It’s no secret that motor vehicle accidents are often costly and can cause significant bodily injury and property damage, but when they result in the loss of a body part, such accidents are life-changing. According to the Limb Loss Information Center of the Amputee Coalition, more than 1.7 million Americans live with limb amputations. Car accidents are the leading cause of such amputations.
The loss of an arm, a leg or even a finger is catastrophic. In addition to lifelong disfigurement and disability, traumatic amputations can cause profuse bleeding, giving rise to life-threatening shock or infection. Survivors face the prospect of years of rehabilitative therapy, prosthetic devices, the necessity of learning new ways to handle everyday tasks, and the possible end to their careers.
So, what is the value of a lost limb?
While there is no set formula for determining the amount payable for a lost hand, foot, or leg, a good plaintiff’s attorney will look at a range of relevant factors when calculating how much to ask from a jury. These factors include the victim’s occupation at the time of the crash and whether loss of the limb will adversely affect future earnings; the victim’s age at the time of the accident; and impact of the injury on the victim’s lifestyle. Ongoing pain and suffering must also be factored into the equation.
An office worker who loses a leg will likely be able to continue working in front of a computer and to use handheld devices to do their job. A professional athlete, in contrast, will likely never be able to resume their career, although a golfer may be less impacted than a football player. A concert pianist who loses a hand or fingers on a hand will be more severely impacted than will a bus driver who loses those same body parts. In the case of the football player or the pianist, damages must reflect the complete loss of future earnings. For those less severely impacted, damages should be tied to the actual change in income-earning ability because of the injury.
The victim’s age at the time of the injury is also an integral part of the loss of earnings calculation. A rookie football player stands to lose more money because of his injury than does an athlete in the waning years of his career. Similarly, the victim’s age will affect the amount of recovery attributable to lifestyle changes. A young mother who loses her arm will be forced to learn new ways of holding her children; a weekend athlete may no longer be able to play pick-up ball games with friends. Spouses may also have claims for loss of companionship, as well as for ongoing costs of meal preparation and other chores around the house that the injured spouse is no longer able to perform.
What about insurance for a body part?
Insurance for body parts is well-known among celebrities, but insurance may be a good investment for any business owner whose livelihood depends on a body part. The main purpose of body part coverage is to supplement lost income in the event a body part is damaged, injured, scarred, handicapped, or lost. Model Heidi Klum is reported to have a $2 million policy on her legs; Jennifer Lopez is said to have insured her derriere for $27 million. Specialty insurance providers can write custom policies to address the specific needs of a business, allowing owners to keep their businesses running if they experience damage to a body part or function.
Recent jury awards for amputation claims have been significant. In September, a New Jersey jury awarded $10 million to a woman whose legs were run over by a public transit bus; a Pennsylvania jury awarded $10.6 million in October to a woman who lost her arm in a car accident. A Los Angeles jury in 2015 determined that a man hit by the trailer of a semi-truck while he stood on a sidewalk was entitled to more than $34.5 million for a below-the-knee amputation. In the case of Alan Casillas v. Landstar Ranger, Inc. (Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles), the jury awarded Mr. Casillas $27,875,000 for past and future pain and suffering, $5,941,581 for past and future medical expenses, and $738,639 for past and future loss of earnings.
When several parties are named as defendants, a jury must determine who is at fault and the level of culpability. In 2015, Shanika Brown and her minor daughter were injured when a retreaded truck tire disintegrated, and its pieces hit the minivan in which they were riding. Brown lost her arm and her daughter lost a leg. Even after settling with the tire manufacturer and the retreading company, the plaintiff went before a Pennsylvania jury in October 2018 and was awarded $11.7 million in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages, from the trucking company.
The cases we’ve noted involve claims against third parties in motor vehicle accidents and the amounts awarded are significant. A victim who loses a limb while working for an employer is subject to workers’ compensation laws, and the amount recoverable is determined by state law. An arm lost in Alabama, the stingiest state, is worth only $48,840, whereas a lost arm in Nevada, the most generous state, can be worth up to $859,634.
A smart plaintiff’s attorney will paint a detailed before-and-after picture for the jury, exploring what the victim’s life was like before the accident and how it has been irrevocably altered by the loss of a limb. The more information a jury is given, the better it will appreciate the magnitude of loss and suffering and the higher the likelihood of substantial damages.
Author: Neama Rahmani, a founding partner at West Coast Trial Lawyers, specializes in transportation and public safety matters and represents personal injury plaintiffs.