Aggravation: The Effect of Pre-Existing Medical Conditions on Personal Injury Claims

I regularly speak with new clients who have medical conditions that predate their motor vehicle collisions. Over time, I have also represented clients who have been injured in two and even three separate accidents. Each one of these clients has the same question: What effect will my prior medical history have on the outcome of my personal injury case? While the question itself is straightforward, the answer can be surprisingly complex.

Under the law of Virginia, every plaintiff in a personal injury case is entitled to seek full and fair compensation for their bodily injuries; the medical expenses incurred as a result of those injuries; the associated pain, suffering, inconvenience and mental anguish; and any lost wages.[1] Importantly, each one of these damages must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.[2] This means that when the value of your claim is negotiated with an insurance adjuster or your personal injury case is tried before a judge or a jury, we have the burden of proving that the accident caused the specific injuries we are claiming.

From a purely legal perspective, the defendant takes the plaintiff as they find them; thus pre-existing conditions should have no impact on a personal injury case. From a practical perspective, however, if you had a bad back before the accident, it can be somewhat difficult to establish that the motor vehicle collision caused your current back pain. Almost without exception the insurance adjuster assigned to your claim or the defense attorney assigned to your case will identify your pre-existing medical condition as the single largest obstacle in your path to financial recovery.

Accordingly, the best way to meet our burden of proof is to present a clear and well-documented depiction of your physical condition both before and after the collision. While your testimony on these issues is vital to the success of your case, corroboration from your treating medical providers can make all the difference in the eyes of an adjuster, the court or a jury.

In the immediate aftermath of an accident, it is important that you describe your current physical condition to the first treating medical provider that you see and explain that you were injured in a motor vehicle collision. This will help to establish that you are suffering from new injuries that were caused by a distinct traumatic event.

I next recommend that my clients return to the treating medical provider who knows their pre-accident condition the best and explain the difference in both the location and degree of their pain as clearly as possible. For example, if you were recovering from a neck surgery at the time of the accident and had 3 out of 10 pain, but after the accident you have 8 out of 10 pain on both sides of your neck, go back to your orthopedist and explain that as a result of a motor vehicle accident you now have 8 out of 10 pain on both sides of your neck. That provider will either recommend a course of treatment to adequately address your new injuries or will refer you to another medical provider best suited to address your current medical needs. In either event, that physician can later testify about any aggravation to your pre-existing medical condition caused by the collision and explain what effect the accident had on your “baseline” physical condition.

It is similarly important to document the quality of your life both before and after the accident. If you were on the road to recovery, returning to regular employment, starting to do more work around the house or beginning to engage in more strenuous physical activity before the collision but had to stop as a result of the accident, this dramatic change in your lifestyle speaks directly to your damages. Identifying witnesses such as a spouse, close friend or co-worker who is familiar with your progress and subsequent regression can cement a before and after comparison in the minds of anyone tasked with evaluating your case.

While pre-existing medical conditions may seem complicated, painting a clear before and after picture through careful documentation from medical providers and the testimony of independent witnesses is relatively simple. The law pertaining to personal injury cases in Virginia is designed to protect people who are injured through no fault of their own – whether those people had pre-existing medical conditions or not. Structuring the presentation of your claim with a focus on the before and after can mean all the difference in obtaining a full and fair recovery.

If you or someone you know has aggravated a pre-existing medical condition in a motor vehicle collision, the experienced attorneys of Allen and Allen are happy to assist. Call us for a free consultation.

About the Author: Chris Toepp is a Fredericksburg, VA personal injury lawyer dedicated to helping people who have been injured by the negligence of others. He is experienced in handling personal injury cases involving car crashes. Chris works in the Fredericksburg, Virginia office of Allen & Allen and serves clients across Northern Virginia and Central Virginia.

[1] See Virginia Model Jury Instruction No. 9.000

[2] A complete definition for “preponderance of the evidence” is available online at: