Many insurers (and, sometimes, even lawyers who represent injury victims) would have you believe that if you’ve had a prior injury or case, it will severely harm your present case, or limit or eliminate your damages. In my experience, in the hands of a good trial attorney, that ‘weakness’ can often be turned into a ‘strength’.

If you take the right steps, reveal your history to your lawyer, and retain a properly skilled and diligent trial attorney, you can reverse the myth and maximize your recovery.

Here’s two great examples of how we can deal with medical history and complications here at MALIS|LAW, from past cases:

1. The Classic ‘Bad Back Made Worse” — I had a client who was injured on a construction site, who’d had a bad back that was so troublesome that he was seeing a chiropractor and orthopedic surgeon on a monthly basis before he had the fall that led him to hire me.

At trial, we demonstrated graphically with before-and-after Xrays and MRIs that his fall had tremendously accelerated the rate of deterioration of his spine. His treating doctor testified that his pre-existing degenerative condition made his spine far more vulnerable to trauma like that caused by his fall. His wife testified that while he had given up many of his favorite sports activities, his one source of pride as a man was his ability to work and earn, and that this accident was, literally, the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.

A jury awarded him well over a million dollars for his claim.

2. Drug Addiction — Insurers love to put an injured person’s illegal drug use in front of a jury to ‘tar’ a claimant. In one case in my office, however, we were able to turn that potential weakness into a strength:

A client came to my office with an awful injury. During his recovery from surgery, his need to take opiate pain killers to deaden his pain brought back an old ‘street’ addiction to illegal narcotics. Eventually, his family had to have him hospitalized to rehabilitate. Massachusetts law, however, prevents admitting evidence of addiction or illegal narcotic use as damages.

We were still able to use my client’s dramatic story, however, to underscore the extent of his damages. I was able to demonstrate, through family and physician testimony, the depths of his pain; the complications from his addiction; and the completeness of his rehabiltation, and the help he received from his wife ad his family. Even though we couldn’t introduce evidence of accident related addiction, we still retained an expert in the field of addiction who would be prepared to testify that his accident related opiate use ‘triggered his addiction’. This presented the insurers with a dilemma; if THEY introduced the evidence of my client’s drug addiction to lessen my client’s reputation with the jury, they faced potential admissibility of his addiction as a damage.

Despite this potentially ‘lethal’ complication in my client’s treatment, the case settled for many millions of dollars (and, I’m pleased to say, the client has successfully warded off his addiction).

Here’s a few general rules of how to deal with your medical history in YOUR case . . .

1. BE HONEST WITH YOUR LAWYER.

Disclose your prior medical history in detail to your lawyer when you hire them. Don’t hold back information because you think it will discourage the attorney, or prevent them from working hard for you. The lawyer’s worst enemy in a personal injury case is an undisclosed prior injury. However, if you disclose your past history, the lawyer may well find ways to maximize your recovery, as you’ll see below.

2. UNDERSTAND THE LEGAL STANDARD.

The law in virtually every state will compensate an injury victim for the extent that an injury worsens a prior condition, even if the nature of the trauma wouldn’t have ordinarily injured a hale and healthy ‘victim’. The law ‘takes victims as they find them’. For example, if a prior trauma worsened a kneecap so much that another trauma, even if light, fractured it, the victim’s entitled to recover for damages for the fractured knee. However, in awarding or assessing damages the jury (or insurer) can take into account the fact that the knee was already not 100% to begin with.

3. TELL YOUR DOCTORS YOUR ENTIRE HISTORY.

Just as with your attorneys, don’t hold back details from your medical doctors. Most physicians will tell you that ‘patient history’ during interviews is a critical diagnostic and treatment tool. Just as with your attorneys, your doctors need to know about your past to give accurate appraisals of your present and future condition. If something troubled you before the accident, even if it was previously resolved, let your doctor know (even if they don’t come out and asked). If you had an ongoing problem, make sure the doctor knows about it, and also knows whether it’s different or worsened now. A full and accurate medical history will help you get the maximum recovery from medical treatment (which should always be your goal, as no personal injury settlement will make up for your loss of health).

4. DON’T DECIDE WHAT’S IMPORTANT OR WHAT’S NOT — DISCLOSE EVERYTHING.

Obviously, the first question about a prior injury or claim is: are they not at all related? A prior knee injury will likely have nothing to do with hurting your shoulder. A chronic problem with your finger has little effect on a brain trauma. While these are obvious exaggerations, they still can be used by a skilfull defense lawyer to hurt your credibility if they aren’t disclosed up front. This might seem counter-logical — why create a record that could hurt your case? However, understand that insurers conduct thorough investigations of claimants, through attorneys and, during litigation, using the formal tools of discovery. Assume that the insurer will not find out, and trust me, they will, and will use your non-disclosure as an excuse for not paying you fairly for your injury. Assume that they will, and you take this weapon away from them, and allow your lawyer to tell the story that benefits you best from the real facts at hand.

5. DON’T EXAGGERATE OR MINIMIZE A PRIOR INJURY.

Often, orthopedic injuries heal in a relatively short time. Sometimes, they don’t, presenting nagging injuries that last for years. In either case, the insurer’s best strategy is to get an injured person to distort or lie about their past, ‘trying the lie’. Since a jury tends to distrust injured persons seeking compensation anyhow, the insurers and their attorneys try to make the injured person less credible, suggesting that a misstatement about something years ago amounts to a lie being told today. The best way to frustrate that strategy is to look back, honestly, at your injury ‘past’, and make sure your attorney knows about it. Review the records with them when he or she obtains them, and refresh your memory about the prior history, especially prior to answering interrogatories (questions under oath) or to giving a deposition (a sworn statement under oath).

6. LOOK FOR CONNECTIONS

So you’ve injured the same part of your body twice. Any orthopedic doctor would tell you that a prior trauma to an area creates a greater likelihood that a second trauma will cause more or worsened damage. It makes sense — if you’ve damaged ligaments or tendons, these injuries can weaken the support structure so that another trauma rips far more. Think about how differently a healthy tree and a damage tree weather a storm. So reflect a little bit about your medical condition before describing your history to your attorney. Were you truly fully recovered, or did you have a residual twinge that’s now out of control? Let him or her know.

7. KNOW YOUR PAST — DON’T MEMORIZE IT.

In this process, you aren’t required to remember every detail of your past; no one’s that smart, or lives their life as a notetaker. Disclose everything as best you can, but don’t get so tied up in dates or times that you come off as ‘scripted’. Give your best, honest recount of your medical history, and rely on your lawyer to help you over any factual bumps.

8. TRUST YOUR LAWYER TO TELL YOUR STORY.

Since few of us escape life without getting nicked up, almost all of us would have to deal with a prior injury as part of our medical history, and as part of presenting the claim. The area of ‘prior claims history’ or injury history is probably the greatest reason that your lawyer will add value to your claim. They’ll scour your record and, if reasonably skilled, will try to either minimize the effect of a prior injury by distinguishing it; demonstrating that it had already been well resolved; or, even better, using it to explain how the trauma of your current accident created so much damage to you or your life.