Catastrophic Personal Injury

In personal injury litigation, the term "catastrophic" is used to describe injuries that are extremely serious and that permanently alter the lives of an injured person. The description of an injury as catastrophic reflects the particularly serious nature of the injuries and their effect on the injured person's ability to live a normal life.

Catastrophic injuries may be caused by a wide variety of accidents or wrongful acts. They often arise from motor vehicle collisions, construction accidents, injuries caused by falling, recreational injuries (such as injuries that occur while climbing or diving), aviation accidents, medical malpractice and from criminal acts.

With good medical attention and support, some people who are catastrophically injured may make a strong  physical recovery. Unfortunately, many people who suffer catastrophic injury are never able to resume a normal life. Many are temporarily disabled. Many others become permanently disabled as a result of the injury, and some will require constant medical care and attention for the rest of their lives.


When speaking of catastrophic injuries I do not mean to diminish the seriousness or impact of other injuries.  Any personal injury case may involve an injury that is life changing. Even after physical recovery any injured person may experience physical and emotional consequences of the injury, and may also suffer residual disability, scarring or disfigurement.

What is a Catastrophic Injury

Although there is no official definition of what does or does not constitute a catastrophic injury, the term is typically used to describe injuries that are severe and life-altering, and in some cases fatal. Broadly speaking, an injury will be regarded as catastrophic if the injury causes a long-term or permanent disability that prevents the injured person from holding gainful employment or from being able to live independently.

Injuries that may be catastrophic include brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, nerve damage, severe burns, severe fractures, injuries that cause damage to internal organs, and amputations.

Consequences of a Catastrophic Injury

The consequences of a catastrophic injury are both physical and psychological.

  • The injured person will typically feel a significant loss of quality of life.
  • The injury is likely to require significant medical intervention, and may require long-term medical support and care.
  • Some catastrophic injuries are disfiguring, and the injured person may struggle to go out in public or even to look in a mirror.

Beyond the physical consequences, a catastrophic injury may shatter the injured person's sense of purpose. In our society, many people build their self-image on their ability to support themselves and their families, to earn a solid income, and to be active with their spouse and children.

Physical and cognitive disabilities that result from a catastrophic injury can force the injured person into a life that bears little resemblance to the life they led before the injury.

  • The injured person may lose their ability to resume hobbies, exercise and activities that they previously enjoyed, and may not be able to work or may suffer a serious loss of earning capacity.
  • The injured person may suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
  • The injury may also result in physical pain and suffering that continues long after the point of maximum medical recovery.
  • A neurological injury may result in personality changes, memory loss, learning disability, and emotional consequences.

Compensation for Catastrophic Injuries

When the injury is caused through the negligence or wrongful act of another person or business, or by a hazardous product, it is possible for the injury victim to bring a personal injury claim to seek compensation from the parties that caused the injury.

The damage caused by a catastrophic injury is physical, psychological and economic. Damages are often so severe that it is difficult to attach a dollar figure that meaningfully represents the extent of the injured person's suffering and loss.  No matter how much money the victim of a catastrophic injury may recover, every victim would happily give back that money in order to again live a normal life.

To look at it another way, even if promised a full recovery, few people would agree to suffer a serious personal injury such as a broken bone, even for thousands of dollars of compensation. Catastrophic injuries are far more severe, recovery is often partial, and even what seems like a large financial settlement or verdict will be inadequate to make up for the injured person's losses.

Economic damages, or out-of-pocket damages, include compensation for lost wages, cost of medical care, physical therapy and rehabilitation, medications, residential care, retraining, home modification, an accessible vehicle, medical equipment,

Non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering, may include compensation for pain and suffering caused by the injury and its treatment, for any disability that results from the injury, for any disfigurement, for psychological injury, and for the injured person's loss of the ability to lead and enjoy a normal life and enjoy normal family relationships.

Compensation for Family Members

Family members of a severely injured person may also be able to make a claim for damages.

  • If the family member is a dependent of the injured person, a claim may be possible based upon the loss of expected financial support.
  • Family members, and especially spouses, may be able to seek compensation based on the manner in which the injury, recovery and any continuing disability interfere with their normal family relationship with the injured family member.

Problems Obtaining Compensation

It may be difficult to obtain adequate compensation for a catastrophic injury.

  • Lack of Insurance: Some people who cause injuries to others don't carry adequate insurance or are uninsured. For example, drunk drivers often carry the least amount of insurance required by state law and thus, even when they cause a serious injury, it may be difficult to recover adequate compensation.
  • Damages Caps: States may limit the amount that a plaintiff may recover from a defendant, even when the plaintiff's actual damages are far greater than the amount of the cap. For example, most states cap recovery for people who are injured by acts of medical malpractice.
  • Statutes of Repose: State law, and in some cases federal law, may cut off damages claims against the party responsible for the injury after a specified number of years through a statute of repose. For example, product defect claims against the manufacturers of aircraft are normally barred after ten years, even though an aircraft is likely to be in use for a much longer period of time. Claims for negligence in the design or construction of buildings are typically cut off after a statutory period that commences when construction of the building is substantially completed, even though the building will remain in use for many additional decades.

When it appears that it may be difficult to recover adequate compensation, it is important to investigate other possible sources of compensation. For example, although the driver of a vehicle who caused an accident may have little insurance, investigation may reveal that the driver was running a work-related errand at the time of the accident and that the driver's employer is also liable, or that the car was owned or co-owned by another person who may also be liable for the damages that resulted from the accident.

Hiring a Lawyer for a Catastrophic Injury Case

When a personal injury lawyer represents a person who has suffered a catastrophic injury, the lawyer's goal is to obtain compensation that is sufficient to make the injured person's life as normal as possible under the circumstances.

Due to the complexity of catastrophic injury cases and the amount of compensation that is typically involved, it is a good idea for the injured person to work with a personal injury lawyer who is experienced with catastrophic injury cases. The parties accused of wrongfully causing the injury may present a vigorous defense against liability or dispute the extent of the damages, and proving a case may require reliance on expert witnesses, financial professionals, and other consultants. Litigation may quickly become both complex and costly.

When possible, the injured person should seek out an attorney who is experienced with the type of injury involved, the type of accident that gives rise to the claim, or both. For example,

  • Some lawyers specialize in medical malpractice litigation, and some of them further specialize in birth injury litigation.
  • Some lawyers specialize in bringing lawsuits for injuries caused by defective products, and some of them further specialize by the type of product, such as a defective vehicle or swimming pool.
  • Some lawyers specialize in representing clients with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries or burn injuries, and may be particularly attuned to the needs of persons who have experienced that type of injury.

A lawyer who understands the short- and long-term treatment process for an injury, and the long-term needs of an injured client, will typically be better positioned to negotiation with insurance companies and defense lawyers and, if necessary, to present a compelling case at trial for the recovery of damage.

A lawyer will also be able to evaluate the amount of damages that is likely to be recovered, the strength of the case against the defendants, and sources of compensation. Based upon that evaluation the lawyer can advise the injured person about settlement offers, the risks of trial, and when it makes sense to settle a case or to take the case to trial.

Copyright © 2018 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.