What is a Catastrophic Injury? (With Examples)

Howard Raphaelson
Partner, Attorney
individual with catastrophic injury

Accidents can happen anywhere and at any time. 

For many people in New York, an unexpected accident can have devastating consequences. What are catastrophic injuries and how can you get the help you need if you are injured? 

If you have suffered a catastrophic injury, you may be feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about what comes next. You may not know where to turn for help. This article will explore catastrophic injuries and discuss what options are available to those who have suffered these types of injuries in New York. 

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, it is important to understand your rights and speak with a New York personal injury lawyer about your potential case. 

If you have questions about your legal rights or the value of car accident settlements after a catastrophic injury, we can help. To speak with an experienced accident attorney at our firm, call 212-268-3222 or contact us online.

What is a Catastrophic Injury?

The American Medical Association defines catastrophic injury as a severe injury to the spine, spinal cord, or brain; however, to most in personal injury law, catastrophic injury has a much broader definition for an injury that prevents a person from performing any gainful work. (42 U.S.C. § 3796b - U.S. Code)

If you or a loved one has been injured in a collision and suffered a catastrophic injury, you may be wondering what this means for your future. What common the types of injuries qualify as catastrophic?

Victims of catastrophic injuries face life-changing impacts and long-term consequences, including permanent disability and damage to limbs, organs, or the spinal cord. 

Most people who sustain these serious injuries find themselves unable to work or enjoy previously enjoyed activities, burdened with expensive medical bills and dealing with the emotional trauma of the incident.

Many people first think of spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia as catastrophic; however, other cognitive and physical injuries can also fall under this category. 

Generally, any injury that produces long-term impacts may be considered catastrophic.

Common Causes of Catastrophic Injuries

The causes of catastrophic injury are endless and may include:

  • Car & motorcycle accidents
  • Truck accidents
  • Birth injuries
  • Sports injuries
  • Pedestrian and bicycle accidents
  • Workplace accidents
  • Trampoline and other accidents involving backyard equipment
  • Fires and explosions
  • Defective products
  • Medical malpractice
  • Slips and falls
  • Violent crime

Generally, even the most mundane everyday interactions could end in a catastrophic injury. That adds to their devastation; catastrophic injuries catch victims unprepared and change their lives forever.

Common Types of Catastrophic Injuries

In general, catastrophic injuries come in three types: physical injuries, spinal cord injuries, and cognitive injuries. Below are types of injuries that are often considered catastrophic.

Traumatic Brain Injury / Head Injury

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) include mild concussions to coma-inducing head trauma. A TBI typically involves blunt-force trauma from a fall to the ground or an impact by an object. Victims may face life-long cognitive, speech, and emotional issues. Some injuries result in a loss of coordination, smell, sight, or hearing. 

Victims of a traumatic brain injury may experience improvement with physical and occupational therapy. However, victims remain dependent on others for basic functioning and may not return to work in many cases. 

Severe Burn Injuries

Fires and explosions cause burn injuries. First and second-degree burns are treatable, and most people recover from them fully with minimal scarring. However, burns rated third-degree and above are catastrophic. 

Third-degree burns penetrate every layer of the skin. Victims need surgery and skin grafts to recover from these burns. Even with treatment, they may have scars, which cause physical and emotional distress if the scars are disfiguring. 

Burns rated fourth-degree and above burn through skin and underlying tissues, even organs. Victims of these severe burns frequently face limb loss, disfigurement, infection, and organ damage. These victims may require life-long treatment. 

Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries result in partial or complete paralysis, respiratory or circulatory problems, uncontrollable muscle spasms and reflexes, chronic pain, and bladder or bowel control loss. 

Even if people can still walk or successfully use mobility devices, they may face other issues. Victims may face breathing difficulty or lose feeling in their hands and feet, making them vulnerable to injuries and burns. 

After a spinal cord injury, many victims need to hire full-time care or retrofit their homes or cars to support independent living. Even in a supportive environment, victims require medical care and therapy to help them adjust to their new circumstances. 

Loss of a Limb

Catastrophic injuries account for 45 percent of all limb loss events. Besides physical pain from the initial loss, amputees face emotional challenges. They will grieve the lost limb and often feel phantom pain where the limb used to be. 

