Car accidents can inflict a wide range of traumatic injuries on drivers and their passengers. One of the most common injuries is a traumatic brain injury, which happens when brain tissue sustains damage resulting from a violent blow or jolt to the head or body in a collision. Brain injuries can cause victims severe physical, emotional, and cognitive difficulties that can last a lifetime or, in some cases, lead to the victim’s death.
The region of the brain that suffers an injury in a car accident determines, in large part, the degree, type, and duration of symptoms the victim might suffer. Damage to a victim’s brain stem can result in some of the most catastrophic outcomes of all car accident brain injuries.
In this post, we discuss the brain stem, how it can suffer injury in a car accident, the consequences of a brain stem injury, and how experienced brain injury lawyers can help victims and their families in the aftermath of these horrific traumas. To learn about your legal rights in connection with a car accident brain stem injury affecting you or a loved one, contact a skilled, resourceful brain injury attorney today.
About the Brain Stem
Many people have heard of the brain stem, but few outside the medical professions know much about where it is or what it does. Here is an overview. For a more detailed discussion of the brain stem and its functions, click here.
The brain stem is, essentially, the most primitive part of the human brain. It controls basic bodily functions necessary to sustain life, such as a person’s heartbeat and breathing, and serves as a conduit through which sensory information passes when traveling between the body and the rest of the brain.
As its name suggests, the brain stem is located at the base of the skull, at the junction of the brain and the spinal cord. Small in size but with outsized importance to vital human life functions, it consists of three distinct parts:
- The medulla oblongata, located at the lower half of the brain stem, controls the body’s involuntary (or autonomic) functions, like breathing, heartbeat, and reflexes like gagging, swallowing, and sneezing. The medulla oblongata also serves as a conduit connecting the central nervous system to the brain.
- The pons, which sits above and slightly forward of the medulla oblongata, also serves as a relay or conduit of signals between the central nervous system. It plays a crucial role in allowing the body to sleep, and regulates involuntary functions involved in respiration, balance, swallowing, facial and eye movements, and sensory perceptions such as smell and taste.
- The midbrain, located at the top of the brain stem, plays a role in vision, hearing, motor function, sleep regulation, alertness, and regulating body temperature.
These three regions make the most functions of human life possible. An injury to any one of them can have catastrophic consequences by impairing breathing, heartbeat, sleep, wakefulness, and life-saving reflexes.
How Brain Stem Injuries Can Occur in Car Accidents
Car accidents commonly cause traumatic brain injury (TBI), which occurs when brain tissue suffers damage in connection with a violent blow or jolt to the head or body. This can easily happen in a motor vehicle collision. The brain consists of a mass of somewhat soft tissue that essentially floats inside the skull, surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid.
The force of a car accident impact, which the body absorbs via rapid deceleration, a whipping motion of the head and neck relative to the rest of the body, and/or a collision between the head/body and any hard surface inside or outside the car, causes the brain to twist on its axis, collide with the interior of the skull, and deform as pressure waves pass through it.
These mechanisms directly tear or sever brain tissue, blood vessels, and nerves, and indirectly lead to further damage by causing swelling and bleeding that increases pressure on the brain inside the skull. Altogether, this damage is what constitutes a TBI.
Research suggests that traumatic injuries to the brain stem often occur in violent, high-speed car accidents in which vehicle occupants sustain a direct blow to the head or endure extreme forces from rapid deceleration. In an impact, the brain stem twists, compresses against the edge of an opening at the base of the brain called the tentorial notch, or experiences pressure or other impacts from an injury to the bones at the top of the spinal column.
Through any of these mechanisms, a vehicle occupant’s brain stem can sustain damage that interrupts its function. This damage may appear on a diagnostic image as a lesion—a light or dark spot that looks abnormal relative to the rest of the brain—but not always. Doctors more often rely on your symptoms than CAT scans or MRIs to diagnose brain stem injuries. Don’t assume that a “clean” scan means a lack of damage.
Brain Stem Injury Symptoms and Outcomes
A traumatic brain injury involving damage to the brain stem can often have life-threatening consequences for the victim, because the injury can interrupt the most fundamental body functions necessary to sustain life, such as breathing, heartbeat, and life-saving reflexes. Victims who survive these injuries can face significant challenges that may persist for the remainder of their lives.
Not all brain stem injuries have tragic outcomes, but frequently brain stem damage can lead to:
- Coma or permanent vegetative state;
- Inability to live without life-support systems providing involuntary functions (e.g., breathing);
- Locked-in syndrome;
- Severe cognitive impairment;
- Loss of speech or ability to communicate;
- Loss of essential reflexes, such as gagging and sneezing;
- Loss of the ability to swallow;
- Weakness and motor impairment;
- Disruption of vision, smell, touch, taste, and hearing;
- Loss of ability to feel pain or temperature; and
- Loss of balance/equilibrium.
Again, doctors mostly diagnose brain stem injuries through observing your symptoms, but may also order diagnostic imaging (CAT scans and MRIs, primarily) to help them confirm a diagnosis. Treatment of brain stem injuries may involve surgery, medication, and a combination of physical, emotional, and occupational therapies.
