When ‘catastrophic’ is used to describe an injury, it means the injury caused a lot of physical damage, and the damage is usually permanent. A catastrophic injury quite literally changes a person’s life so that they can never be the same as they were before the injury. 

Catastrophic injuries are usually the result of severe physical trauma. The losses experienced are significant, and compensation for the damages tends to be high. The damages claims can be both legally and medically more complex than other kinds of personal injury claims.

At the Apple Valley office of Moody Law, we understand how devastating catastrophic injuries are and how they can affect everything about a person’s life. Our California catastrophic injury attorney fights to get severely injured clients the compensation they are entitled to for the extensive damage they have experienced.

What Makes Catastrophic Injuries Different from Other Injuries 

Unlike injuries that will heal without permanent loss, what catastrophic injuries take from a person remains gone even after the acute injury has healed. Often, the damage from these severe kinds of injuries makes it impossible for a person to live the same kind of life that was enjoyed prior to the injury. Although the injury itself may eventually heal, the damage done is not reversible.

Catastrophic Injuries are Severe and Result in Permanent Damage

Catastrophic injuries can be severe both in how the injury occurs and in the part of the body that is injured. Significant trauma can cause the loss of a body part or secondary damage to other parts of the body. Nerve damage in the brain or spinal cord can permanently impair cognitive ability and motor function.

Damages are Greater in Catastrophic Injury Cases

Medical expenses are higher because catastrophic injuries can require a lot of treatment and ongoing care. A person who is catastrophically injured may never be able to work again and will need to be compensated for the lost earnings over a lifetime. And catastrophic injuries can cause a lot of suffering and significantly limit the ability to engage in the types of activities that were previously enjoyed or had been planned for the future. 

Catastrophic Injury Damages can Exceed Insurance Limits

Regardless of where or how a catastrophic injury occurs, there is often some insurance coverage available to compensate the person injured. However, depending on the party responsible for the injury, there may not be enough insurance coverage to pay all of the compensation that is due. 

Drivers in California are only required to carry a very minimum amount of liability insurance – $15,000 for the injury or death of a person. That might not even cover a hospital emergency room visit. An at-fault driver would be personally liable for the remaining compensation but may not have adequate resources. 

Businesses generally carry higher liability limits than individuals to manage the risk of liability for personal injuries. A worker who experiences a catastrophic injury at work may be covered by an employer’s workers’ compensation insurance which will pay a specified benefit based on the level of disability caused by the injury. 

Types of Injuries Often Considered Catastrophic

There is no definitive list of catastrophic injuries a person might experience. But it is generally agreed that any of the following kinds of injuries are likely going to be considered catastrophic because of the magnitude of the damage caused.

  • Severe brain injury
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Loss of a limb
  • Loss of sight
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of or lost use of internal organs
  • Severe burns or disfigurement

Catastrophic Injuries and Workers’ Compensation in California

Workers who are injured on the job and can no longer work may qualify to receive disability benefits under California’s workers’ compensation system. Whether or not a work-related injury is considered catastrophic has an impact on the disability benefit amount that an injured worker qualifies to receive. 

When a work injury is not catastrophic, a worker is not entitled to receive additional disability benefits for mental health issues resulting from the injury. There is no precise definition of what constitutes a catastrophic injury, but the California Legislature gave some indication of the kinds of injuries considered catastrophic in SB 863.

A worker who experiences a catastrophic injury can have his impairment rating increased for a psychiatric disorder that results from the injury. For workers’ compensation disability benefit purposes, the following are examples of the types of work injuries considered catastrophic:

  • Loss of a limb
  • Paralysis
  • Severe burn
  • Severe head injury

How Compensable Catastrophic Injuries can Occur

Catastrophic injuries can occur suddenly and often from activities people engage in on a daily basis. On any given day, we get in our cars and head toward our destinations without much thought about the possibility of being severely injured in an accident. 

