When you are injured by another’s negligent actions, the general remedy used to recover your loss is a negligence lawsuit. The primary aim of a negligence action is to make the victim “whole” again by shifting the victim’s loss onto the negligent actor (known in the law as the “tortfeasor”— and since that word is so fun to say, we shall stick with it). When a person is injured, the tortfeasor is liable for any damages he or she caused to the victim’s person or property. The word “damages” is fluid and includes types of harm that are not readily apparent.
Thinking within the confines of bodily injury, a victim injured in an accident will naturally incur a new injury. But what if the victim also has a prior injury or condition? Can a tortfeasor also be held liable for damages to that preexisting injury? The answer is: Yes.
There is a really old rule in the law called the “eggshell rule,” and it is still in effect today. The guiding principle of this rule is that the tortfeasor takes the victim “as-is,” meaning the tortfeasor may be liable for any bodily harm inflicted upon the victim, no matter how healthy, sick, or disabled the victim is. If the victim happens to have a preexisting injury or condition, or a predisposition to injury or disease, then a tortfeasor may be liable for the damages if the harmful conduct worsened or triggered the preexisting injury or condition.
As expected, there are limits as to when, and to what extent, a tortfeasor will be liable for damage to a preexisting injury. Two issues are key here: causation and change in condition.
A tortfeasor’s liability may be limited to the extent that he or she did not proximately activate or aggravate the victim’s preexisting injury. To illustrate, imagine a person with a preexisting heart condition is walking down the sidewalk. Next, imagine a tortfeasor wants to scare the victim and goes and hides in some bushes. The tortfeasor hops out and frightens the victim, causing the victim to trip, fall, and have a heart attack. Moreover, and a year later, the victim’s doctor advises that a heart transplant is necessary. In this scenario, the tortfeasor would likely be liable for:
injuries sustained in the fall; and
any damages stemming from the heart attack (including the surgery a year later).
The tortfeasor would naturally argue that he or she is liable only for the injuries sustained by the fall, but that is not the case. In the scenario, the tortfeasor takes the victim “as-is,” including the preexisting heart condition. Both the heart attack and corrective surgery were a natural result of the tortfeasor’s conduct because being severely frightened would have a negative impact on a weak heart.
II. Change in Condition
This issue is a bit more straightforward. There must be an actual change in condition before a victim can collect damages for a preexisting injury. The victim must show that his or her injury or condition worsened due to the tortfeasor’s conduct. Proving this element is often fact-intensive and may be difficult to prove in many instances.
So, what is the takeaway? If you have a preexisting condition and are injured, the damages you may be entitled to are not limited to brand new injuries. You can recover for damage to a preexisting injury. Moreover, “preexisting injury” can also include mental or physical disease, or a disability. In all, the goal of a negligence action is to make you whole again. You have the right to be compensated for any and all harm caused to you by no fault of your own.