What Is the California Definition of Serious Injury?

If you’ve been hurt in an accident, you may not be sure whether the matter is “serious” enough to warrant a personal injury claim. After all, an accident that causes one person a lifetime of pain could leave someone else unharmed. 

If you’re unsure whether you have been hurt badly enough to file a claim, you don’t need to make that decision alone. Instead, you can consider the legal definitions of serious injury. 

Definitions of Serious Injuries According to California Law

There are two primary definitions of “serious” injuries according to California state law. They are found in separate parts of the code and apply in different circumstances.

According to the California Labor Code LAB § 6302, a serious injury is one that requires an immediate report to Cal/OSHA. These injuries include:

  • “An amputation;
  • “Loss of an eye;
  • “Serious degree of permanent disfigurement; or
  • “Inpatient hospitalization (for any period of time) for other than medical observation or diagnostic testing.”

This section of the code applies to businesses and safe working conditions for workers. 

In contrast, in the California Penal Code § 243(f)(4), a serious bodily injury is defined as “a serious impairment of physical condition, including, but not limited to, the following: loss of consciousness; concussion; bone fracture; protracted loss or impairment of function of any bodily member or organ; a wound requiring extensive suturing; and serious disfigurement.” This law is used to define criminal punishments for assault and battery.

These two definitions share significant similarities. Both reference loss of body functions or organs, substantial medical treatment, and disfigurement. However, neither directly applies to personal injury claims. The Labor Code definition only applies to claims eligible for workers’ compensation, while the Penal Code dictates criminal penalties.

There is no single definition of what constitutes a serious injury in civil law. Instead, terms of art like “catastrophic” are used instead. While these do not have a fixed definition, they draw upon the other extant definitions. You have likely suffered a serious injury if it required hospitalization or caused disfigurement or the loss of bodily function. 

What Serious Injuries Mean in Liability Claims

Serious or catastrophic injuries are not the only reason you may file a personal injury claim. According to California law, you can file a civil lawsuit against another party if their action causes you a financial loss. Regardless of whether your injury meets any of the above definitions, you may still be able to file a personal injury claim if you suffered economic damages because of the incident. 

So why do serious injuries matter? It’s a question of scale. The more severe the injury, the greater its impact on your life. 

Suppose someone tripped you and you twisted your ankle. While you could potentially file a claim, the damages would likely be low because the injury requires little medical care or time off work. 

In contrast, breaking your ankle would lead to significant medical bills. In addition, it could have life-long consequences and may even prevent you from continuing a career if your job requires walking or standing. If you choose to file a claim for that injury, the economic damages would be significantly higher to cover your financial losses.

Additionally, severe injuries often lead to non-economic damages like pain and suffering. If you were formerly a very active person and your broken ankle prevents you from walking without a cane, your quality of life may significantly decrease. In that case, you could pursue damages to compensate you for the pain and suffering you experience because of your new limitations. 

Proving Your Injury Is Serious

When you file a personal injury claim, you are responsible for proving several things:

  • The defendant had a duty of care toward you
  • The defendant acted recklessly or negligently and violated that duty
  • You were hurt and suffered a loss because of it
  • Their action or failure to act caused that harm

For instance, suppose you’re hit by another driver who runs a red light, and you break your collarbone. In that case, they had the duty to follow traffic laws and stop at the red light. By running it, they violated that duty. You were harmed by their actions and suffered economic losses, including your medical bills and wages you could not earn because of your injury. If you can prove all these factors according to the preponderance of the evidence, your claim will likely be successful.

The severity of your injuries matters for two reasons. First, they must be significant enough to have caused you an economic loss, or you have no legal basis for your claim. Beyond that, severity dictates the amount and type of damages you’re eligible for. 

Depending on the circumstances, proving that your injuries are severe may be more or less difficult. Some injuries are clearly life-changing. Few judges or juries would argue that paralysis, amputations, or visible disfigurement are not severe. 

However, if your suffering is invisible, like a concussion, chronic pain, or PTSD, you may need to work with your attorney and expert witnesses to argue your case. You may bring in medical experts to explain what it will take to recover from the accident and what function you have lost forever. You may also have witnesses testify how your behavior and ability to work have changed since the accident to demonstrate how your quality of life has changed.

Talk to a Trained California Personal Injury Attorney About Your Case

You do not have to figure out whether you have a personal injury case on your own. If you have been hurt in a California accident, you should contact the experienced, compassionate attorneys at the Law Office of Reuben J. Donig. Our team will work with you to determine whether you have a case and advocate on your behalf to help you receive the full compensation you’re owed. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling your appointment today.

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