Loved ones must adjust, too, as limb loss changes appearances and abilities. Even if insurance covers prosthetics, amputation victims face extensive recovery and rehabilitation. Mental health issues and phantom limb syndrome may prolong the healing process.  

Ruptured Kidney

Car accidents and blunt-force trauma can rupture kidneys. It is life-threatening, and victims require immediate medical attention when it occurs. Many victims need emergency surgery to remove the kidney and stop internal bleeding. 

If the patient doesn’t require surgery, they may fully recover. Even then, they must be monitored in case the kidney loses function or ruptures again. But if you need surgery, you may face increased chances of kidney stones, hypertension, and resumed internal bleeding. 

Expected Costs After a Catastrophic Injury

Catastrophic injuries change victims’ lives in another way: finances. The initial medical bills and long-term care expenses bankrupt many families. Even when an injury victim has health insurance, treatment often exceeds coverage limits and may even lead to the victim being dropped from coverage entirely. 

Common objective costs arising from catastrophic injury include:

  • Emergency medical expenses
  • Continuing medical care
  • At-home nursing care
  • Medications
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Mental health therapy
  • Medical equipment including wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds, or stairlifts
  • Home retrofits to accommodate wheelchairs and mobility limits
  • Lost wages
  • Diminished future earning capacity

Other damages are subjective and vary between individuals. These non-economic damages reflect accident victims’ quality of life changes and include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Disfigurement impacts on quality of life

When you hire a catastrophic injury lawyer, we base our settlement offers on a combination of these economic and non-economic costs. It is why you should consult with an attorney if you face catastrophic injury through no fault of your own. 

Can I Receive Compensation for a Catastrophic Injury?

You can receive compensation for a catastrophic injury. However, the value of personal injury cases is based on the nature and seriousness of your injuries. The more severe your injuries, the more you can expect to receive in your personal injury settlement

There can be an “extra payout” in the most challenging cases. By the time some of these cases make it to court, the plaintiff may be at the mere beginning of a long recovery. They may also require lifetime supervision and care. 

In these cases, not only will a plaintiff receive an amount for current damages, but they will also receive funds for future medical treatment and mental distress. 

While these figures are by no means a guarantee of your cases’ value, they serve as examples of previous settlements in catastrophic injury cases:

  • $50 million for a plaintiff who broke their neck in an accident where the defendant ran a red light;
  • $26 million for a construction worker who sustained severe brain injuries after falling from a scaffold; and
  • $17 million for a plaintiff who sustained severe brain injuries from oxygen loss when a physician failed to intubate him after his airway closed

However, even catastrophic injury victims face hurdles in securing fair compensation. Even in a case where liability and impacts are clear, opposing counsel will still try to downplay your injuries and the cost of long-term care. 

Rather than face this alone, look into hiring a personal injury attorney to help you navigate this ordeal. 

Injured? Get a free consultation with catastrophic injury attorney today

If you sustained a catastrophic injury in an accident, you are in for an arduous journey. Besides managing pain and finding effective treatments, you will also face emotional and mental impacts. 

It is no small feat to go from being a physically-able and active individual to one with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities. 

During this time, you need to focus on your treatment and transition. You don’t need to deal with insurance companies attempting to discredit you or opposing parties requesting personal medical information. 

Rather than deal with this by yourself, contact an attorney at Raphaelson & Levine. 

While you focus on your healthcare and rehabilitation, our personal injury lawyers will:

  • Collect essential information, including accident reports, medical records, and any recorded witness interviews
  • Find and interview witnesses
  • Hire experts, including medical specialists and accident reconstructionists
  • Create persuasive demand letters to ensure a fair settlement for your injuries
  • If necessary, file a lawsuit and represent you in a trial. 

Since 1992, Raphaelson & Levine has provided award-winning legal representation to catastrophic injury victims in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. 

Call (212) 268-3222 today or contact us online to speak with an experienced attorney about your legal rights and next steps.





Howard Raphaelson
Partner, Attorney
Howard A. Raphaelson founded Raphaelson & Levine Law Firm, P.C. in 1992 after graduating from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, NY. With over thirty years of experience as a personal injury lawyer, he has earned a trusted reputation from his peers, judges, and top leaders, including recognition among the top 5% injury attorneys as a “Super Lawyer” (Thomson Reuters) and “New York’s Best Lawyers” (New York Magazine).

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