How Pre-Existing Conditions Affect Automobile Accident Cases and Proximate Cause

Cracked windshield in front of a car fender

Blog Post Author Headshot Dr. Aaron Jorgensen

Author Dr. Aaron Jorgensen, D.C.

At Northwest Injury Clinics we specialize in rehabbing patients that have been injured in car accidents. A common question that often arises is how a pre-existing injury may or may not affect a person’s claim.

If someone has been recently treating for low back pain and then they happen to be rear-ended, that condition is considered an active condition.

The goal and responsibility of the insurance company is to return the injured person to pre-injury status and to cover all treatment that is ‘reasonable and necessary.’ Pain is common and is part of living.

At one point, most of us will experience a debilitating episode of low back pain. Often times, the insurance company will try to discharge their responsibility by implying that a patient had pre-existing low back pain or neck pain.

Patients are sometimes intimidated that they will be stuck owing bills that the insurance company may imply won’t be covered.

Washington State has a very important case law that is referred to as the ‘eggshell plaintiff law.’

Washington State has a very important case law that is referred to as the ‘eggshell plaintiff law.’

An eggshell plaintiff is one who may have had some pre-existing injuries or conditions and might be considered more fragile, like an eggshell.

The law comes from a previous court case of  Bennett v. Messick, 76 Wn.2d 474 (1969).

In this case the plaintiff was employed as a fruit picker. Another employee was driving a forklift and ran into the plaintiff. He sustained several injuries, including an ankle injury. He had previously injured the ankle 40 years prior.

Court testimony revealed that the plaintiff had significant degenerative changes in his ankle, but was not having pain at the time of the injury.

The treating doctor testified that the second injury from the forklift caused pain and limited motion because it aggravated the dormant arthritic condition in the plaintiff’s ankle.

He further testified that, were it not for the second injury by the forklift, that the plaintiff would never have had the medical problem he was then treating for.

The court stated:

"When a latent condition itself does not cause pain, suffering, or a disability, but that condition plus an injury brings on pain or disability by aggravating the preexisting condition and making it active, then the injury, and not the dormant condition, is the proximate cause of the pain and disability. Thus, the party at fault is held for the entire damages as a result of the accident."

Pull quote from article

If the answer is ‘no’ then the proximate cause is related to the injury and responsible for aggravating a latent and pre-existing condition and, therefore, is causally related to the injury in question.

If the answer is ‘yes’ then the goal is to return the individual to the previous condition prior to the accident.

If you have any questions regarding your injury please give us a call and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. (509) 735-3555

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