A low-speed collision or car accident is a collision that takes places at speeds below 10 miles per hour. Oftentimes, there is little or no visible property damage done to the bumpers of either vehicle. However, minimal or nonexistent damage to the vehicles involved does not mean that you haven’t sustained a low-speed collision injury.
Rear-end accidents are the most common low-speed collision. At low speeds, particularly where the impacting vehicle is already at a stop, the forces involve transfer to your unrestrained body parts within the vehicle. Pain from an injury may be negligible or unnoticeable in the immediate wake of the accident. It does not surface until well after the collision.
Whiplash, also sometimes called neck strain or sprain, is a soft-tissue injury to the neck caused by the “forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like the cracking of a whip.” The sudden movement of the head causes muscles and tendons in the neck to stretch or tear. Common causes of whiplash are sports, physical abuse, and rear-end auto accidents. They can occur in rear-end collisions at speeds as low as 5–10 mph.
Symptoms of whiplash you may have experienced include aches and pains, decreased range of motion, and soreness. It also includes muscle tightness in the neck and increased pain when turning the head. Whiplash may also cause headaches that form at the base of the skull, as well as dizziness. It also includes numb fingertips, tenderness in the upper back and shoulder, pain, and fatigue. Your symptoms may linger for weeks or months depending on the severity of the strain. Some experience chronic neck pain and complications that lasts years. Treatment usually involves rest, pain medication, an exercise regimen, and physical therapy.
Bruises and injuries may also occur to other parts of the body during a low-speed collision injury. The seatbelt, while undoubtedly preventing greater injury, can itself cause rib and chest bruising and soreness. Concussion may occur if your head impacts the door or frame of the car, as seatbelts do little to constrain side-to-side motion. Whiplash and soft-tissue injuries can persist for years yet be difficult to show via medical scans and tests.
Such accidents can further lead to torn rotator cuffs, vertigo, back spasms, subluxation (where one or more of the bones of the spine is displaced and puts pressure on the spinal cord), bulging discs, and driving anxiety. Defense attorneys and insurance companies have attempted to create the perception of greedy plaintiffs overstating their injuries, but recent scientific studies have shown that low-speed collisions can and do have significant risks of grave injury.
The so-called eggshell plaintiff rule is a well-established common-law legal doctrine that states that the defendant must “take the plaintiff as they find him.” This means that defendants cannot use the excuse that the person injured by their tortious conduct is unusually physically or mentally frail or susceptible to injury. For example, if a person injured in a minor car accident happens to have brittle bone disease (Osteogenesis imperfecta) and suffers grievous injury where most will have only a mild injury, the defendant is still responsible for the injuries he or she caused in the accident.
This applies even to less serious diseases and conditions. Chronic back or neck pain, arthritis, and many other maladies can occur due to the low-speed collision. The defendant who is responsible for the accident may still be responsible.
You are entitled to compensation for the costs stemming from the injury. This includes not only property damage to your vehicle but your medical expenses, time missed from work, and pain and suffering extending from injuries and treatment.
As with most accidents, your attorney will seek to establish that the injuries are due to the accident. With low-speed collisions, this can cause issues if the injuries do not manifest immediately. The defense attorney will attempt to portray the suit as a money grab. He or she will imply that you are a greedy individual who is exaggerating injuries.
To combat this, the attorney for the plaintiff has several tools at hand to show that your injuries were the result of the accident. Numerous studies have shown that injuries like whiplash may occur at speeds as low as 5 mph. The forces exerted on the head in a low-speed collision are, on average, 2.5 times greater than the vehicle’s acceleration upon impact. Moreover, unlike with other head movements that are comparable in force to those in a low-speed collision, with a rear-end accident, you most likely had no time to brace the cervical muscles in the neck in order to mitigate the force at your head.
To show that the injury stemmed from the collision, the attorney must gather all available evidence and then call upon a suite of experts to help interpret that evidence for the jury. The primary forms of evidence are eyewitness testimony, police reports, a thorough inspection and photographs of vehicular damage, medical bills and testimony from examining physicians, and reports of family and colleagues regarding the observed effects of the injury.
There are several experts who will be called upon to give their opinions on this evidence. Regarding the accident itself, an accident reconstructionist or biomechanical engineer may survey the damage reports of the vehicles. From these, the expert can evaluate the likely force exerted on the car on impact, and thus transferred to plaintiff.
Each party is likely to employ this type of expert. The defendant’s expert, particularly in a low-speed collision injury, will endeavor to show that the forces imparted on the plaintiff were too low to sustain injury. The defense expert will show that the forces the plaintiff was subjected to are similar to that of a sneeze, or even sitting down heavily. Or that bumpers are federally required to withstand damage in impacts of 2.5 miles per hour. And thus the accident could not have exceeded that speed.
Your expert and attorney will rebut these arguments. These arguments show that events like sneezing and sitting are not representative of what occurs during a rear-end accident. They will also show that the federal bumper standard is a minimal requirement. And that most manufacturers overdesign their bumpers to withstand impacts at speeds four to five times the required minimum.
At least one medical expert will then be called to render his or her opinion on the anatomical effects that can occur when the body is subjected to the forces that happened during the accident. Numerous studies show that the degree of injury is not strongly related to the speed of the auto accident. The healthcare experts will compare the accident at issue in the case with their experiences treating the injuries. They state whether they believe, in their professional opinion, the injuries for which the plaintiff seeks redress were the results of the accident. These experts will also weigh in on the treatment received and whether it is indicative of the type of injury complained of.
Medical experts are especially useful where a pre-existing injury or condition is considered as worse due to the low-speed accident. Such complications can be extreme and lead to immense injury on the part of the plaintiff. Recall that the eggshell plaintiff rule requires the defendant to take the plaintiff as they find her. As such, even with zero-property-damage cases, medical expenses and pain and suffering can pile high.
In 2004, a California dental student was rear-ended while waiting to make a left turn. The student had already suffered bulging cervical discs from a previous accident, and the second accident made it worse. He had to undergo spine surgery and have considerations in his future job. The jury awarded the plaintiff $500,000 in lost income and future medical expenses.
Similarly, 10 years later in 2014, a 56-year-old Pasadena, California woman got involved in a zero-property-damage collision. She suffered a ruptured cervical disc and had to undergo surgery. The jury awarded the plaintiff $3.1 million in compensation for medical expenses past and future as well as future pain and suffering, despite the defense’s attempts to downplay the severity of the accident.
A common theme in our media, perpetuated by self-interested insurance companies, is that of the greedy accident victim, clad in a foam neck brace and a broken leg, only to be revealed and reviled as a fraud. This imagery flies in the face of modern science, which has repeatedly proven that these injuries from minor collisions can be severe. The law of the United States permits victims of accidents to recover the reasonable expenses of their injuries. Unfortunately, many injured individuals don’t want to look to be part of the problem of over-litigation.
This impression is more myth than fact and shouldn’t stop you from recovering compensation. Careful documentation of your injuries, medical visits, and the accident scene itself will give you best chance at doing so.
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