Catastrophic injuries often have a life-changing impact on victims. Brain and spinal injuries are considered catastrophic injuries, as depending on the severity of the injury, they may impact the victim the rest of his or her life.  An accident that yields catastrophic injuries can cause disruptions to your life while you recover. A personal injury lawyer will help explain what is considered a catastrophic injury, and what that means for your case and recovery.

An injury can require you to take time off work to seek medical treatment or physical therapy as you recover. Less severe injuries heal over time, but an injury that is catastrophic causes victims to suffer lifelong physical, emotional, or financial consequences. Most catastrophic injuries do not have the prospect of a full recovery. 

What Is a Catastrophic Injury? 

Injuries to the spine, spinal cord, brain, loss of a limb or of the senses, or severe burn injuries that lead to disfigurement or loss of function are generally considered catastrophic. When deciding whether an injury is catastrophic, there are common indications that can be used as guidelines.

An injury may be considered traumatic if:

  •  You are unable to work or retain gainful employment due to the injury
  • You require ongoing care as a consequence of the injury
  •  The injury causes you to need some form of medical device, such as a wheelchair
  • You are required to make modifications to your home or car to accommodate the consequences of your injury
  • You require enough care that your spouse had to leave his or her job to provide this care

Whether an injury qualifies as severe or catastrophic may be relative, taking into consideration the person who suffers the harm and the impact that this has on his or her life.

An injury’s classification as catastrophic depends on the severity and consequences of the damage. For instance, there are some injuries that are almost always considered catastrophic due to their nature. These include traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, burns, amputation, loss of senses, and disfigurement. An Ankin catastrophic injury lawyer can assist you with determining whether your injury qualifies as a traumatic injury.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

There are two types of brain injuries. One is a penetrating injury, which involves a break in the skull. Penetrating TBI’s can occur when an outside object, such as a bullet, pierces the brain. The other type is a closed brain injury, occurring when there is a sudden movement or shaking of the head. Sudden jolts or other movements of the head can cause the brain to make contact with the inside of the skull, resulting in bruising or tearing of the brain tissue.

Traumatic brain injuries are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States. Every year in the United States, 1,000,000 people suffer traumatic brain injuries, resulting in roughly 230,000 hospitalizations, and 69,000 deaths. TBIs account for one-third of all deaths from trauma, and 80 to 90,000 newly acquired disabilities.

Some brain injuries are mild, and symptoms can disappear with proper treatment. Others may be severe, resulting in the need for post-injury or lifelong rehabilitation.

The effects of brain injuries can be cognitive, motor perceptual or sensory, communication, and language or functional deficits. There can also be regulatory disturbances and personality changes.

Effects commonly resulting from TBI include: 

  • Cognitive deficits, such as confusion, loss of sense of time and space, memory problems, shortened attention span, or deficits in judgment and problem-solving.
  • Motor deficits, including paralysis or weakness, poor coordination and balance, or tremors.
  • Perceptual and sensory deficits, such as changes in how a person perceives taste, smell, touch, hearing, or vision. These types of changes may also include loss of sensation, left or right-side neglect, or vision issues, like double vision or lack of vision range.
  • Language deficits, including difficulty speaking or understanding speech, reading, writing, forming coherent sentences, slow hesitant speech, or decreased vocabulary.
  • Functional deficits, like an inability to perform daily living activities including eating, bathing, and dressing.
  • Social difficulties, such as an inability to understand social interaction, leading to difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
  • Regulatory disturbances, including those that cause fatigue, changes in sleeping patterns, dizziness, headaches, or loss of bowel and bladder control.
  • Personality changes, like new or unexplained irritability, apathy, anxiety, or depression. Personality changes can also manifest as disinhibition, which includes aggression, lowered tolerance for frustration, inappropriate sexual behavior, or temper flare-ups.

There are more than 5 million people living with a disability caused by a TBI in the United States. The estimated cost of this is approximately $37.8 billion annually.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal Cord injuries are among the most serious injuries that a person may suffer. Some spinal cord trauma cannot fully heal or be repaired. If a person suffers a spinal cord injury, he or she often has to learn to live with new limitations.

Depending on where on the spinal column the injury takes place, a person may lose the use of, and feeling in, areas of the body below the injury. When the nerves responsible for sending signals from the brain to the rest of the body get damaged, it impacts the receipt of those signals.

A spinal cord injury can cause:

  • Tetraplegia – an inability to use limbs, upper and lower parts of the body, and sometimes the head, neck, and shoulders.
  •  Paraplegia – paralysis in legs and parts of the lower abdomen, but the use of the arms remains.
  •  Incomplete motor function – partial loss of control and sensation in the body below the injury.

Victims of spinal cord injuries often face ongoing medical care, rehabilitation, physical therapy, or home care. Additionally, the victim may be left unable to work.

Each year in the United States, there are approximately 18,000 new spinal cord injuries. Depending on whether the victims suffer tetraplegia, paraplegia or incomplete motor function, a spinal injury can cost anywhere from $42,000 to $184,000 per year.


