Tag: degenerative spine

Non-Pecuniary Damages Discussed for Neck Soft Tissue Injury, Significant Low Back STI

2 cases were released today by the BC Supreme Court dealing with non-pecuniary damages in auto-accident cases which I summarize below to add to this ever-growing free online  pain and suffering caselaw database.  The first case dealt with a soft tissue neck injury; the second with a ‘significant’ low back soft tissue injury.
In the first case (Berry v. LaBelle), the Plaintiff was injured in a 2006 rear-end crash.  Fault was admitted leaving the Court to deal with the value of the claim.
The Plaintiff was a 42 year old drywaller at the time of the accident.  He sued for various damages including past loss of income and diminished earning capacity.  At trial he asked for some $600,000 in total damages for his injuries and losses.  He alleged that he suffered from left handed weakness as a result of the collision which negatively affected his ability to work.  After 4 days of trial, however, his claim proved largely unsuccessful being awarded $0 for his loss of income / diminished earning capacity claims.  The Court did find that the Plaintiff suffered a compensable injury and awarded the Plaintiff damages for non-pecuniary loss (money for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life).
Specifically Madam Justice Baker found that “the only injury resulting from the motor vehicle accident…is a strain to the soft tissues on the left side of the neck“.  In assessing the Plaintiff’s non-pecuniary damages at $30,000 the Court noted the following:

[51] Nevertheless, I am satisfied that the strain to the soft tissues on the left side of Mr. Berry’s neck did cause him discomfort for several months after the accident, although it appears that injury did not actually impair range of motion in the neck.  Mr. Berry had full range of motion in his neck the day after the accident; Dr. Fehlau described the range of motion as “good” when Mr. Berry was seen at her clinic on August 17, 2006.  Massage therapy alleviated the discomfort but only temporarily; physiotherapy had more lasting benefits.  The pain did not incapacitate Mr. Berry at work, although he modified some of his tasks to accommodate the injury.

[52] By no later than October 2006 – seven months after the accident, Mr. Berry had returned to his favourite recreational activity – dirt-biking.  According to Mr. Berry’s description, and those of his friend Mr. Van Lingen, cross-country dirt-biking is a very strenuous and even hazardous recreational activity.  Mr. Berry told Dr. Fehlau on October 24, 2006 that his neck became sore after one-half hour of dirt-biking.   I accept that Mr. Berry initially moderated the intensity of his dirt-bike excursions.  However, Mr. Van Lingen testified that before the bike accident in September 2008, Mr. Berry was back to riding as he had before the March 2006 motor vehicle accident.

[53] Mr. Berry and his wife both testified that the neck discomfort had a negative effect on their sexual relationship.  They testified that before the accident, they had sexual intercourse two or three times every day, but that the frequency diminished after the accident because Mr. Berry experienced neck pain during intercourse, particularly when certain positions were attempted.  Mr. Berry and his wife both testified that Mr. Berry was less patient and more irritable when his neck was sore.

[54] Mr. Berry testified that he has given up river kayaking and golfing because of his injuries but I am not persuaded this is true.  Mr. Berry has not made a serious attempt to engage in either of these activities since the accident.  He testified he had gone kayaking once on a lake, and had not attempted river kayaking.  He had not attempted to play golf.  Given that Mr. Berry has been able to continue to do very heavy physical labour at work, and resumed cross-country dirt-biking within seven months after the accident, I do not accept that he is incapacitated from playing a few games of golf annually, or kayaking on a river.  I think it more likely that Mr. Berry has changed his recreational focus to activities he can enjoy with his wife and young son, and to a new interest – on-line computer games – which Ms. Schroeder testified that Mr. Berry plays for hours at a time.

[55] I am satisfied that Mr. Berry has recovered from the injuries caused by the accident.  I consider that an award of $30,000 to be adequate compensation for the temporary impact Mr. Berry’s neck injury has had on his enjoyment of life and, in particular, the discomfort he has experienced when lifting heavy materials at work; while engaging in strenuous recreational activities; and during intimate relations with his spouse.

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The second case released today (Demarzo v. Michaud) considered the onset of pain in a pre-existing but asymptomtic condition, namely a degenerative spine.

The Plaintiff was involved in a March, 2005 rear end collision.  Fault was admitted.  The Court heard evidence that the Plaintiff suffered from relatively severe back pain following this collision.  The parties differed on whether the Defendant was legally responsible for this.  The Defendant argued that he was not stating that the accident related injuries were minor and that a ‘pre-existing degenerative spine‘ and a subsequent event (an incident where the Plaintiff was lifting weights and aggravated her back pain) were responsible for the symptoms. The Defendant argued that the Plaintiff would have experienced her back pain as a matter of course even without the rear-end crash.  (note: this type of a ‘causation’ argument is often advanced at trial in personal injury lawsuits involving plaintiff’s with degenerative changes in their spine).

