How Does a Pre-Existing Condition Affect My Personal Injury Claim?

Doug Mann

When you’re injured through someone else’s negligence, you’re typically entitled to compensation for your losses. That’s true whether you’re injured in a motor vehicle accident with a drunk driver, slip on a negligently-cleared sidewalk, trip over debris left on the floor of a shopping center, or are harmed through another type of negligence. The same is true if someone intentionally causes an injury, such as by tripping or striking you.

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Table of Contents
  1. Can I Recover Damages for an Injury if I have a Pre-Existing Condition? 
  2. Determining the Extent of the New Injury with a Pre-Existing Condition
  3. The Bottom Line on the Ohio Eggshell Skull Rule

Some of the most common types of damages available include medical expenses, costs of physical therapy or counseling, compensation for pain and suffering, and reimbursement for lost income. But, that equation gets more complicated when the new injury aggravates a pre-existing condition. 

Can I Recover Damages for an Injury if I have a Pre-Existing Condition? 

Ohio employs the “eggshell skull rule,” also known as the “thin skull rule.” This rule is sometimes described as “you take your victim as you find him.” 

Obviously, the rule has much broader applications than the skull. But, to illustrate, let’s take the term literally. 

Imagine that due to a prior head injury, Jack has a weak spot in his skull. This condition makes him more vulnerable to injury, but he doesn’t have a brain injury or current symptoms. Jack gets into a verbal argument with another fan at a college football game, and the fan punches him in the side of the head. 

Because of Jack’s pre-existing condition, the punch fractures his skull and causes a traumatic brain injury. Under Ohio law, the fan takes his victim as he finds him. In this case, that’s with a flimsy skull. The fan can’t argue that it wasn’t his fault because the blow wouldn’t have caused such a serious injury to a healthy person. That means he’s almost certainly liable for Jack’s injuries and any associated damages. 

An expert tip from Doug Mann

The same concept applies in other circumstances, such as a person with a pre-existing back injury whose condition is aggravated by a relatively minor car accident. But, there is one complication specific to this type of case: proving which symptoms and limitations are attributable to the injury.

Determining the Extent of the New Injury with a Pre-Existing Condition

It’s the injured person’s responsibility to prove both that the defendant was negligent and that the negligence caused specific damages. In other words, it’s the injured party’s job to show exactly which aspects of an injury are attributable to the incident. 

In the example above, Jack didn’t have any symptoms or limitations before he was punched in the head. He didn’t have any pain or cognitive issues. Other than perhaps exercising a bit of extra caution, the “thin skull” wasn’t impacting his day-to-day life at all. That makes Jack’s case simpler than many eggshell skull cases. At trial, his personal injury lawyer will present evidence of his pain and other symptoms, and of any limitations he faces since he was punched in the head. And, they’ll present evidence that he didn’t suffer any of those symptoms before the incident.

Often, though, the situation is more complicated. It can be difficult to establish exactly how much of the damage in a case with pre-existing conditions is attributable to the new injury. That’s especially true when the underlying condition or prior injury is of a type that naturally worsens over time, or can be aggravated by activities the injured person regularly engages in.

Imagine that Sue suffered a back injury at work five years ago, and never fully recovered. Her range of motion is somewhat limited, and she suffers frequent pain. She is still able to work, but not in her previous profession. Occasionally, she misses work because she is in too much pain to get up and go to work. And, she received a workers’ compensation settlement for her injury.

Sue is rear-ended by a driver who is texting while driving at a low speed on a residential street. Though the collision is relatively minor, Sue suffers an aggravation to her back injury. The days she suffers severe pain become more frequent, and she is no longer able to work. Her range of motion is further limited, and she is no longer able to drive or participate in some other activities she engaged in after her original injury but before the car crash.

In this case, it will be up to Sue and her attorney to prove exactly which symptoms and limitations were caused by the motor vehicle accident. 

Proving the extent of injuries and any associated limitations is always a challenging process, typically requiring the use of expert witnesses. That process is even more complicated when the plaintiff’s current condition must be compared with a previous condition that already involved related symptoms and limitations. 

The Bottom Line on the Ohio Eggshell Skull Rule

In Ohio, a person who negligently or intentionally injures you will typically be responsible for the harm they did, even if that harm is worse than it normally would have been because you suffer from a pre-existing condition that made you more vulnerable. But, the burden is on you and your personal injury attorney to sort out which damages resulted from the new incident and to prove that to the jury. So, it is important to work with a personal injury lawyer who is experienced in working with expert witnesses and proving complex medical damages. 

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