Back injuries, degenerating spinal conditions and no fault
People who suffer back injuries superimposed on pre-existing degenerative back problems are faced with many problems in seeking medical expense coverage and fair compensation. Morrison v. State Farm helps to elucidate some of the issues.
In Morrison, the plaintiff had pre-existing back trouble and had been operated on for back problems prior to her motor vehicle collision on October 1, 2001. State Farm fought with her over benefits, but compromised and paid some benefits prior to September of 2003. On the latter date, however, State Farm sent her for an "independent medical exam" to its own doctor and then cut off her benefits when State Farm's doctor claimed that her back problems were unrelated to, and not exacerbated by, the 2001 collision. In a typical defense move, State Farm and its attorneys and doctor also blamed the Plaintiff for her problems: she was a diabetic who needed to lose weight, apparently.
Ultimately, the jury bought State Farm's claim and determined that the motor vehicle collision injuries were no longer influencing Morrison's health by September of 2003. As a result, State Farm no longer had to pay for any medical expenses relating to her back trouble. It is our experience that this surprising outcome can happen when: the pre-existing condition is relatively severe; the victim's doctors aren't particularly supportive of the motor vehicle causation/exacerbation; the impact of the collision is not severe and there are few or insubstantial objective signs of collision injury; and the victim can be painted with fault or prejudice.
Morrison's right to recover for pain and suffering resulting from the collision would depend on whether the exacerbation she suffered in the collision resulted in a "serious impairment of bodily function". The Supreme Court has refined that definition to limit recovery to those cases where the victim can demonstrate that the motor vehicle collision has "altered the course of her life". For many people who are already partially disabled or whose activities were limited before the collision, it is virtually impossible to meet the Court's threshold standard. Several cases have intimated that a person already in a wheelchair or unemployed essentially "had nothing to lose", rather than weighing the importance of the lifestyle the disabled person had left. The court has also held that "mere pain" cannot constitute a serious impairment.