Eggshell Or Aggravation? An Important Concept For Personal Injury Cases

Sometimes personal injury or wrongful death claimants have a “preexisting condition.”  That’s lawyer-speak that means you’ve been hurt before.  The impact, if any, of that preexisting condition on your legal rights is analyzed under the related theories of “eggshell plaintiff” and “aggravation of injury.”

Simply put, if you’re seeking money for physical injuries, perhaps in a car accident, motorcycle crash, dog bite, or police brutality case, the eggshell theory is good and the aggravation concept is bad.  Flip that statement if you’re defending a personal injury claim or happen to be an insurance company.

An eggshell plaintiff is someone who, because of an earlier injury, is more susceptible to re-injury of the same area of the body than a normal person would be.  On the other hand, the aggravation theory applies if a person has an ongoing injury that is aggravated by a second injury-causing event, which then amplifies or aggravates the symptoms of the original, preexisitng injury.

The key distinction between the eggshell and aggravation theories is that an eggshell plaintiff has completely healed by the time of the injury-causing event while an aggravation plaintiff has not completely healed and instead has ongoing problems because of an existing injury.  Under Iowa law, defendants take their victims as they get them, so if an “eggshell” plaintiff gets hurt worse than a normal person would have, that’s the defendant’s problem and the defendant has to deal with the greater damages exposure because of the misfortune of hurting someone who was more susceptible to injury.

Here’s an example of the two theories:  Say you broke your arm as a child.  It heals as best it can, but the bone is never as strong as it was before you broke it.  Decades later you’re in a car crash and break the same arm, an injury that wouldn’t have happened to most folks but happened to you because of the break years earlier when you were a kid.  That’s an eggshell plaintiff situation and the defendant is responsible for 100% of the injuries to your arm, even though many people who had not previously broken their arm would not have suffered a broken arm in the collision.  Remember, defendants take their victims as they get them, and that includes earlier injuries that make a victim more susceptible to injury in the present day.

Conversely, if you’d broken that arm just two weeks before the car crash and the bones were still healing, but the fracture was worsened by the collision, that would be an aggravation situation and the defendant would only be liable for the amount of injuries and damages that occurred because of the aggravation of the injury during the crash.  That is an aggravation, not eggshell, situation because you had not completely healed at the time of the collision.

You can see why the eggshell vs. aggravation distinction is heavily contested in cases that involve a plaintiff with an earlier injury.  The plaintiff wants to prove the eggshell theory; the defendant needs to argue that it’s actually an aggravation of injury situation.  This is frequently an issue that gets fought between competing medical experts.

Please feel free to contact me if you have a personal injury or products liability matter that you would like to discuss.  I’ll be happy to see if I can give you a hand.


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