Mr. Justice Brown largely agreed with the Plaintiff and awarded just over $350,000 in total damages including $85,000 for her non-pecuniary damages.  Specifically he found that the Plaintiff suffered from a “significant soft tissue injury to her lower back” which resulted in chronic symptoms.   In navigating through the Defenses raised and awarding damages Mr. Justice Brown noted the following:

[51] I find that the plaintiff sustained a significant soft tissue injury to her lower back but it is not possible to unravel the plaintiff’s clinical history in such a way that allows a conclusive evidentiary finding on the specific medical legal question of when the plaintiff sustained her annular tear.

[52] The plaintiff’s lower back symptoms have become chronic and I accept Dr. Leete, Dr. Filbey’s medical opinions that she will continue to experience intermittent lower back complaints, especially related to certain activities. This is far from what she was able to do before the accident.

[53] As for the defendant’s contention that the plaintiff’s landscaping activities produced her degenerated spine and that this is the ultimate cause of her symptoms, I prefer the opinions of Dr. Leete and Dr. Filbey that there is no sound medical basis for the proposition that because someone over the years has been active in sports and worked as a landscaper, they are necessarily predisposed to development of degenerative changes in the spine or that such changes are associated with back pain. I understood from the evidence of Dr. Leete and Dr. Filbey that one patient may present with images of a markedly degenerated spine and have no history of symptoms, while another patient may present with marked symptoms, and have images of a perfectly normal spine. I also find that there is no sound medical basis for concluding that the plaintiff would have suffered the symptoms and limitations that she has experienced or that her degenerative spine would have inevitably become symptomatic, absent inducement of symptoms by the trauma of the motor vehicle accident.

[54] The plaintiff’s position is that when she lifted the dumbbells, she experienced immediate onset of pain in the same area she injured in the accident; that this was an exacerbation of the plaintiff’s unresolved injuries; and that there is no evidence to show that she would have experienced her continuing symptoms but for the injuries she sustained in the accident. On the balance of probabilities, I agree with the plaintiff’s position. I find that but for the accident the plaintiff would not have suffered the pain and disability she experienced after accident, including the exacerbation of her injuries on May 29, 2005 and acute flare-up with neurological symptoms in November 2005…

[57] The plaintiff has never returned to her former work as a landscaper or to any of her former recreational activities, at least not with any degree of intensity. She is still unable to play volleyball, cannot run long distances, although she did try running in the last month but at a far lower level than before. She no longer exercises at the gym. She does not enjoy movies in theatres because she finds sitting for long periods very uncomfortable. She explained that the last time she went out with friends, she felt very uncomfortable, but suffered through it as she was too embarrassed to leave. Given her enjoyment of sports and active lifestyle shared with her husband, as well as the loss of her former capacity to be active, this represents a substantial loss for the plaintiff as a person and a spouse. Although the plaintiff will likely improve somewhat in the future, I accept that she will not ever be able return to her former level of participation in recreational activities or regain her former physical capacities; and will continue to experience varying degrees of chronic back pain that will necessitate alteration of her lifestyle.

[58] The accident depressed the plaintiff’s mood, leading to a marriage separation in early spring 2007. Mr. Saliken testified that the plaintiff became depressed, unhappy about living with him in Nanaimo, impatient and angry. Making matters worse was the apparent mindset of Mr. Saliken’s family, who were impatient with the pace of the plaintiff’s recovery and kept asking why she could not work. The plaintiff’s feelings of frustration, augmented by her feelings of diminishment in the eyes of her husband’s family, who she did not yet know well and who had “never seen how hard she could work”, and her feeling that she had become a drain on the household combined with other aggravating factors, ultimately led to arguments and her two months separation from her husband. Fortunately, their bond and commitment to one another were strong enough to allow the plaintiff and Mr. Saliken to weather these adverse emotional affects of the accident and they reconciled. Nonetheless, the plaintiff’s separation from her husband and her emotional distress are emblematic of the degree of suffering and loss of enjoyment of life the plaintiff has experienced. She is entitled to a substantial award for pain and suffering and loss of the enjoyment of life. Bearing in mind that while she will receive compensation for her loss of earning capacity, she has still lost the enjoyment and satisfaction she experienced in her chosen career. I award the plaintiff $85,000 for non pecuniary damages.

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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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