December 4th, 2012
Reasons for judgement were released this week by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, assessing damages for a common injury sustained in a motor vehicle collision; the onset of symptoms in pre-existing but otherwise asymptomatic spinal degeneration.
In this week’s case (Johnson v. Kitchener) the Plaintiff was involved in two collisions, the first in 2007 where he was rear-ended by a tractor trailer, the second in 2008 which aggravated in the injuries from the first crash. Prior to the first collision the Plaintiff had “significant degeneration” in his neck and less severe degeneration in the rest of his spine. Despite this condition the Plaintiff was asymptomatic. The collisions caused this condition to become painful. The court found that while the neck symptoms likely would have developed at some point in time absent the collision, the back would have remained asymptomatic absent trauma. In assessing non-pecuniary damages at $90,000 (prior to making a modest deduction for the likelihood of neck symptoms in any event) Madam Justice Gerow provided the following reasons:
 In my view, the evidence establishes the probable cause of Mr. Johnson’s ongoing neck, upper back and lower back pain is that the injuries he sustained in the 2007 accident, and the 2008 accident to a lesser extent, exacerbated his pre-existing asymptomatic degenerative disc disease. While there was risk to the degenerative disc disease in his neck becoming symptomatic, the medical evidence was that the lower back would likely not have become symptomatic absent some trauma.
 Dr. Travlos’ evidence was that he did not know exactly when the neck would become symptomatic and could not give an opinion regarding the severity of any symptoms. It is clear from the expert evidence that the 2007 accident caused a serious injury to the neck which has caused pain and suffering sooner, more frequently and to a notably greater degree.
 It is apparent from the evidence that Mr. Johnson has returned to his sporting activities and he has a strong work ethic. He is not a man to sit around and he continues to be active despite the pain it causes him. Mr. Johnson’s evidence is that he will continue to work at Ocean Concrete until he finds something more suitable despite the increase in symptoms he has from the physical aspects of the job. As well, he will continue to engage in whatever sports he can, knowing he will pay for it.
 Mr. Johnson’s evidence is consistent with the medical opinions. For example, Dr. Froh’s opinion is that Mr. Johnson will not harm himself with high demand activities; however, it will likely result in increased pain and symptoms.
 In my opinion, Mr. Johnson’s neck symptoms fall within the crumbling skull rule enunciated in Athey, and any award must reflect that. However, I am of the view, the defendants are liable for his lower back symptoms even though they may be more than severe than expected due to his pre-existing condition. The evidence of the experts is that many individuals have degeneration in their spines without any symptoms and that the degeneration in Mr. Johnson’s lower back was similar to other individuals of his age. There is no evidence that his lower back would have become symptomatic absent the 2007 accident. Accordingly I have concluded that his lower back symptoms fall within the thin skull rule enunciated in Athey. ..
 Having considered the extent of the injuries, the fact that the symptoms are ongoing five years after the accident with little improvement, the guarded prognosis for full recovery, as well as the authorities I was provided, I am of the view that the appropriate award for non-pecuniary damages would be $90,000 if the accidents were the only cause of Mr. Johnson’s ongoing symptoms. However, given the evidence that Mr. Johnson was likely to have suffered some neck symptoms from his degenerative condition within 3 to 10 years, that award should be reduced by 10% to $81,000.