The most common type of automobile accident involving more than one car is the rear-end collision. Despite their high rate of occurrence, rear-end collisions account for a fairly small percentage of fatal accidents since most involve vehicles travelling at a relatively low speed.
However, even when there is only minor damage to a vehicle, the violent and unexpected jolt during a rear-end collision typically causes the neck, back and head of car occupants to move violently back and forth, often resulting in soft-tissue injuries to the neck and back. Neck and back injuries, including whiplash, are the most common injuries that result in such accidents and can lead to long-term pain. Further, such injuries are sometimes difficult to diagnose and symptoms may not be fully felt until days or weeks after the accident.
Injuries sustained in rear-end collisions differ from person to person, depending on a variety of circumstances, such as (but not limited to) the person’s pre-existing injuries, whether or not the accident victim had time to brace themselves for the impact, age and general health of the accident victim, and the relative velocity of the vehicles during impact.
The following injuries are most common in rear-end collisions.
- Whiplash or soft-tissue neck injury
- Back injury
- Traumatic brain injury, including concussion
- Spinal cord injury, sometimes resulting in partial or full paralysis
- Head injury, facial disfigurement and scarring
- Broken bones, notably broken ribs, arms, wrists and feet
One accident victim’s experience following a rear-end collision
A 2018 car accident case, Sheldon v. Reyna, illustrates how a seemingly minor accident can result in serious and permanent injuries and further, the same collision can have a widely different outcome for each individual involved in the accident. This personal injury claim involves a 51-years-old plaintiff who sustained serious injuries in a rear-end collision, while the remaining three people involved in the accident were largely uninjured. The plaintiff, Mrs. Sheldon, was a front-seat passenger in a car that was rear-ended while stopped at a red light. The rear vehicle was travelling roughly 30 km/hr when it struck the Sheldon vehicle and the driver was subsequently charged with careless driving. He admitted liability for the crash.
On impact, the plaintiff’s body was thrown backward and forward, and she felt a ‘massive snap’ in her neck which immediately caused her intense pain. She also experienced a severe stabbing and burning feeling in her right foot. She initially declined the police officer’s suggestion to take an ambulance to the hospital, but was later taken to hospital by friends when her pain continued to increase. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with a muscular strain in her neck and was told to wear a foam collar and take pain medication.
In the days following the car accident, Mrs. Sheldon’s neck and back became stiff and she continued to feel significant pain, particularly when she moved. She sought treatment from her family doctor and at a physiotherapy clinic. Her doctor diagnosed a whiplash injury. Despite exercising and taking pain medication, as prescribed, she was in constant pain in her neck, lower back and right leg for months. The chronic pain and difficulty moving made it difficult to sleep and prevented her from returning to work for 3 months. Mrs. Sheldon eventually added more activities to her daily regime but was forced to stop and rest when the pain resumed.
The plaintiff, Mrs. Sheldon, had a chemical engineering degree and at the time of the accident, was employed as a senior engineer for Canada Post. She was also a busy mother of 2 teenagers and described herself as having a very high energy level and being active in a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, including camping and canoeing with her family, swimming regularly, and volunteering at church and community events.
Because her symptoms slowly improved over three months, she returned to work, but within a few weeks, the plaintiff’s pain increased and became unbearable. She found she could not sit or stand for extended periods, both at home and at work; she experienced increasing pain in her neck, shoulders, back, arms and legs; and the pain made it difficult to think and communicate. As a result, she sought treatment at an after-hour clinic, where the physician advised her to rest frequently and stop working, and her family doctor later agreed with this advice.
When she informed her employer that she would not be returning to work as yet, her disability insurer notified her that they disagreed that she could not return to work and they disputed her claim for benefits. Mrs. Sheldon appealed the insurer’s decision, so the insurer required her to be assessed by their physiatrist. The insurer’s physiatrist found the plaintiff’s complaint credible, when she described her lower back pain and pain in her cervical spine that radiated through her right shoulder. Further, he recommended that she seek further medical tests and not return to work at this time. Mrs. Sheldon had an MRI and x-ray of her lumber spine, which led the physiatrist to recommend that she continue treatment for six more weeks and see a neurosurgeon if there was no improvement in her condition. Due to a two-year waiting list to see a neurosurgeon, the plaintiff instead consulted with an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed that she likely suffered from fibromyalgia and post-traumatic myofascial pain syndrome.
