By Francis M. Smith
After the initial treatment for any sort of injury, doctors will generally provide you with a set of specific instructions: what medications to take, what testing to go for, how long to stay out of work, what specialists to follow up with, who to call if your symptoms get worse, and so on. While these instructions are important for anyone who has suffered an injury, they take on an additional layer of necessity for the victims of accidents caused by the negligence of another. If there’s any chance that you may have a claim for compensation for the injuries you suffered, faithfully following your doctor’s orders is just as important to the success of your personal injury case as it is to your health and recovery.
When you file a claim for injury compensation, the insurance company involved assigns an adjuster to investigate your case and search for any potential weaknesses in your claim. Insurance companies are for-profit enterprises, and make their money by ensuring that their expenses (including the compensation they have to pay to injury victims) amount to less than the premiums they take in from selling policies. In short, the insurance company wants to pay you as little as it can get away with, and it will look for any excuse to argue that the amount you receive in compensation should be reduced. If the issue of fault in your case is beyond dispute and their insured client is completely to blame for your injuries, you might think that the insurance company has no choice but to pay your expenses. Unfortunately, they have many other avenues of attack – one of which is whether you followed doctor’s orders. Here's why:
Even if you bear no fault for the accident that caused your injuries in the first place, the insurance company may try to find ways that you may have hindered your recovery after the fact, resulting in a more lengthy or expensive course of treatment being required. If you fail to follow your doctor’s orders more or less exactly, the insurance adjuster is almost guaranteed to seize on that deviation as proof that your injuries aren’t as severe as you claim, or that you aren’t doing your part to achieve as quick and inexpensive a recovery as possible. In lawyer talk, they say you failed to "mitigate your damages".
This isn’t to imply that you have no say in the implementation of your recovery plan. For instance, if your doctor prescribes heavy-duty pain medication that you are not comfortable with taking – perhaps because of its addictive potential or because it renders you too drowsy to properly supervise your children – you can still discuss alternatives with your doctor, or seek a second opinion if you feel that your concerns are not being heard. However, once any concerns you have are addressed, it’s essential to follow your doctor’s orders as precisely as you can (without endangering your health of course). In our culture, many people are taught not to make a fuss over the pain of their injuries for fear of appearing weak. But refusing to use a prescribed pain medication for that reason will only harm your injury claim, as well as prolong your suffering and possibly interfere with your recovery. On the other hand, some of my clients have a cultural dislike for medications or have legitimate health concerns, and would rather suffer pain than put a foreign substance in their bodies. If this is you, it needs to be explained that way.
It’s also important to remember that not all forms of treatment are considered equal in the eyes of the court system. Most health care professionals will agree that science-based medical care has far more evidence of effectiveness backing it than other, “alternative” health practices, including chiropractic, acupuncture and acupressure. If your case goes to trial, the jury may agree with this assessment, and reduce the damages awarded to an injured plaintiff who goes against their doctor’s orders and obtains follow-up care from an alternative practitioner instead of a medical professional. This may seem unfair to the injury victim, but certain types of alternative health practices are not fully understood by the general population, and it's your attorney's job to make your treatment understandable to those assessing the severity of your injuries (a claims representative or a jury). For myself, I know of the benefits of chiropractic treatment personally, having suffered with a bad back since I was in my 20's. That said, the appearance of pursuing unproven treatments instead of evidence-based medicine may unnecessarily prolong recovery at best, and at worst may put an accident victim’s health at greater risk, not to mention the merits of the claim being made for compensation.
When you go up against an insurance company to seek compensation for your injuries, it’s critical to avoid leaving any cracks in your case for the insurance adjuster to exploit. At the same time, it’s equally vital to seek the best health care available for the sake of your own physical and emotional well-being. Finding a doctor you trust, ideally one who has been recommended to you by someone who has been treated by that doctor, and then following that doctor’s orders regarding your care to the best of your ability is an important step toward both of those goals. While you focus on your recovery by pursuing the best and most effective medical treatment for your injuries, your attorney can work on building the strongest case possible in order to secure you the compensation you deserve. The key to success is finding professionals – both on your medical and your legal team – that you trust.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.