Some victims of car accident brain stem injuries will need around the clock care for the rest of their days. Many, if not most, victims can expect to live for the rest of their lives with at least some symptoms, which will often come with substantial medical costs and will limit the ability to provide for themselves and/or their families. The lifetime economic impact of a traumatic brain stem injury can easily reach into the millions of dollars. The physical and emotional impacts can feel immeasurable.
Compensation for Brain Stem Injuries Suffered in Car Accidents
Victims of car accidents who suffer brain stem injuries need and deserve financial support. With the help of an experienced attorney, they can often secure support by taking legal action for compensation against anyone whose unreasonably dangerous decisions or actions caused the accident that left them injured.
Legal Liability for Car Accident Brain Stem Injuries
An important order of business for lawyers who represent crash victims with brain stem injuries is to investigate the car accident to determine who should face legal and financial accountability for it. The law holds individuals, companies, organizations, and government agencies responsible when their careless, reckless, or intentional actions lead to an injury-causing or fatal crash.
Every crash is different, of course, so the parties who may face legal liability for a victim’s brain stem injury will vary from case-to-case.
However, frequently, the parties with legal liability for a crash can include:
- Car, truck, and bus drivers, whose dangerous decisions and actions behind the wheel cause a crash that leaves a victim facing a brain stem injury;
- Employers of drivers who cause a crash while driving a commercial or work vehicle;
- Automotive manufacturers, when they sell dangerously defective cars or car parts that fail, leading to an accident;
- Bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to minors or visibly intoxicated patrons, who then go on to cause a drunk driving accident; and
- Government agencies and contractors, if they fail to design, build, or maintain safe roadways for the public to use, leading to a crash.
These are just some examples, of course. There is no telling who may have legal liability for causing a crash until a lawyer can investigate the facts and circumstances, and evaluate them according to the law of the state where the crash happened.
Damages for Car Accident Brain Stem Injuries
The parties that have legal liability may have a legal obligation to pay money damages to a victim of a car accident who suffers a brain injury. As discussed above, every case is different. Lawyers cannot predict the exact types of damages that a victim might recover in every case.
However, typically, victims of accidents have legal rights to seek compensation for:
- Medical costs of treating a brain stem injury, including emergency care, hospitalizations, long-term care stays, doctor appointments, surgery, therapy, medication, and medical equipment;
- Non-medical costs related to adapting to and living with a brain stem injury, such as the cost of modifying a home to accommodate brain stem injury-related disabilities, or of hiring services to help with everyday tasks that the injury prevents a victim from handling;
- Past and future lost income resulting from the brain stem injury keeping the victim out of work or limiting the victim’s ability to work in the future;
- Pain, suffering, loss of life enjoyment, and diminished quality of personal relationships due to the brain stem injury; and
- In some cases, punitive damages designed to punish and deter extreme or outrageous conduct that led to the car accident.
The amount of money that a victim can seek to recover varies widely depending upon the severity of the injury and the victim’s outlook for long-term recovery. Also, that amount may differ from the sum a victim can realistically hope to receive from a party with legal liability for the crash. Oftentimes, the party’s liability insurance policy pays damages to the victim on that party’s behalf, which means the limits of the insurance policy can serve as an artificial limitation on the amount of money recoverable.
That is why experienced brain injury lawyers work hard to identify all parties who may have a legal liability to a client who suffered a brain stem injury. Generally speaking, the more parties who have liability, the better the chances of the victim recovering the full amount of damages allowed by law.
Legal Next Steps for Brain Stem Injury Victims and Their Families
A car crash resulting in brain stem injuries can throw a victim and the victim’s family into a tailspin. The sudden, unexpected nature of an accident, and the severe, uncertain outcome of the injury, frequently feels overwhelming and confusing.
There is, of course, no way to prepare for a potentially life-altering tragedy.
However, by following some simple steps, many brain stem injury victims and their families can protect their legal and financial wellbeing.
- Prioritizing medical care. For most brain stem injury victims, there is no avoiding the need for immediate and specialized care. However, it still bears repeating just how important it is to seek prompt medical care after any car accident. While it is more rare, even a developing brain stem injury may not show immediate symptoms, such as in the case of an injury to the cervical spine that slowly puts pressure on the brain stem. Never assume that you are okay after a crash, particularly one where you hit your head. Let an EMT check you out, go to the emergency room if necessary, and always follow up with your regular doctor or at an urgent care clinic within 24 hours for a full exam. By taking those steps, you can give yourself a better chance of escaping the most serious complications from a TBI, including one to your brain stem.
- Avoiding quick-money settlement offers. The trauma of a brain stem injury can put immediate and intense financial pressure on the victim and the victim’s family. Liability insurance companies on the hook for car accident damages know this, and sometimes approach victims directly to offer a quick-and-easy settlement to get money into the victim’s hands quickly. Accepting that money is not necessarily the best idea, especially for anyone facing the potentially crushing costs of adapting to and seeking treatment for a brain stem injury. A quick-and-easy settlement offer may not come close to meeting a victim’s and family’s long-term financial needs. It is better to decline the offer and speak to your lawyer for more information about how much you deserve.
Hiring an experienced injury lawyer right away. Brain stem injury victims and their families need a compassionate, steady hand to guide them through the process of obtaining the full amount of compensation they need and deserve. By contacting an experienced car accident injury lawyer as soon as possible, victims and their families can give themselves a better chance of receiving every last dollar necessary to support them into the future.