Not all burns are considered catastrophic injuries. Whether a burn is considered catastrophic depends on the severity of the damage. If the burn is large or deep enough, it can lead to long-term pain and side effects.

Burns are classified by degree, depending on how deeply they penetrate the skin’s surface. A first-degree burn is superficial, affecting only the outer layer of the skin. A second-degree burn is also known as a partial-thickness burn and leaves the skin red, blistered, swollen, and painful. A third-degree burn is full thickness, reaching through all the layers of skin. It looks either white or blackened. A fourth-degree burn goes to underlying tissue, possibly to muscle and bone.

The consequences of a severe burn injury may be limited mobility, scarring, disfigurement, and chronic pain.


If you have suffered serious trauma to a limb, it may be damaged beyond repair. In this case, it will be amputated, which is the surgical removal of the affected limb. An amputation can be life-changing, as it impacts your ability to perform everyday tasks. It can also affect your ability to work or maintain your independence.

Loss of Senses

Some injuries cause a victim to lose the ability to see or hear. The loss of these senses can be due to brain injuries or direct damage to the eyes or ears. To be considered catastrophic, the sensory loss does not have to be complete but must be significant. Hearing or vision loss can negatively impact the ability to communicate effectively. In turn, this can affect victims’ independence and quality of life.


Disfigurement occurs when a person’s appearance is permanently, significantly changed due to an injury. The change can be in skin texture, scarring, or a body part that is differently shaped. Disfigurement can lead to emotional and psychological distress over time. It can also result in lower self-esteem and possibly the loss of friends and potential partners.

What Type of Damages Can I Receive for Catastrophic Injuries?

If you have received a catastrophic injury, then you will likely face long-term expenses and rehabilitation. To recover these costs, you will have to sue the person responsible for causing your injuries. Your catastrophic injury lawyer can advise you on filing a personal injury lawsuit to receive compensation for your injuries. 

The legal term for financial compensation that can be recovered in a lawsuit is known as damages. Damages for your injuries fall into two categories:

Economic Damages

Economic damages compensate you for the monetary expenses that you have suffered because of the accident. Often, victims require surgeries at the time of the injury, as well as on going medical care. Economic damages include expenses already incurred, as well as expenses and economic loss likely to be incurred in the future.

Common economic damages include:

  • All medical bills, costs, and expenses associated with your medical treatment.
  •  Future medical treatment and expenses, rehabilitation, and physical therapy.
  •  Lost wages.
  •  Loss of earning potential.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages compensate victims for losses and consequences that can’t be measured with money. Victims who have suffered life-altering injuries, such as disability and loss of amenities of life, will need to consult a catastrophic injury lawyer. An attorney can help calculate how much to ask for in a personal injury settlement.

Common non-economic damages include general pain and suffering, mental anguish and emotional pain, loss of enjoyment and quality of life, shortened lifespan, and loss of consortium.

Top Causes of Catastrophic Injury Lawsuits

Common causes of catastrophic injuries in Illinois include:

Car Accidents

Car accidents are the most common cause of catastrophic injuries. They can be especially serious due to the high speeds often involved in collisions. Motor vehicle accidents commonly result in traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, burns, and permanent scarring or disfigurement for drivers, passengers, and others.

Pedestrian Accidents

Most drivers watch out for pedestrians and are careful to avoid their spaces. Unfortunately, there is still a considerable number of accidents where pedestrians are struck by vehicles. Pedestrians are vulnerable when struck, as they generally do not have physical protection, so the injuries can be severe.

Bicycle Accidents

Like pedestrians, cyclists are relatively unprotected. Typically, in an accident, a cyclist will be thrown from a bicycle, and he or she may be vulnerable to oncoming traffic.

Slip and Fall Accidents

Slip and fall accidents cause catastrophic injuries. This happens most frequently when a victim falls on his or her head or neck.

Slip and fall accidents happen most frequently at construction sites. The increased risk of slip and fall accidents resulting in catastrophic injuries on construction sites is increased due to the presence of hazards such as tools, wires, and nails. Additionally, workers at construction sites tend to work in dangerous places, including on top of roofs or ladders.

On private property, there can be dangers such as a broken staircase, torn carpet, exposed wires, or ladders in dangerous positions. During winter months, anyone can be at risk for slipping and falling if black ice forms. In these situations, it is easy to slip and fall, injuring your head, and neck, or break a bone.

Violent Crime

Violent crime is also a major cause of catastrophic injury. Different types of crimes can lead to different catastrophic injuries. For example, suffering assault and battery can leave you with major tissue injuries or broken bones, while a shooting can easily lead to traumatic brain injuries.

Fires and Explosions

Fires and explosions are major causes of catastrophic injuries, such as severe burns. These type of incidents can lead to scarring, disfigurement, and traumatic brain injuries.

Working with an experienced personal injury attorney can help you understand what a catastrophic injury is and how the severity of your injury may affect the damages you can recover from a personal injury lawsuit.

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