An Overview of Legal Considerations In Personal Injury Cases Involving Spinal Fusions and their Possible Complications

In serious motor vehicle accidents, neck injuries are very common. The more severe neck injuries sometimes require surgical procedures, such as a spinal fusion, to treat and repair the injury to the cervical region of the spine. It’s important to shed light on the problems and complications that may occur as a result of spinal fusions in personal injury cases.

Many of our clients in Massachusetts who have had these procedures experience a myriad of issues months, even years later.  The issue, from a legal standpoint, is when to settle a personal injury case where an individual has undergone a spinal fusion as a result of a neck injury from a motor vehicle accident. Settle too early and the full extent of your injuries and losses may not have matured.  This means you’re selling yourself short. 

How Cervical Injuries Occur in Motor Vehicle Accidents

The cervical spine is the top seven vertebrae of the spine directly below the brain.  These series of vertebrae are abbreviated as C1 through C7. The neck, or cervical region of the spine, is very susceptible to injury in motor vehicle crashes. They often occur in rear-end collisions, but are also commonly seen in other types of car crashes.

The reason neck injuries are so common in car accidents is because a crash usually causes an unexpected, sudden hyperextension of the neck. These types of collisions, even at low speeds, cause the head to jerk forward or to the side with great force. This force puts extreme pressure on the ligaments, cervical vertebrae and discs of the neck, causing serious injuries. This can cause neck injuries that range from minor whiplash to more severe neck injuries, such as disc herniation. The more serious disc herniations often compress on the nerve root causing pain to shoot down the upper extremities. In addition, these injuries can cause the spine to become unstable. Serious neck injuries resulting in instability sometimes require surgical procedures to treat. A common neck surgery is the spinal fusion.

What Is A Spinal Fusion?

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure where two or more vertebrae are joined or fused together. A fusion procedure is commonly done when an accident victim has some type of herniated discs, stenosis, or other spinal injuries that cause pain or spinal instability. Fusion surgeries typically require the use of bone grafts to facilitate the fusion, which involves taking a small amount of bone from the patient’s pelvic bone or from a donor and packing it in between the vertebrae to fuse them together. When the vertebrae become so unstable that movement affects the nerves and causes pain, hardware and screws are used to fix together two or more vertebrae thereby making that damaged section of the spine immovable.  

Spinal fusion surgery is not limited in its options. These procedures can be accomplished in a number of ways depending on the type of injury and the assessment of the performing surgeon. One of the most commonly employed surgical techniques is the anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). This is commonly performed for symptomatic cervical disc injuries. The anterior approach requires accessing the cervical spine through the front of the neck. This surgical procedure is generally considered safe despite rare occurrences of serious and even life-threatening complications. The surgeon reaches the damaged disc from the front (anterior) of the spine through the throat area. By moving aside the neck muscles, trachea, and esophagus, the disc and bony vertebrae are exposed. Surgery from the front of the neck is more accessible than from the back (posterior) because the disc can be reached without disturbing the spinal cord, spinal nerves, and the strong neck muscles. 

Potential Future Complications of Fusion Surgeries

Success of a spinal fusion is dependent on so many variables. As with all surgeries there are many risks and possible complications that can occur as a result of a fusion surgery. You could be fine after a fusion and never have to deal with future surgeries or you may experience problems with adjacent discs.  There have been many studies done to determine the percentage of fusions resulting in subsequent adjacent fusions.  According to one survey the rates of symptomatic degeneration requiring surgery at adjacent segments were approximately 20% at five years and 50% at ten years after the initial fusion. In one example an accident victim had an ACDF (anterior cervical discectomy and fusion) at C5-6. A few years later he needed a second ACDF. This second surgery was to fuse C4-5. Unfortunately, this is sometimes typical.

Legal Considerations of Personal Injury Cases Involving Spinal Fusions

When someone is injured in a car accident, truck accident or motorcycle accident in Massachusetts, he or she has the legal right to file a personal injury claim or personal injury lawsuit against the negligent or at-fault party. The injury claim or lawsuit seeks financial compensation for the injuries and losses suffered by the accident victim (or plaintiff). While the vast majority of personal injury cases settle prior to trial, as a general rule, the injured party (or plaintiff) should not settle his or her case without taking into consideration the full extent of the injury or damages. This includes determining the possibility of future medical treatment or surgical procedures.

For Example: a client had a spinal fusion from injuries suffered in a car accident in Framingham, Massachusetts. He struggled daily to manage his pain. C4 through C7 were fused and secured with a titanium cage.  His strength had improved and, although, he no longer experiences excruciating nerve pain caused by the compression, he continues to suffer from a dull burning ache with associated migraine head-aches. So to handle this case properly, the real question is what is the likelihood of future problems with the adjacent discs? 

As you can see from the example above, sometimes serious neck injuries from car crashes that require a spinal fusion can result in a future complications or another surgery. If a personal injury case is settled soon after an initial spinal fusion, the plaintiff may not receive full and fair compensation for his or her total damages from the accident. It is, therefore, imperative that an accident victim wait until the spinal fusion heals in order to determine if any complications or future procedures may arise. This is because, in a case where another spinal surgery may be required, if a case is settled too soon or before the need for an additional surgery is determined, the accident victim risks not receiving compensation for subsequent damages for medical bills, pain and suffering, or other losses that result from the additional surgery.

Of course, the statute of limitations for a personal injury or negligence lawsuit must always be examined as well. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for filing a negligence lawsuit is three (3) years. This means that if a lawsuit is not filed within at least three years of the car accident, the injured party will be forever barred from doing so. In a situation where time limitations become an issue, a report may be obtained from the treating surgeon wherein he or she provides a medical opinion on whether another spinal fusion surgery may be needed including the anticipated cost of another surgery and future medical treatment.

Additionally, another legal consideration is the insurance policy limits. The amount of insurance coverage the negligent driver has or the amount of underinsured coverage you have must be examined. An auto insurance company is only responsible to pay for damages or losses their insured caused up to the limits of the insurance policy. If the policy limits are low compared to the amount of medical bills and other damages incurred, settlement may be considered sooner.

Speak With an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney Today

It is always recommended that anyone injured in an auto accident should speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Especially, a person who has suffered a serious neck injury that required a spinal fusion or other surgical procedure. A lawyer can help educate you on the personal injury process, explain your legal rights and fight to get you the full and fair compensation you deserve for your injuries.

Feel free to contact us online or call us at (508) 879-3500 to schedule your complimentary case evaluation. We are happy to review your case and explain how we can help secure the financial compensation you deserve.