Whiplash, Car Accidents, and Settlement Value

How whiplash-type injuries affect the value of a car accident claim.

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Whiplash is a lay term for an injury to the soft tissues of the neck, which include the neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Whiplash is not a formal medical diagnosis; it generally refers to soft tissue injuries such as neck sprain or neck strain.

Whiplash is caused when the neck moves back and forth due to the impact of the car accident. The main symptoms of whiplash include neck or upper back pain or stiffness, shoulder pain or stiffness, headache, dizziness, or a burning or itching sensation in the neck, shoulders, or arms. A more severe injury might cause memory loss, difficulty in concentration, sleep disturbances, or fatigue. (Learn more about car accident neck injuries.)

How to Determine Damages in a Whiplash Case

In order to value a whiplash case, you have to determine two things:

  • what are your chances of winning the trial?
  • how much might a judge or jury realistically award you if you win?

Answering the first question requires you to honestly and objectively determine your chances of actually winning the case. Just because you got hurt does not automatically mean that you will win the case. Unless you were rear-ended, no car accident case is a slam dunk for the injured person.

Only after you have a real sense of your chances of winning at trial can you think about damages. Then, your goal is to figure out how much a judge or jury might really award you if your case went to trial.

There are two types of damages in a personal injury case:

  • damages capable of exact calculation (called special damages), and
  • damages not capable of exact calculation

Damages capable of exact calculation, or special damages, are lost earnings and lost earning capacity, medical bills, and other financial losses. Damages not capable of exact calculation are pain and suffering.

What Is A Whiplash Case Worth?

Assuming that you would win the case, damages in a whiplash case are usually small. If your injury has been diagnosed as whiplash or neck strain or sprain, it is not generally a severe injury. Whiplash does not generally involve an injury to the intervertebral disks.

So, your claim may not be a big one, but how do you value a car accident case? The first thing to do is to add up your special damages. Let’s say, for example, that you have $4,000 of medical bills and $1,000 of lost earnings. So, your special damages are $5,000. (When finished reading this article, use our Car Accident Calculator to get a ballpark idea on what your accident is worth.)

How to Value Pain and Suffering In A Whiplash Case

This is the big question in a whiplash case. You may have heard or read that lawyers and legal writers talk about a “multiplier” in personal injury cases, meaning that insurance companies calculate pain and suffering as being worth some multiple of your special damages. The multiple could be anywhere from 1.5 to 4.

But the multiplier concept is true only up to a point. If your case went to trial, the jury would not use a multiplier. In reality, there are so many other factors that increase or decrease a damages award at trial that you should not rely too much on the multiplier concept. Some of those factors are the following:

  • whether the plaintiff is a good or bad witness
  • whether the plaintiff is believable
  • whether the plaintiff has a criminal record
  • whether the jury understands the plaintiff’s injuries, and
  • the nature of the plaintiff’s medical treatment.

Human nature dictates that, if the jury likes the plaintiff, it will award him/her more for pain and suffering than if it doesn’t like the plaintiff.

Who the plaintiff treats with is also very important. If the vast majority of the plaintiff’s medical bills are for treatment like physical therapy or chiropractic treatment, as opposed to physician’s or hospital bills, juries (and insurance companies) are likely to discount the plaintiff’s injuries. Juries and insurers tend to believe that, if someone was really injured, he/she would be seeing doctors, not therapists or chiropractors.

So, to take our earlier example, if your medical bills were $4,000, but $3,800 of them were for physical therapy, then your award for pain and suffering might be significantly less than the multiplier concept would indicate. Learn more about Pain and Suffering in 'Minor' Car Accident Cases.

Updated by: , J.D.

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