In the year following, the plaintiff sought treatment from a chronic pain specialist, including epidural injections in her lower back and neck. The pain treatment provided some relief from the pain, and about 2 ½ years after the accident, her long-term disability insurer requested that she commence a back-to-work program. With respect to her return to work, Mrs. Sheldon was led to believe that there would be adjustments made to her work station to accommodate her ergonomic issues; however, her employer made only a minor adjustment to her chair and indicated they believed that only temporary accommodations would be needed.
The plaintiff did not return to work at that time, but tried again about one year later. Because her position at Canada Post was eliminated soon, she was given another position. She enjoyed her new position but because it largely involved sitting for long periods at a computer, she found that her pain levels again began to escalate and she had trouble sleeping. Her work assignment was consequently reduced from 4 to 3 days per week; but pain medication made her light-headed and interfered with her cognitive ability, which made it impossible for her to cope with working for even 3 days and created stress for her at work and at home. At this point, her employer offered a choice of taking a disability pension or potentially working in a position far below her abilities and education (such as staffing the night-shift call centre). Upon the advice of her doctors, Mrs. Sheldon did not return to work. She received Canada Pension Plan benefits until she qualify for early retirement pension benefits from Canada Post.
The impact of Mrs. Sheldon’s injuries was clearly life-changing. In addition to her inability to function at work, she gave up driving after the accident due to difficulty sitting in the car for lengthy commutes and also because she was permanently on pain medication. The pain medication makes it difficult to multi-task and reduces the plaintiff’s strength and ability to do things that involve stretching her arms or even, keeping pressure on a brake pedal.
The plaintiff was also not able to return to most of her pre-accident activities, including many housekeeping and home maintenance chores, swimming, managing her daughter’s sports teams, and many other family activities. Further, she experienced changes in her moods and behaviour – she is easily flustered and overwhelmed, more irritable, and has difficulty remembering and concentrating. Mrs. Sheldon spends far less time socializing and is much more often at home, and her life largely revolves around therapeutic treatments and medical appointments.
After considering evidence given by her family and friends (which contrasted how much her life has changed since the accident) as well as the opinion of medical experts, the trial judge concluded that Mrs. Sheldon sustained a permanent, serious impairment of an important physical, mental or psychological function. Doctors gave medical evidence that the plaintiff suffers from widespread pain and a chronic pain disorder, with chronic post-traumatic headaches, a disorder of the spine, and leg and arm pain. These injuries and symptoms are likely permanent and have essentially rendered her as disabled with respect to many activities, including housekeeping and the ability to work.
Based on an assessment of her losses resulting from the car accident, the judge ordered the following damages to be awarded to the plaintiff.
- $100,000 in non-pecuniary damages (for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment in life)
- Almost $400,000 for future loss of income
- $19,655.37 for out-of-pocket expenses
- Almost $10,000 for psychological assessments
- $47,765 for physiotherapy and kinesiology
- $10,000 for assistive devices
- $6,356.25 for architectural accommodations
- 85% of pharmaceutical expenses to age 65
- $15,000 for yoga
- $791 for a mindfulness program
- A weekly benefit to pay for assistance with housework tasks
- A weekly home maintenance and gardening benefit to the age of 75
- $270 annually for transportation
- $150 stipend for recreational activities
If you or a family member were injured in a car accident, the first and most important step is to seek proper treatment from your doctor or the appropriate medical specialist. And, if you would like to make a claim for compensation against the negligent driver, talk to a knowledgeable car accident lawyer at Stevenson Whelton MacDonald & Swan. Our staff welcomes your legal questions and if you decide to go ahead with your lawsuit, we will provide strong representation against the at fault driver and their insurer to ensure you get the compensation you are owed.