Claiming compensation for head injuries in South Africa
Trauma to the scalp, skull or brain is considered to be a head injury. While the medical profession may use head injury and traumatic brain injury (TBI) interchangeably, in this article we shall be focusing on the term head injury and specifically to injuries that do not immediately appear to affect the brain, or where there is no obvious evidence that the brain has been injured or damaged, i.e., the head has suffered a closed injury, rather than an open (penetrating) one.
What is a head injury?
Head injuries are more common in adults than in children, and the usual causes of such injuries include falls (due, perhaps to poor balance or not taking proper precautions), car collisions, colliding with or being hit by an object, and violent assaults. In children, the falls tend to be accidental, usually when the child is learning to walk. Sadly, in some cases, head injuries in children may be due to abuse, when the child is shaken or struck.
In all instances of suspected head injury, seek immediate medical advice.
A closed injury to the head is defined as being one where the dura mater – the thick membrane, the outermost of three layers that surround the brain (and spinal cord) – remains intact. The skull may also be fractured, but this may not always be the case. In any case of head trauma, it is vital to act as if it were a serious injury, even if it appears that there is no obvious damage to the victim. As the person injured or the person ‘first on the scene’, the best advice is always to be cautious and seek medical advice because damage or injury to the brain may, in fact, have taken place. Not many of us are medical doctors, and very few of us are brain surgeons, but almost all of us have seen a medical drama where the life of a person is threatened when it is discovered that the character is suffering from a subdural haematoma.
A haematoma (or haemorrhage) is a localised collection of blood outside the blood vessels and a subdural haematoma occurs when blood collects between the dura mater and the brain. This can often occur with no obvious signs of damage to the skull or head. The result can be a stroke leading to permanent brain damage or even death. If you display any signs of nausea or vomiting after the injury occurred, immediately call an ambulance. Nausea and vomiting are often the first sign of brain trauma, especially concussion.
How to claim in the event of a head injury
The circumstances surrounding how you sustain a head injury will dictate whether you may be entitled to make a claim for compensation. If you fall from a ladder while climbing into the attic, or tumble downstairs at home because you trip on the cord of your dressing gown, then most people might say this is a simple accident (as serious as the fall maybe) but if you are involved in a traffic collision, where you or your loved one are the innocent parties; or your place of work did not follow legislated safety precautions, then you may indeed be entitled to receive compensation for your head injury. After an examination by a medical expert, your head injury could turn out to be minor – perhaps all you need to do is take a few days off work and be treated with prescription painkillers - then you may feel that claiming compensation (no matter how justified it may be) simply ‘isn’t worth it’ in terms of unnecessary stress and expense.
On the other hand - despite a full recovery, with the prognosis of a long and healthy life ahead of you – if you and your family have endured weeks or months of worry and stress as you recover from, then seeking compensation, not least for medical expenses, may be the appropriate action to take. The practicalities of claiming compensation may be the last thing to bother about, but it is important that the appropriate people are involved throughout your struggle to get better.
No one piece of advice provides all, or the best advice of what to do when seeking compensation for a head injury that will have resulted in many thousands of rand in medical bills, possibly lost income (especially if you are self-employed) and numerous less obvious expenses like travelling to and from the hospital or, perhaps, the cost of a therapist. It is important to seek advice from the right people. Usually, these people will be professionals: your GP, medical specialists, therapists, occupational, physiotherapists, lawyers, labour law consultants - in the case of an injury that has taken place at work, and in some case you may wish to lay a criminal charge at the police station.
The effects can be serious...
In life, almost all of us will experience loss or trauma of some kind or another. For some of us, this may include a divorce, a serious car collision, with significant physical injury and resulting expenses, illness, a home invasion or fire, a robbery or even a burst geyser that results in major water damage. But a major head injury not only involves loss or trauma, but, if the injury is severe, and affects the brain, the outcome can be particularly difficult to cope with. Damage to the brain may often result in cognitive and behavioural changes, with these changes differing according to what part of the brain has been injured. Someone who has experienced a severe head injury may need physical therapy to help in walking again, or her speech has been impeded even sight and hearing difficulties. Perhaps a limb may be affected requiring walking with a stick, or having to learn to use the other arm for day-to-day tasks. It may mean having to relearn how to drive or restoring normal balance and coordination.
But most significant of all, a serious head injury may affect one’s personality, changing your innate nature and the manner in which you relate to others and how they relate to you. If you were cautious, mild-mannered and balanced before the incident, in some instances the personality can change to being aggressive, violent and liable to mood-swings. This makes a person extremely difficult to live with; changing the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, close friends and even interacting with society itself
No amount of planning or caution can prevent the traumatic unexpected, in this case, a severe head injury. But we can all re-examine our lives to live a little more carefully. Let’s learn to drive more carefully and avoid putting ourselves and others in harm’s way. Let’s think before we act! Is it better to start fixing the roof, alert and refreshed after a good night’s sleep, or to try to do it exhausted after a hectic day at the office, hastily, in poor light, ignoring your conscience that the job could wait until the weekend, even though you would much prefer watching the sport on TV.