$70,000 Non-Pecuniary Damages for Chronic Soft Tissue Injuries

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court Awarding damages as a result of a BC Car Crash.
In today’s case, (KT v. AS) The Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle collision while seated as a passenger in 2005.  It was a significant intersection collision.  The Plaintiff was 17 years old at the time.  The Plaintiff claimed that she suffered both physical and psychological injuries as a result.
Madam Justice Ballance largely rejected the Plaintiff’s claim for accident related psychological injuries but did accept the claim for physical injuries.  In awarding the Plaintiff $70,000 in non-pecuniary damages the Court summarized the Plaintiff’s accident related physical injuries as follows:

[210]     According to the plaintiff, since the accident she has felt an ache along with tightness and sore muscles in her low back.  She says that every few weeks the pain is so intense that she keels over.  She testified that in the first six months or so following the accident, her neck and muscles were stiff and knotted, particularly when her head was bent.  Her headaches would follow at least once per week, building up slowly from the back of her neck.  At times they lasted an entire day.  Unlike the headaches that she experienced prior to the accident, eating did not alleviate the pain in her head.  Also within the initial six months time frame, the plaintiff said she would feel a sharp pinching sensation in her upper back/trapezius area a few times each month that seemed to come out of nowhere.  She testified that at her last appointment with Dr. Smith roughly 22 months post-accident,  her neck was still stiff and she was still experiencing intermittent sharp pinching pain in her shoulder blade/trapezius area.  Her low back continued to produce a dull ache most of the time that fluctuated considerably in intensity depending on her activity.

[211]     The plaintiff says that she has not had a pain-free day since the accident.  In terms of her current symptoms, the plaintiff claims that her low back pain, of variable intensity, persists and is her dominant problem.  Physical activities such as soccer, jogging and extensive walking, climbing up or descending stairs can cause a flare-up of pain.  However, the postures that are most aggravating are those which appear to be innocuous, such as sitting and static standing for prolonged periods.

[212]     The plaintiff also continues to experience episodic pain in her neck and upper trapezius area.  She claims that the jabs of pain in her shoulder blade area have become infrequent, flaring up roughly once per month.  Although she still suffers headaches, especially when she sits down for long periods to study, they have substantially diminished in their frequency.  Her hips and “upper butt” area have not caused her difficulty for a very long time.

[213]     The defence concedes that the plaintiff sustained mild to moderate soft tissue injuries to her neck and back.  As to her low back injury, the defendants assert that, at most, the accident caused a temporary aggravation of an “ongoing injury process” due to her pre-existing injuries and core weakness.  It should be evident from my discussion of the expert medical evidence and, specifically, my disapproval of Dr. Hepburn’s opinion, that I find the evidence does not support the defendants’ position that the plaintiff’s current low back pain is basically the same as the dysfunction in her upper “butt” sacroiliac joint or hip regions experienced before the accident.

[214]     The evidence amply establishes that the accident caused musculoskeletal injuries to the plaintiff’s neck, upper trapezius (left shoulder area) and her lumbar spine.  Relying on Dr. Hershler, Dr. Jung and Ms. Cross, I also find that it is more probable than not that the accident injured the facet joints of the plaintiff’s lumbar spine.  I find, as well, that it caused her headaches secondary to her neck pain, injured her left sacroiliac joint and aggravated her pre-accident difficulty with the right side of that joint.  On balance, I am not persuaded that she suffered a costovertebral injury as opined by Dr. Jung.

Another interesting aspect of this decision was the Court’s discussion of the Defence Medical Evidence.  The Defence hired Dr. Hepburn, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, to conduct a so-called ‘independent medical exam‘ of the Plaintiff.  Madam Justice Ballance largely rejected this expert’s evidence and in doing so made the following critical comments:

191]     Since his retirement in 2007, Dr. Hepburn’s medical practice has been solely devoted to conducting independent medical examinations.  Virtually every referral examination he receives comes from defence counsel and ICBC.

[192]     By his own admission, a mere 10%-15% of Dr. Hepburn’s practice prior to his retirement involved soft tissue injuries, and even then he was not involved in their ongoing management and treatment.  Dr. Hepburn testified that, while in practice, he did not treat patients with back injuries who had not suffered a fracture, slipped disc, disc prolapse or other type of injury requiring surgical intervention.  Generally, he would not even see such patients and would typically refer them to a specialist better trained to treat ongoing non-orthopaedic soft tissue injuries, such as a physiotherapist and physiatrist.

[193]     Dr. Hepburn could not recollect treating any costovertebral joint injuries, and testified that he only treated orthopaedic facet joint injuries (dislocations and fractures) for which surgery can produce some benefit.

[194]     As Dr. Hepburn testified, it became apparent that, although he was qualified as an expert in the diagnosis and prognosis of soft tissue injuries, his expertise lies almost exclusively in the field of orthopaedics.  This, however, is not an orthopaedic case.  It is a claim involving chronic soft tissue injuries which cannot be repaired through surgical intervention.

