Car accidents are one of the leading causes of brain injuries, but brain injuries may be difficult to identify and diagnose immediately after a collision. Los Angeles attorney Bill Karns explains how brain injuries commonly occur in accidents and the challenges in proving the injury and causation to juries.
According to Karns, traumatic brain injuries or TBIs can occur from a car accident when the head strikes the headrest, the windshield, or even the airbag. Karns explains the type of injury that can be sustained from a high speed impact on the brain, known as a coup-contrecoup injury. Because the brain is suspended within the skull, an impact or severe jostling of the brain can result in brain damage directly under the point of impact where the brain hits the skull, a "coup" injury, or on the opposite side of the skull from where the direct trauma occurred, a "contrecoup" injury. A coup-contrecoup injury occurs both at the site of impact and the opposite side.
Demonstrating brain injury to a jury can be complicated because the signs of a brain injury may not be readily apparent after an accident and TBIs are often not as straightfoward to diagnose as other serious bodily injuries. Brain injuries occur at the cellular level where neurons are cleaved apart from one another. While conventional CT scans and MRIs can sometimes show indications of a TBI, it is difficult to detect all types of TBI through these tests alone. According to Karns, this is why it’s important after an accident to check in with medical and legal professionals to have the signs and symptoms of the injury extensively documented and monitored.
TBIs can have life-altering consequences, including diminished physical and mental function and quality of life. Often, the full extent of the impact of the brain injury may not be known until weeks or months years after an accident. Because of this, knowing the statute of limitations (SoL) for filing a claim is important in a brain injury case. The statute of limitations (or the maximum period of time in which a lawsuit can be brought) in California is two years. Karns shares some caveats and exceptions to the general SoL, including when the claim is against a government entity and when the injured party is incapacitated or is a minor at the time of the accident.
California Statute of Limitations for Accidents: The statute of limitations for personal injury is two years from the injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is 1 year from the date the injury was discovered.
Brain Injury Association of California: Resources and community support for brain injury survivers.
Interview with Car Accident Brain Injury Lawyer Bill Karns
Joel Cohen (Host): Hello, and welcome to TalksOnLaw. I'm Joel Cohen. Today, we're discussing brain injuries from car accidents, and to get the legal take, we're joined remotely by Los Angeles-based personal injury attorney Bill Karns. Bill, welcome to TalksOnLaw.
Bill Karns: Thanks, Joel. Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
How do brain injuries commonly occur in car accidents?
Host: Bill, we're talking about brain injuries as they relate to car accidents.
Bill Karns: Sure.
Host: Why don't we talk through what you've seen in terms of what in a car accident frequently leads to a brain injury?
Bill Karns: Sure, when we get a new case and we get photos of the crash, that kind of tells us a lot about what happened in the crash, and if the impact is severe enough we can kind of recreate what the body is doing inside the car. In the rear end crash, for example, if it's big enough, the back your head is going to snap back and it's going to hit that headrest. In a side impact crash, you know, your head may whip to the side and hit what's called the B-pillar or the side pillar there or the window. You could have a rollover, and your head could hit the roof of your car. Your head can hit the steering wheel. Even the airbag deployment can cause that kind of impact to your head, but when we're analyzing whether there's a traumatic brain injury result of a crash in terms of the mechanics of the crash, we're looking for a big impact that would cause some type of traumatic impact to the skull.
Host: I've seen a car after an accident where the windshield is cracked from the passenger's head or from the driver's head.
Coup-Contrecoup Brain Injuries
Bill Karns: Awful, and what happens in these crashes that a lot of people don't understand, why do I have a brain injury after a car crash and they need to understand what's going on. Your brain is free-floating in your skull, and it can kind of move around in your skull. And your skull of course is bone. It's very, very hard. So if you're driving along and something happens and you hit your head like this, your brain doesn't just stop. Your brain continues to move forward, and it will, your brain will impact the front of your skull on the inside of your skull and on a rebound it even goes back and hits the back of your skull, so you can have a brain injury to the back of your brain even though you originally hit the front of your skull.
Host: Bill, there we're talking about physical trauma. Another cause of brain injuries is whiplash, maybe you can explain.
Bill Karns: That same concept actually – what we're really talking about here – it's been referred to in the medical community as coup-contrecoup injuries. So when your head is moving fast and whipping and hitting the headrests and whipping back and then forward, your brain is floating around in your skull. So it’s these impacts that your brain has to the skull on the inside of your cranium that are causing these injuries.
Challenges Demonstrating Brain Injury Causation to Juries
Host: One of your jobs in a case involving a brain injury is demonstrating the cause, demonstrating the impact. What are some of the challenges that you've faced or that would be unique to this type of case?
Bill Karns: So, traumatic brain injury is sometimes impossible to see. We have limitations in medical imaging. If I break my leg and I show you the x-ray, you can see it. Oh, there's the bone. It's clearly not together, it's broken. It's fractured, aha there it is, you could have severe traumatic brain injury, from a severe in terms of how it changes your life, but it might not show up on a CT scan or an MRI of your brain. And the reason is because when you get a brain injury, you have a neuron, which is basically your brain cell, you've got about 100 billion of them. And they talk to other brain cells by basically grabbing onto axons, which are little things in neurons that reach out so neurons can talk to other neurons. And this is all extremely microscopic, and we don't have the actual ability sometimes to see damage to these neurons, damage to these axons, especially on the individual scale. MRI imaging is getting better at seeing traumatic brain injury with various sequencing and complex medical and radiological advances, but it's still tough. So the challenge that we have showing a traumatic brain injury is that we all know it is there but you just can't see on a medical imaging. That's the greatest challenge in my view in proving traumatic brain injury cases to jurors.
California Law – Statute of Limitations for a Brain Injury Accident
Host: Well, Bill, since we have a lawyer here joining us and you mentioned that these cases can be both difficult to show injury, and in some cases, a person may not even know they have a brain injury, what's the statute of limitations? What's the outside time limit after an accident where an individual can bring a case.
Bill Karns: So in California, you have two years to bring a lawsuit. But if your lawsuit is against a governmental entity like the police or basically someone on the job who works for any kind of governmental entity, be it state or local or city, the statute is six months before you have to file a claim. There's another caveat you should know about with respect to traumatic brain injury and statute limitations. If you're incapacitated—in other words that your injury is so bad that, you know, you can't even take care of yourself and you don't know what's going on from a mental cognition standpoint—potentially, you know, it's not a lock, but potentially you can get the statute of limitations extended. And also if you're a minor, the statute of limitation is extended until you're 18.
Host: So Bill, with the two-year statute of limitations, I guess I have a follow-up for you. Let's say you're in a car accident, you're injured, perhaps even a head injury, but you weren't aware of it, and you sue for perhaps a broken elbow. And then two and a half years later, you realize, well this brain injury thing is going to be incredibly challenging, incredibly expensive, and it's going to change your life in a way that you hadn't predicted.
Bill Karns: Well, if you have already sued and you've already settled that case and then you want to reopen the case to allege brain injury, you're gonna have a real hard time doing that. Most releases when you settle a case, there's language in there that basically you waive any and all claims including future claims and you waive statutory protections that allow you to bring future claims. So, you know, once you settle a case, you're pretty much done. That's why you really gotta check in with yourself. If you think you've got a traumatic brain injury, you have these weird symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injury, you've got to tell your lawyers you've got to tell your doctor so they can make the claim.
Host: Bill Karns is an attorney in Los Angeles at the law firm Karns & Karns. Bill, thanks for the time.
Bill Karns: Thank you, Joel. Appreciate it