We get to work and perform our responsibilities, expecting our day to go pretty much like any other day. But these two routine activities can be the source of catastrophic injury if things should go wrong. 

Catastrophic Injury from a Motor Vehicle Accident

Not surprisingly, motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of several kinds of catastrophic injuries. Traffic crashes result in a significant number of brain and spinal cord injuries every year. Amputations, internal damage, and burns are not uncommon, depending on the severity of the crash. 

Catastrophic Work Injury

Agriculture and construction are two of the biggest industries in California. They are also in the top three for producing the most serious work-related injuries. The top four occupational injury-causing events, according to a study done by the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), are: 

  • Transportation incidents
  • Assaults and violent acts
  • Falls, slips, trips
  • Contact with objects or equipment

What it Means to Experience a Catastrophic Injury

Injuries are considered catastrophic not only because of the physical damage done to the body but also because of the impairment to normal functioning that the injury causes. The following types of injuries are among the most catastrophic. 

Brain Injury

An injury to the brain is the most likely injury to result in death or permanent disability. A catastrophic brain injury is a severe type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI occurs as the result of external force to the head. Seizure disorders are often caused by traumatic brain injuries.

Over 1 million people experience TBI each year in the United States, but only about 8% of those injuries result in permanent damage. Men are statistically more likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries than women. Close to 5.5 million people are living with a disability caused by a TBI.

The majority of traumatic brain injuries are caused by falls, motor vehicle accidents, and being struck by or against objects. Catastrophic brain injuries may be the result of both open and closed head injuries. 

Short-term complications from brain injuries can create secondary injuries or illnesses. Long-term consequences can affect the ability to learn, remember, and reason, as well as personality traits and social behavior.

Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are injuries to the bundle of nerves running from the brain down the back. The spinal cord is protected by the spinal column. When the spinal cord is injured, communication from the brain to the body below the level of the injury is interrupted, causing partial or complete loss of function. 

Almost 300,000 Americans are living with spinal cord injuries. There are close to 18,000 new SCI in the US every year. The majority of spinal cord injuries happen to males between the ages of 16 and 30. Motor vehicle accidents (39%) and falls (32%) cause the majority of SCI. Of those with spinal cord injuries, 40% are considered paraplegic, and 60% are considered quadriplegic.

If a SCI patient survives the first 24 hours after their injury, they have an 80% chance of being alive in 10 years. The lifetime cost of care for someone with a spinal cord injury can run into millions of dollars. The average cost of lifetime care for a paraplegic injured at age 25 is about $2.5 million. Average lifetime care for quadriplegics can be as high as $5 million. 


Amputation is the process of surgically removing an external body part. There are almost 200,000 amputations performed every year in the United States. About 45% of those amputations result from traumatic events. Traumatic events that are frequently associated with amputations include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Factory accidents
  • Farm accidents
  • Power tool accidents

Work-related amputations are predominantly the result of interaction with the machinery or equipment used in the business. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 6,200 amputations from injuries at work in 2018. Close to 60% of those amputations involved machinery.  

Amputations have the highest overall workers’ compensation costs, with medical expenses being the major cost. The medical expenses related to amputations were more than twice the medical costs related to any other workers’ compensation injury between 2019 and 2020, and indemnity costs were also the highest for amputation injuries.

Burns and Disfigurement

There are at least 1.1 million people who experience burn injuries each year in the United States. About 50,000 people will be burned severely enough to require hospitalization. And close to half of those hospitalized will have suffered burns over at least 25% of their bodies. 

The majority of serious burn injuries are caused by contact with hot materials, surfaces, or fire. Severe burns can also result from contact with chemicals or electricity. Friction may also cause a deep burn.

Burn depth determines the severity of the burn, and burns are categorized by degree as first, second, or third according to their depth. Burns can lead to secondary dangers such as bacterial infections, fluid loss, and low body temperature. 