[195]     The plaintiff told Dr. Hepburn that her major problem related to her low back.  She also complained of pain in her left shoulder, a stiff neck, and headaches.  Dr. Hepburn agreed that the plaintiff likely suffered some soft tissue injury to her neck and knee from the accident.  However, he found it unclear as to whether her lower back pain was connected to the accident.  In this regard, he seemed to place some reliance on his understanding that there had been no complaint of back pain noted in the plaintiff’s medical records in the months following the accident.  That is a misconception.  The physiotherapy records are replete with the plaintiff’s complaints of low back pain in the months immediately after the accident.  The treating physiotherapist’s discharge note, which formed part of Dr. Smith’s file, leaves no doubt that the plaintiff’s lumbar spine was the chief area of treatment throughout the many sessions.  I can only conclude that Dr. Hepburn’s review of those records was superficial.

[196]     As an aside I would also note that the plaintiff’s controversial ICBC statement tendered into evidence by the defence itself refers to complaints of low back pain within the first two weeks following the accident.

[197]     In addressing the plaintiff’s pre-accident physical difficulties, Dr. Hepburn seemed to suggest that it would be legitimate to interpret her physiotherapist’s notations of sacroiliac joint pain as being medically equivalent to a notation of unspecified low back pain.  The implicit suggestion was that the plaintiff’s post-accident low back pain is the same as her sacroiliac joint complaints before the accident and, accordingly, was not caused by the accident.  He went so far to say that, in all likelihood, the plaintiff actually had low back pain and not sacroiliac joint dysfunction when she saw her physiotherapist before the accident.  I have previously made clear that I reject the free-floating notion that a physiotherapist would confuse those distinct anatomical areas.  His evidence on this point distinguished Dr. Hepburn from the other medical experts who gave evidence on the point.  It caused me considerable concern.

[198]     I also found it strange that in his report, Dr. Hepburn described the plaintiff’s headache complaints as falling beyond his area of expertise.  The preponderance of all of the other medical opinion evidence, which I find credible, is that the plaintiff’s post-accident headaches probably stem from her injured neck.  In his report, Dr. Hepburn did not allow for the prospect that the plaintiff’s headaches could be cervicogenic in origin, and represented referred pain from her injured neck.  He was only prepared to admit that potential in cross-examination.  Instead, in his report he had implied that the plaintiff’s headaches had a psychological source by suggesting that they could be addressed by medication for anxiety.  In my view, Dr. Hepburn’s assessment of the plaintiff’s ongoing headaches was not evenly balanced.  That too was of concern.

[199]     Dr. Hepburn did not find a restricted range of movement in the plaintiff’s spine.  He explained that the dual inclinometer applied by Dr. Jung is not used by him or any orthopaedic surgeon to his knowledge.  That does not mean that measurement with that device is not the gold standard.  I was most impressed with Dr. Jung’s explanation of the frailties of the so-called “eyeballing” assessment of range of motion and the superior measurement capability of the device he used.

[200]     Dr. Hepburn was adamant that the manner in which Dr. Jung and Dr. Hershler purported to diagnose a potential facet joint injury was not adequate.  He testified that a definitive diagnosis cannot be made without proper imaging studies such as a bone scan, CT scan or MRI.  He stood by his opinion that there was no facet joint injury that he could detect on his examination of the plaintiff.  Dr. Hepburn’s comments regarding the diagnosis of facet joint injury illustrates the difference between the medical approach to diagnosis for the purposes of determining causation, and the legal approach to the question of causation.  As noted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Snell v. Farrell, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 311, [Snell ] at para. 34:  “Medical experts ordinarily determine causation in terms of certainties whereas a lesser standard is demanded by the law.”

[201]     With respect to Dr. Jung’s diagnosis of costovertebral injury, Dr. Hepburn opined that such an injury is quite rare and would normally be associated with severe trauma such as in an individual with broken ribs.  He suggested that it would take a “divine talent” to diagnose this type of injury based on physical/clinical presentation alone.

[202]     Relying on Dr. Hepburn’s opinion, the defence argues that the plaintiff’s subjective pain complaints which have continued for more than four years after the accident are inconsistent with the fact that her spine has suffered no structural damage or other ominous pathology.  The underlying logic appears to be that pain and chronic injury do not occur in the absence of orthopaedic or other structural injury.  That notion offends common sense and is blind to the credible explanations given by Drs. Jung and Hershler and Ms. Cross as to the nature of soft tissue injury.

[203]     In the end, I consider it unsafe to give any weight to the opinions expressed by Dr. Hepburn.

chronic pain, Dr. Hepburn, headaches, ICBC Orthopaedic surgeon, independent medical exams, KT v. AS, Madam Justice Ballance, neck injury, soft tissue injuries

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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