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Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries can be devastating, often leaving victims with severe impairments such as quadriplegia, paraplegia, loss of bowel and bladder function, or permanent neuropathic pain.

The leading cause of spinal cord injuries in Canada is motor vehicle accidents, but they can also be caused by sports injuries, falls and even medical negligence. This blog post will focus on spinal cord injuries in the medical malpractice context.

There are many ways in which medical negligence in virtually any area of the healthcare system can lead to spinal cord injuries. These injuries can result from a single error by a single person, cascading failures my multiple healthcare professionals involved in a patient’s care, or anything in between. Examples include:

  • Negligently performed surgical procedures, or the failure to recognize and respond appropriately to post-surgical complications
  • Failure to recognize “red flags” or signs of spinal cord compression in a timely manner
  • Failure to report significant findings on diagnostic imaging
  • Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of a medical condition that progresses to cause spinal cord damage

Proving liability is complicated in any medical malpractice action, and that is particularly true of cases involving spinal cord injuries. Extensive input from independent medical experts is almost always required in order to establish the necessary elements of the claim.

In a medical malpractice action, it is not enough to simply prove that the injury occurred, or even that the defendant caused it. Physicians and other healthcare providers are held to a standard of reasonableness – not perfection. This means that the plaintiff must prove that a defendant physician failed to meet the standard of care expected of a reasonably prudent physician, and that it was the defendant’s breach of the standard of care caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

Even when it is established that the defendant caused the plaintiff harm, determining exactly what aspect or aspects of the plaintiff’s injuries are attributable to the defendant can be difficult. In some cases, such as those involving surgical errors, the plaintiff may have been affected by a pre-existing injury or condition severe enough to warrant surgery. In other cases, by the time the patient seeks medical attention, some degree of permanent injury may already be inevitable.

For instance, cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a condition that develops when nerve roots exiting the base of the spinal column are compressed. In most cases, CES arises due to factors independent of any medical treatment, such as a herniated disc. In all cases, it is a surgical emergency, and the window for successful treatment is very short. By the time a patient presents to the emergency department, some degree of lasting damage may be inevitable, even with emergency surgery. If an emergency physician fails to recognize that the patient is presenting with “red flag” symptoms for CES, and treatment is delayed further, the physician may be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, but only to the extent that they would not have occurred “but-for” the delay caused by the physician’s negligence. While a plaintiff is not required to prove causation with scientific precision, determining the difference between what happened and what should have happened is inherently difficult when a few hours can be the difference between a minor complications and permanent, life-altering impairments.

Given the severity of spinal cord injuries, they can give rise to claims for a wide array of damages, including pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost income, and loss of housekeeping capacity. Quantifying these damages generally requires the involvement of additional experts such as physiatrists, occupational therapists and economists.

A spinal cord injury can be life-altering in every sense. If you’ve suffered a spinal cord injury due to medical negligence, you may need – and deserve – financial compensation. Our legal team is experienced in navigating the complex issues involved in successfully litigating a medical malpractice claim.

For more information on spinal cord injuries in the setting of medical malpractice, please consult our spinal cord injuries page.

by Luke Young