What Is Considered a Catastrophic Injury?

Updated on December 15, 2021

Accidental injuries are the third-highest cause of death in the U.S. In the past few years, they have accounted for at least 6% of deaths in the country, which is the first time this has happened in the United States. The biggest number of victims who die from these unintentional injuries are the elderly. Of course, as you would expect, motor vehicle-related accidents are among the main cause of these accidents, which is concerning considering that vehicles are the primary means of transport for many people. 

Though all injuries will have an impact on the victim’s life in one way or another, not all of them can have significant effects. As such, they’re usually categorized into different groups based on their severity. One of those groups comprises catastrophic injuries, which are the main subject of discussion in this article.

So, what is a catastrophic injury? Well, there is not a universal definition for this injury, so it can be hard to understand. Typically, the meaning of catastrophic injury is an injury that permanently impacts the victim’s quality of life and possibly their life expectancy.

It’s important to note that certain unintentional accidents might result in permanent immobility due to loss of limbs or injury to the spinal cord. This can be quite frustrating and it’ll be very difficult for someone to cope with their new life. For that reason, there are many institutions designed with the objective of helping such people achieve maximum independence after such a tragic occurrence in their lives. You can click here to find out more about these organizations.  

That said, in this article, we will take a look at the definition of catastrophic injuries, common issues with these cases, and examples of settlements to help you understand this complicated area of law. Read on for more information on this subject.

Meaning of Catastrophic Injury

Catastrophic may get used more than it should. It is meant for permanent injuries that prevent a person from resuming a normal lifestyle after the accident. When a victim cannot return to their normal life after injury, this is truly a catastrophic injury.

These injuries are devastating for both the victim and their family in ways such as emotionally, financially, and legally. The victim suffers from things like lost wages because they can no longer work. They may also have numerous and expensive medical bills and will need long-term care.

A traumatic injury goes beyond financial issues. The person may not be able to complete their hobbies, sports, exercise, or even take care of themselves. Overall, the quality of life is not the same, and the family suffers along with the victim.

Determining Whether Injury Is Catastrophic

If you’re trying to decide if an injury is in the catastrophic category, you need to think about in terms of injuries the person cannot fully recover from, or will never be the same again. Some of these injuries include (but not limited to):

  • Amputations
  • Multiple fractures
  • Burns and disfigurement
  • Paralysis
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Damage to the spinal cord 
  • Scarring
  • Total disability
  • Permanent and severe organ damage
  • Permanent impairment
  • Shortened lifespan
  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Extensive pain and suffering

Any of these injuries could be categorized as catastrophic. With any of these injuries, the victim can experience multiple health problems.

If there are multiple injuries from the accident, each element can contribute to the overall claim and settlement amount. This means that multiple financial claims can be combined when presented in court.

Common Types of Catastrophic Injuries

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the more common injuries that fall in the catastrophic category. These catastrophic injuries examples are severe and require a great deal of medical treatment.

The most common catastrophic personal injuries include:

Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

Traumatic brain injuries can vary in severity. They are based on the Glasgow Coma Scale that rates a person’s motor responses, eye-opening, and verbal capabilities. The lower the score means a more serve brain injury.

Severe TBIs cause permanent physical disabilities, coma, a vegetative state, behavior changes, and a minimally conscious state. The person may even be considered brain dead in some of the most severe cases.

Treating traumatic brain injury is extremely costly and can average thousands of dollars a day, depending on if the person is in a residential rehabilitation center, outpatient therapy, or a hospital-based program.

Health insurance will typically cover the victim’s initial treatment, but the lifetime maximums are easily met with long-term treatment.

There are additional symptoms associated with TBI including:

  • Balance problems
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Eating disorders
  • Hearing difficulties

Severe TBI increases a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.

It is nearly impossible to accurately predict the long-term impact of TBI with any victim no matter how severe. Some patients may have later onset of issues like memory loss, cognitive problems, and concentration problems.

Spinal Cord Injuries

There are two types of spinal cord injuries—complete and incomplete. This refers to if the damage is partial damage or permanent damage of the spinal cord. 

A complete injury to the spinal cord typically leaves the person paralyzed from the site of the injury and down. The aftermath of an incomplete injury to the spinal cord is hard to determine because they can vary in severity and type. 

A person with any type of spinal cord injury may find issues dealing with the loss of movement, loss of sensation, failure to control bowel and bladder, sexual dysfunction, and higher risk or possibility of additional medical issues.

Each year, there are about 17,700 new spinal cord injuries reported. Most victims suffer a severe spinal cord injury after an impact or blow to the spine that either fractures, crushes, dislocates, or compresses one or more of the vertebrae. These injuries can also reduce the organ functions below the injury site.

Some spinal cord injuries are not detected or felt immediately. After an accident, the inflammation, swelling, fluid accumulation, and bleeding around the spinal cord can mask issues.

All spinal cord injuries need immediate medical attention and constant monitoring to determine severity.

Severe Burn Injuries

There are four degrees (or levels) of burns.

First-degree burns are the most one-dimensional. Second-degree burns appear red, blistered and appear swollen.

Third-degree burns destroy the skin and can reach layers below the skin. The area may appear white, black, or even charred. They require comprehensive medical attention and treatment.

Fourth-degree burns go through many layers of skin and penetrate into the bone and muscle. These burns destroy nerve endings, causing the person to lose most feeling in that area.

