What Constitutes a Serious Injury in California?

No two accidents are the same. An incident that may cause one person some bruises could cause another broken bones, and someone else might suffer a traumatic brain injury. The cause of an accident doesn’t necessarily indicate the severity of the resulting injuries. 

That variation is why California personal injury claims for similar accidents can lead to such different outcomes. Someone who suffers a serious injury has been harmed more than someone lucky enough to walk away with a few bruises. The more serious the harm, the greater the potential damages the victim could recover. 

Determining the severity of injuries is a substantial element of most personal injury claims. Below, we discuss some of the most common legal definitions of serious injuries in California, how they can affect victims’ lives, and how traumatic injuries may alter the outcome of a claim. 

How Does California Law Define Serious Injuries?

In California, no single definition of a “serious” injury applies across all fields. Instead, different areas of law have unique and overlapping definitions. 

For example, there are two definitions for wound severity under the California Penal Code:

  • Serious bodily injury: Defined by CALCRIM No. 925 as “a serious impairment of physical condition,” with examples including broken bones, loss of a limb, and disfigurement.
  • Great bodily injury: Defined by the California Penal Code 12022.7 as “a significant or substantial physical injury,” which can include serious burns, concussions, bone fractures, and dog bites.

These definitions are used to determine whether an alleged violent crime fits the criteria for elevated penalties. However, they are not typically used to determine civil penalties. 

Another definition is found under California Labor Code Section 6302. It defines a “serious injury or illness” as one that “requires inpatient hospitalization, for other than medical observation or diagnostic testing, or in which an employee suffers an amputation, the loss of an eye, or any serious degree of permanent disfigurement.” This definition determines whether a workplace accident must be reported to Cal/OSHA and may impact workers’ compensation claims but does not directly affect civil cases. 

What Counts as a Catastrophic Injury in Personal Injury Claims?

The lack of serious injury definitions for personal injury cases is not an accident. These claims fall under the wider umbrella of civil or “tort” law, as opposed to criminal law or workers’ compensation insurance. Torts are defined as “an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which courts impose liability.” 

Under civil law, anyone can file a civil claim against a party that has harmed them to pursue direct compensation for their losses, regardless of the severity of those losses. Any definitions regarding severity would only act as restrictions and may prevent wronged parties from receiving just compensation. By refraining from defining levels of severity under the law, California ensures that all victims can seek compensation. 

Still, the harm caused by a scraped knee is significantly less than the suffering caused by a broken spine. Instead of using a legal definition to differentiate between the two, California attorneys may describe particularly serious health complications as “catastrophic injuries.” This is a term of art, which means it is not strictly defined under law. 

However, the term “catastrophic” has a consistent meaning in personal injury cases. Typically, catastrophic wounds are those that cause long-term disabilities, prevent victims from performing gainful work, or otherwise permanently affect the victims’ capacity. Examples of traumatic or catastrophic injuries include:

  • Traumatic brain injuries or other brain damage
  • Spinal cord problems
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Loss of a limb
  • Loss of sight or hearing in one or both eyes or ears

These issues often lead to years or a lifetime of reduced quality of life, pain, and the inability of victims to support themselves or their families. 

How Serious Injuries Impact Civil Personal Injury Lawsuits

If there’s no specific definition of serious injuries, how does the severity of harm affect a claim? While there is no guarantee regarding the outcome of a personal injury case, traumatic or catastrophic injuries may lead to significantly higher damages due to how compensation is calculated. 

In a civil claim, damages are awarded based on the victim’s losses. These losses can be economic, such as medical bills, lost income, and damaged property costs. They can also be non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering, emotional harm, and loss of missed experiences. 

These damages may be significant for a non-catastrophic claim, but there are limits. Suppose a young father is hit by a car and suffers some broken bones. He could pursue damages for his hospital visit, follow-up care, lost income while on bed rest, and his pain and suffering. However, the fractures are likely to heal in six to eight weeks and need little follow-up care, so each damage category is limited. 

In contrast, if the same young father loses the use of his dominant hand in the accident, things look different. The loss of a hand could prevent him from working in his field ever again. He will likely need years of follow-up care for physical therapy. He may lose his ability to participate in beloved hobbies. In this case, he can seek all the same damages as above but multiplied to account for years to a lifetime of loss and ongoing care needs. In other words, the catastrophic loss of his hand may lead to a much higher damage award. 

Professional Legal Counsel for Serious Personal Injury Cases

If you’ve been seriously hurt in an accident in California, you have the right to seek compensation for your losses. The right lawyer can make all the difference for your case. At Fiore Achermann, we are dedicated to helping clients around California pursue justice for their serious injuries. Get in touch with our experienced personal injury attorneys to discuss whether your case may be catastrophic.