Partial Paraplegia: top Josephine County Trial Result

Workplace Injury Leads to Partial Paraplegia: $2.285 Million Verdict.

A man in his 30s, married with a young child, was working in a southern Oregon mill. His job involved feeding boards into a machine that sawed them into long, thin strips of wood. While he was doing his work, the machine kicked back one of the sticks, which impaled him in his torso. 

The worker was taken to the hospital after the workplace injury.  The ER doctor reported that the man had normal motor and sensory functions in both legs.  Over the next four days, the worker suffered progressive neurological deterioration. By the time he was sent to a different hospital, he was a partial paraplegic, with extensive permanent loss of function below the waist.

The man did not know it, but the initial exploratory surgery by the trauma surgeon did not remove pieces of wood and fabric that lodged next to the nerves in the man’s lower spine.  Even a good surgeon can miss that kind of thing as they try to follow the wound path from the flank into the interior of the body. 

After the initial trauma work, primary care of the man passed to an orthopedic surgeon. Oddly, the surgeon did not order appropriate spinal imaging studies after it became clear that the man was losing spinal cord function, and did not request or obtain a neurological or neurosurgical consultation.  As a result, the orthopedist never diagnosed that there was an injury to the spinal cord (technically, the “cauda equina,” which is the name for the central nervous system nerves as they leave the spinal cord and descend below the low back).  

The insurance company for the orthopedic surgeon refused to engage in meaningful negotiations, and the case went to trial in Grants Pass.  During the trial, physician and surgeon witnesses called for the worker showed that the orthopedic surgeon did not use the care, skill, and diligence required for medical specialists in towns comparable to Grants Pass, and if he had, the worker would not have become permanently partially paralyzed in his lower body.

The trial also involved a life care planner with extensive experience calculating the annual costs of medical, household, and other care for a paraplegic.  Another expert witness was a vocational counselor who, through records reviews, interviewing, and testing, determined the amount of the impairment of earning capacity suffered by the worker. 

The insurance defense lawyer argued both that the orthopedic spine surgeon had acted appropriately, and also tried to blame others who were not parties to the case.  As a broad generalization, efforts by a defendant to present evidence that someone else (who is not a party and never was a party) caused the harm is not legally successful unless the defendant shows that such negligence was the sole cause of the injured person’s loss.   Also, as a general rule, when there is a workplace injury, the employer is immune from liability, and no one can allocate a share of legal responsibility to the employer. 

The case was carefully presented, and very capably defended.  A Josephine County jury determined that the worker’s injuries were preventable, that the defendant was negligent, and assessed damages in the amount of $2,285,191.  It was reported at the time that this was the largest  injury verdict in Josephine County.

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