Burn injuries can have a significant impact on quality of life. Severe burns leave permanent scarring that can be painful and physically limiting. Burns also cause disfigurement, which may be damaging psychologically. There is also evidence that burn injuries can increase the risk of developing other serious diseases or disorders in the future. 

Why Catastrophic Injury Claims are Harder to Prove

When personal injuries are catastrophic, the financial stakes are often much higher. Someone’s life has been permanently altered for the worse, and they have the right to be compensated as fully as possible for what they have lost. On the other side is often an insurance company that uses every legal means to pay as little as possible. 

Both sides can be very far apart as to the value of the claim, which is why catastrophic injury cases are less likely to settle and more likely to end up going to trial. Proving the extent of the damages sufficiently to be awarded adequate compensation requires the testimony of experts and can get very complex when each side has experts on the same subject who disagree.

Compensation for Catastrophic Injuries

An injured person is allowed to be compensated for two types of damages in California. Economic damages are the actual financial costs or losses associated with the injury. They can include costs or losses that have already occurred and those that are reasonably certain to be incurred in the future because of the injury.

Catastrophic injuries may require extensive and ongoing medical and therapeutic care throughout life. Income may be lost from the time of the injury, and future earning capability may be impaired or lost. Assistance may be required in order to perform the activities of daily living. Economic damages can be calculated fairly easily because they start from numbers that are known. 

Non-economic damages are compensation for the unpleasant experience caused by the injuries and for the way the injuries are anticipated to affect future experiences. In California, a person may receive non-economic damages for pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental suffering, emotional distress, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation, and humiliation.

There is no monetary starting point when calculating non-economic damages, so juries arrive at a compensation amount based on a subjective evaluation of an injured person’s experience. California jury instructions tell jurors to use their judgment and common sense to decide upon a reasonable amount based on the evidence. It’s important to have strong evidence in support of a non-economic damages claim to help a jury award the appropriate compensation. 

The only time non-economic damages are capped at a maximum amount is if the injury is the result of medical malpractice. However, a recent change in California law has increased the cap to $350,000 for non-fatal injuries and $500,000 for fatal injuries. The cap will continue to increase incrementally over the next several years to an eventual maximum of $750,000 for non-fatal injuries and $1,000,000 for fatal injuries. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Catastrophic Injuries

What makes an injury catastrophic?

The extent and permanency of the damage are what determine whether an injury will be considered catastrophic. Injuries that cause permanent loss or loss of function in some part of the body are usually considered catastrophic. 

Is there a time limit for making a claim for a catastrophic injury?

Yes. In California, most personal injury claims must be made within 2 years from the date the injury occurs. If the injury is not known right away, the injured person has 1 year from the date the injury is discovered to make a claim. For injured children, the 2-year period does not begin to run until the child reaches 18 years of age. 

Do you need an attorney to make a catastrophic injury claim?

Probably, because there is a good chance that a settlement will not be reached and a lawsuit will need to be filed. Strategically, it would not be a good idea to try and handle the magnitude of a catastrophic injury lawsuit without an experienced legal advocate on your side. The damages issues in catastrophic injury claims are often complex. Obtaining a successful result requires specific legal and medical knowledge.

How to Get Compensated for a Catastrophic Injury in California

A catastrophic injury not only impacts a person’s life in the present but will also affect everything that happens in the future. There is only one opportunity to get compensation from the person or entity responsible. If the evidence presented is not thorough, well organized, and persuasive, a person experiencing a catastrophic injury may not receive all of the compensation they are entitled to and will need in the years ahead. 

The California catastrophic injury lawyers at the High Desert office of Moody Law understands the catastrophic toll injuries take on people’s lives and how important it is to ensure they have the resources needed to live as fully and in as much comfort as possible. If you or a loved one has experienced a catastrophic injury, you will benefit from an experienced legal advocate who is dedicated to getting you the compensation you deserve. Contact Moody Law for a free case evaluation.