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Car Crash Concussion and Its Consequences

Sport-induced injuries get the most press. But car accidents are by far the most common source of concussions, which in some cases, have life-long effects. A 2010 decision of the Supreme Court of BC dealt with such a case.

“Helen” (not her real name), 17, was a passenger in a truck that drove off the road and hit a tree. Although she was wearing her seatbelt, her forehead struck the windshield so hard that it starred the windshield. She suffered a mild concussion or mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) – terms the court said were interchangeable. She also suffered neck and back injuries and soft tissue injuries.

The case was prudently brought to trial only some 7 years after the accident, at which time Helen was still suffering from after-effects. This allowed the court to evaluate the longer term consequences that can follow from such brain injuries.

Before the mishap, Helen was a delight to her family and friends. She had a fun-loving, outgoing personality, did reasonably well in school and put most of her energy into her first love, sports. The supervisor at her first part-time job (when she was 15) described her as “fun loving, chatty, crazy, a joy to have around.” Her plan was to become a police officer, and she likely would have been able to achieve that career goal or succeed at an alternative career.

After the accident, and well after the immediate effects of the impact had passed, a different picture emerged. While she worked hard to regain her former self, Helen was no longer organized, punctual or reliable. On college and university team projects, she was disorganized and perennially late, and her written communications were poor. Unlike before, she needed study aids like cue cards as well as frequent note reviews. She could only handle a reduced course load and took longer to earn her college diploma and university degree. She lost her first job after university because of performance difficulties.

Her emotional and social profile changed as well. She suffered from serious depression for months after the accident. Long term, her personality became volatile. Her temperament could change quickly and she could become mean. She would sometimes say hurtful things, without realizing the effects of her words. She became moody and a sometimes difficult person to be around.

Helen’s career prospects, as well as her ability to enjoy life and carry out ordinary tasks without assistance, were much reduced. In short, her life changed permanently for the worse.

The court in this case pointed out that “mild” concussion or MTBI refers to the physical damage to the brain not the potential consequences, which in exceptional cases can be long-lasting and severe. There is no single objective test to establish MTBI, which may exist even if, as here, it wasn’t detected by an MRI scan.

The court assessed Helen’s lost career opportunities and diminished earning capacity at $1 million. It also awarded her damages for the costs of future care and other losses.

This case shows how important it can be to have a thoroughly prepared and well-presented case in order to bring out the sometimes subtle consequences of a concussion – before-and-after differences in cognitive abilities plus changes in social skills, behaviour, mood and personality, all brought about by a “mild” concussion.

Janice Mucalov, LL.B. for  Gertsoyg & Company. This column provides information only and must not be relied on for legal advice. Please call Yan Gertsoyg at (604) 602-3066 if you have any questions or for legal advice concerning your particular case.

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