his spinal cord. He also suffered spinal bruising and multiple traumatic brain injuries.

Whittaker sustained no injuries. The Iowa State Patrol’s (ISP) initial report cited lighting conditions contributing to the accident. Now, rewind about 30 minutes before the crash, when Whittaker was seen in Doris’ Tavern, being served Long Island Iced Teas by S&J Smith. Witnesses state that Whittaker had already looked intoxicated while being served.

A responding ISP trooper does note Whittaker smelled of alcohol. Her eyes were watery and red. She seemed overly emotional. A subsequent toxicity screening revealed her blood alcohol content level was above the legal limit of .08. ISP filed operating while intoxicated (OWI) charges.

The boy spent weeks in an Iowa City hospital before being transferred again to a Nebraska rehabilitation facility. Months later, he was allowed to finish his recovery at home. 

The Aftermath

The teen’s mother filed a petition on behalf of her son. She alleged Whittaker was negligent by:

  • Drinking and driving
  • Using a cell phone while operating a vehicle
  • Speeding
  • Failing to be aware
  • Failing to keep control of the vehicle
  • Failing to share the road with the child

The petition seeks compensatory damages for: 

  • Both past and future medical bills and medical-related expenses
  • Pain and suffering for the severe physical distress the boy has and continues to endure
  • Physical disfigurement and functional damage to his body and mind in the past and future 
  • The boy’s loss in future earnings

The mother also claims the collision caused her to suffer damages–past and future medical expenses and lost earnings by having to take time off from work to care for her child. She says this incident caused a loss of their mother/son bond, a loss of the love and companionship they shared before the crash. 

Whittaker’s lawyer denied the allegations, saying the claims lacked information. As far as the injuries and the related damages are concerned, the attorney claims that any injuries had to be pre-existing or subsequently occurring medical conditions, and these past conditions either caused or contributed to the severity of his current injuries. 

After Whittaker’s OWI charges were filed, the mother’s attorney filed an amended motion to include S&J Smith and Doris’ Tavern for overserving Whittaker alcohol prior to the crash. 

Whittaker’s trial was delayed several times. COVID-19 restrictions caused a continuance. In April 2021, she had inpatient treatment for substance abuse. The trial was continued in December when the state failed to provide the defense with lab reports and 25 case-related videos.

In January 2022, Whittaker pled guilty to the largest of her charges—causing “serious injury with a vehicle.” She faced up to five years in prison and multiple fines. The civil suit went in front of a jury in April and the drama of this case continues to roll out.

The Law

Even if the child had a pre-existing medical condition, Iowa law does not let a reckless driver get away with negligent acts because their victim may have pre-existing conditions. An existing injury that is aggravated or worsened because of a car crash should be eligible for the same fair compensation that anyone else is.

That does not mean that a defendant’s lawyer or an insurance company will not try to make a claimant with a pre-existing health condition look like they were already damaged. In the case of pre-existing conditions when filing a motion, it is best to enlist these four tactics: 

  1. Be honest – If there is a pre-existing condition, do not claim perfect health prior to the crash. During a personal injury case, the truth will come out and the case will be damaged. 
  2. Get treatment – After the crash, return to the same medical professionals that treated the condition before the crash. If seeing a new doctor is in order, divulging health histories is essential to discover any new injuries or how a previous injury was made worse or aggravated. 
  3. Get detailed – When explaining how the injury or condition has changed since the crash, the best practice is to learn how to discuss the injury and its changes with specific terms that are not general descriptions. Different medical treatments may be needed to manage an elevated condition. 
  4. Prove it – Proving how a condition was worsened or aggravated can be an uphill task. Victims of a vehicle crash that suffer from pre-existing conditions usually meet a lot of resistance. To get a fair injury settlement, get professional assistance. Consulting a personal injury attorney can help put a plan together for the future of a case. 

In certain situations, a person with a pre-existing condition and with an injury that is aggravated in a car crash can fall under the concept of an eggshell head plaintiff in a personal injury case. It does not always refer to pre-existing conditions, it can also mean a plaintiff that has certain sensitivities or is especially vulnerable.

Pre-existing conditions are only one of many reasons a person can fall under the eggshell head category. For example, an elderly plaintiff or a sick child may be seen as an eggshell head plaintiff because they are more susceptible to injury. This elevation of vulnerability can cause more severe injuries and may result in a larger settlement to compensate because the collision caused additional injuries, intensified injuries, or exacerbated complications to their pre-existing injuries.

Iowa’s personal injury courts have seen their share of these types of cases. Often an attorney will introduce eggshell explanations during appeal cases.