Brain Damage: the Invisible Injury that Destroys Lives

By Larry Bodine, Publisher of The National Trial Lawyers website and magazine


Traumatic brain damage is an invisible injury that destroys thousands of people’s lives and it is growing more common. Consider this:

  • The hospitalization rates for traumatic brain injuries have increased from 79 percent per 100,000 people to 87.9 percent per 100,000 people in recent years, according to the Brain Trauma Foundation.
  • Traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) is the leading cause of death and disability in children and adults ages 1 to 44. Every year, approximately 52,000 deaths occur as a result of a traumatic brain injury.
  • Traumatic brain injuries are most frequently caused by motor vehicle crashes, sports injuries, and childbirth.

People don’t realize just how fragile our seemingly strong bonds with the “outside world” are; our relationships with our family and friends, our school routine or our work day routine. These bonds are held together by the most microscopic and delicate “soft-tissue” bonds inside our skull. The same applies to our “inner lives” — who we are, what we like and dislike, and our memories. Every connection in our brains is developed through life experiences and passed genetically from our forefathers. Many times a traumatic brain injury doesn’t leave a mark, and therefore won’t appear on an X-ray or an MRI scan.

Three common causes of TBIs

Medical malpractice

Two of every 1,000 babies are born with cerebral palsy, a condition marked by mental retardation, behavioral disorders, seizures, visual and speech impairment, or hearing loss. While infections and disease are often the cause, cerebral palsy can also be caused by a negligent doctor or nurse who allows the baby to suffer from a lack of oxygen during labor or delivery.

It happened in the case of an infant girl, Lily Proffitt of Chester County, PA. Her pregnant mother was admitted to at Phoenixville Hospital and the soon-to-be born infant was placed on a fetal heart monitor.  The monitors warned the nurses that Lily had suffered a heart deceleration that became a life-threatening condition. Although the condition persisted, the nurses failed to inform the physician promptly, leading to delays in treatment. Those delays caused brain damage that led to Lily’s spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

The family filed suit and a jury awarded a verdict of over $32.8 million in February in favor of Lily’s mother and against two former Phoenixville Hospital nurses. Included in the award was more than $31 million for future medical expenses, $1 million for past and future non-economic damages, and $800,000 for future lost earning capacity. The award will provide for the care and support that Lily will need for the rest of her life.


Unsafe sports

Every year an estimated 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur, often in poorly-equipped games and competitions, such as football, hockey, soccer, pole vaulting, lacrosse, and baseball. Children age 15-17 experience the highest number of emergency room visits for sports-related injuries, according to Cleared to Play, a non-profit organization. Physical symptoms of TBI include headache, fuzzy or blurry vision, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light or noise, balance problems, or a lack of energy. The long-term effects include depression and dementia.

A jury awarded $11.5 million in April 2013 to a former high school football player who accused helmet maker Riddell Sports, Inc. of causing brain injuries he suffered as a teenager. During football practice at Trinidad High School in Trinidad, CO, Rhett Ridolfi, now 22, suffered a concussion. He wasn’t taken to the hospital right away and is now paralyzed on the left side and has severe brain damage. His parents sued Riddell, alleging the helmet was defective and that the company was negligent in failing to warn players adequately of the dangers of sustaining concussions despite the headgear. The jury in the Colorado case found the helmet maker 27 percent to blame for Ridolfi’s  injuries and put the remainder of the responsibility on two of the school’s coaches. Other school officials who were also sued settled out of court for confidential amounts before trial.


Car crashes

Motor vehicle crashes were the third overall leading cause of TBI (14 percent) nationwide.   Furthermore, motor vehicle crashes were the second leading cause of TBI-related deaths (26 percent) for 2006–2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A military veteran in Florida who suffered brain damage after he was struck by a hit-and-run driver won a $26 million jury verdict in April, 2013. Dustin Brink was riding a motorcycle in Kissimmee, FL, when he was hit by a car driven by Juan Ruiz Pereles. Brink’s head hit the pavement and caused serious injury to his brain, interfering with basic functions, such as organizing and sequencing events or filtering thoughts before he speaks. The 31-year-old does not remember the accident and now exhibits child-like behavior.

Brink’s parents, who now take care of him, sued Pereles for negligent driving. Brink was learning to become a mechanic, but will never be able to work as one because of his extensive brain injuries. It is common and understandable for family members to have many questions about the long-term effects of brain damage on an injured person’s ability to function. Researchers have only begun to understand the long-term effects in patients over one, five, and ten years after injury. One thing is certain — that a recovery from a TBI can take years and will require continuous and comprehensive medical and financial support.


Larry Bodine is a lawyer and journalist who writes about important legal trends. Currently, he is the publisher of the National Trial Lawyers and is the former Editor in Chief of Readers can follow @Larrybodine on Twitter, on Google+ and on LinkedIn, where he moderates several attorney groups.