Third and fourth-degree burns are very painful. The victim is a high risk for disfigurement, infection, and limitations moving forward.


Recovering from any form of amputation is traumatic in and of itself. A person can lose an arm, foot, leg, hand, or combination of limbs.

When the victim recovers from the initial surgery, the surgery site is at a high risk of infection and needs to heal properly. The victim will then move to physical rehabilitation and learn how to perform daily tasks without the affected limb.

In addition to the physical toll, there are several psychological effects as well. This includes PTSD and depression. The person may even experience phantom limb system or phantom pain in that area.

Internal Organ Damage

An accident can harm a person’s internal organs such as the liver, kidneys, reproductive organs, heart, lungs, digestive system, and others. Depending on the severity and type of injury, the victim may need surgery or multiple surgeries to fix any problems or issues. 

The organ might not regain full normal function either for some time or even permanently. The victim might need to function without that organ or need a transplant.

Causes of Injury

There are several incidents that can cause a catastrophic injury. Certain types of accidents, like car accidents, cause more injuries than others. 

Other incidents that cause severe injury include:

  • Truck accidents
  • Car accidents
  • Swimming pool accidents and drowning
  • Construction accidents
  • Medical mistakes
  • Sport and recreational activities
  • Bicycle accidents
  • Falls from height
  • Workplace accidents
  • Defective drugs or medical devices
  • Pharmacy errors

These injuries can happen from these incidents or anything else like crossing the street. These are just a few examples. 

Determining Catastrophic Injury Case Damages

Now you may wonder how courts determine damages from these injuries. Damages are based on a few factors including medical costs, financial losses, and how the injury affects the quality of life. Those with more serious injuries are likely to get higher compensation.

With catastrophic injury cases, the settlements can be rather high. This is because the victim is either permanently disfigured, disabled, or unable to return to work or life as it was before the injury.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the factors used to determine compensation.

Total and Future Medical Expenses

This is a substantial portion of the settlement and includes medical expenses up to the time of your settlement and even those expenses your insurance company paid. Your insurance company will get reimbursed for those expenses.

Next, your attorney determines estimated future medical expenses, such as long-term care and additional medical treatment in the future. 

Lost Income and Future Earnings

Your attorney will also figure out how much you lost in wages after the accident. However, the attorney will also take into account future earnings lost if you cannot return to work or need to change to a different position with lower pay. This also includes a reduction in hours and pay, such as moving to part-time or cut-back hours.

You may even get compensation for training if you need to learn new or improve skills for employment.

In most cases, most victims are disabled and unable to return to work. Your attorney will calculate any wages, bonuses, raises, and benefits you lose because you can no longer work. This includes health insurance from your employer.

Pain and Suffering

The last factor of the calculation is a little harder to calculate when comparing to medical expenses and lost wages. This portion is to compensate you for all the pain you have and will endure. While there is no amount of money that takes away this emotional and physical pain, the reasoning for this settlement is that it will help minimize any additional suffering.

Most of the time, the pain and suffering portion is calculated after factoring in both lost wages and medical costs and using a multiplier to determine additional compensation.

Catastrophic Injury Cases and Settlements

Because a victim with severe injury gets higher damages than a typical personal injury case, it does not mean this victim received a windfall. The lifetime of lost earnings, expensive medical bills for ongoing treatment, and the emotional and physical pain the victim endures is figured into these large settlements.

The verdicts offer some financial security to someone facing lifelong crippling losses. Most victims would gladly trade the amount of money to return to their normal life before the injury.

Here are a few real-life cases with catastrophic injuries. 

A woman was awarded $22 million when she was hit by a pharmacy truck crossing the street. She suffered a permanent catastrophic brain injury.

An accident victim was awarded $32.5 million after a defective seatbelt failed to protect the main in a car accident. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and filed suit against Ford and Mazda Motor Companies.

A jury in Kansas City awarded $2.2 billion to a cancer patient after finding a pharmacist watered-down chemotherapy drugs. The main settlement was awarded in lost wages along with medical expenses. The rest of the verdict was punitive damages.

Who Is Liable?

If you or a loved one is a catastrophic injury victim, you’re probably wondering who is liable. There are various forms of liability, including:

  • An intoxicated or negligent driver
  • A property owner that fails to repair hazards on the property
  • A manufacturer that markets a defective consumer item
  • Any other party with negligence that caused the injury

If you suffer any injury at the hands of a negligent person or company, you may be entitled to compensation if you need medical care and/or lose your ability for future earnings.

What to Do If You or a Loved One Suffered an Injury?

Are you still wondering if your personal injury constitutes a catastrophic injury case? Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Did you suffer any alteration to your appearance that affects your quality of life, mental health, and relationships with others?
  • Will you be able to fully heal and regain all previous functions from your affected organ, body part, or system?
  • Will you have permanent or long-term physical limitations from your injury?
  • Will you have issues caring for yourself? 
  • Will you be able to work the same job you did before the injury?

If someone caused your injury, speak to an accident injury attorney to get the full compensation you need and deserve.

Get the Help You Need

A catastrophic injury is devasting. If you or a loved one has suffered, keep track of all your medical bills and take into account things like lost wages, future medical treatment, loss of future wages, and the level of pain and suffering. 

Above all, lawyer up. An attorney will help you navigate the legal process and get the settlement you deserve.

In the meantime, for more health and legal advice, keep tabs on our blog!

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.