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Personal Injury Law: What is the Eggshell Rule?

A personal injury claim seeks to compensate a victim when he or she is injured by the negligent or reckless conduct of another person. Some very common personal injury claims stem from car accidents, truck accidents, and slip and falls. In these accidents, the traumatic force causes all sorts of serious injuries, from fractures to head injuries.

One common defense raised in these types of cases is that the victim was uniquely vulnerable to injury and, therefore, the defendant shouldn’t be held responsible. In short, the defendant is arguing the victim was as fragile as an eggshell.

Under traditional tort law, however, this isn’t a legitimate defense. Instead, the eggshell rule holds defendants liable for all injuries that result naturally from their conduct.

The Fragile Plaintiff

Some people are already vulnerable to injury because of age, illness, or medical problems. For example, an older woman might have osteoporosis, which is a weakening of the bones due to age. Even a slight bit of trauma could fracture multiple bones, leading to serious complications.

Imagine that Mary is 65 and suffers from osteoporosis. When someone bumps into her in a grocery store, she fractures a rib and gets pneumonia. By contrast, a person not suffering from osteoporosis probably wouldn’t have suffered any injury at all because the traumatic impact was slight. Instead, they might have felt momentary pain before going on with their shopping.

If Mary suffered a rib fracture due to another shopper’s carelessness, she might sue. To avoid compensation, the defendant might claim Mary is as fragile as an eggshell and he can’t be liable for bumping into her. Will this defense prevail? The answer is “no.”

The Eggshell Rule: Take the Victim as You Find Him

Similar fact patterns have popped up over the years. And the South Carolina Supreme Court has held that a defendant cannot escape liability by arguing that the victim is an eggshell plaintiff.

Instead, as the Supreme Court held, defendants “take the victim as they find him.” Essentially, this means that if you touch a person without their consent and they get hurt, you must deal with the legal consequences—even if they are especially fragile.

There are many situations where this might arise. Some people are recovering from pre-existing injuries when they get injured again. For example, imagine a motorist who sprained his knee in a pickup basketball game four months ago. The sprain was so bad that he can’t work, and he regularly attends rehabilitation. Although he is recovering, he is not 100%.

Now imagine that this man is rear-ended in a parking lot and, consequently, slams his knee in the dash. Now the knee is even worse.

Can the driver who rear-ended him argue the defendant was too vulnerable to injury because of the pre-existing knee sprain? No! Instead, he is liable for crashing into the victim.

Damages: Pre-existing Injuries Can Matter

The eggshell rule is really a rule regarding liability. In essence, a defendant is liable for any unwanted touching that results in injury to a victim, regardless of the victim’s fragility. This rule serves as a clear warning to the public at large: don’t touch someone without their consent if you don’t want to face liability.

But liability is only one legal issue. Damages are a separate legal issue. “Damages” refer to the amount of compensation a victim can receive to make up for their losses. If a defendant is liable, they must pay damages. However, the amount of damages they must pay depends on the facts.

And here the victim’s pre-existing injuries might matter. Return to the man who suffered a knee sprain before he injured the knee again in a car accident. Before the accident, he was feeling considerable pain in the knee and couldn’t walk on it fully. He also continued to receive rehabilitation to treat the sprain.

Now, after the car accident, his knee is in even worse shape. The question is how much does the motorist who rear-ended him have to pay in compensation?

If the victim’s knee were perfectly healthy before the car accident, then the answer is clear—the defendant would pay:

  • All the victim’s medical treatment

  • All his lost wages if he can’t work

  • All his pain and suffering

In this hypothetical case, a victim could need $80,000 in medical care, lose $20,000 in wages, and deserve $100,000 in pain and suffering. Because the knee was perfectly healthy, the motorist would be 100% responsible for these amounts. In total, $200,000 in damages.

But the victim’s knee wasn’t perfectly healthy before the car accident. That’s key. Instead, it was already badly injured because of the sprain in the pickup basketball game. The car accident simply made it worse.

This is where a pre-existing injury might come into play. The defendant might argue that it’s not fair to make the driver pay all $200,000 when he isn’t fully responsible for the injury. Instead, he might claim he only is responsible for the injury above and beyond what existed right before the accident.

A key question, however, is whether it is easy to tease out what percentage of the injury the defendant is liable for. It is possible that he ends up paying full compensation, anyway.

Can You Sue a Defendant for Compensation?

The eggshell rule really doesn’t come into play in most cases. Most defense attorneys know the rule exists and therefore don’t even raise it as a defense. They know their client must pay compensation to injured victims if they caused an unwanted touching or other trauma without consent. These are the basics of South Carolina personal injury law.

However, pre-existing injuries might come into play when calculating damages. For that reason, you should talk about any pre-existing medical conditions or injuries with your attorney during an initial consultation.

Please Reach Out to Surasky Law Today

Some clients are nervous about having their medical history combed through by attorneys looking to find pre-existing injuries or illness. They rightly consider this private information that doesn’t need to be aired in court. Let us walk you through the process of obtaining fair compensation and holding the defendant accountable.

Our Aiken, South Carolina personal injury lawyer offers free consultations to those who were hurt by someone else’s wrongful conduct. Contact us today.


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