Guide to Catastrophic Personal Injuries

When you or a loved one suffers a personal injury, regardless of the extent of the injury, it’s significant and can be devastating. For injuries that are life-altering yet non-fatal, there is a catastrophic injury legal definition as well as a means for pursuing damages when another party’s actions or negligence is responsible. This educational guide examines the types, processes, and key elements of catastrophic injury lawsuits.

What Qualifies as a Catastrophic Injury?

In many cases, catastrophic injuries involve a deformity or disabling loss of physical or mental capacity. Injuries considered catastrophic generally affect victims for the rest of their lives, leaving lasting scars and disabilities or requiring long-term care, aid, and rehabilitation. Any injury that severely affects your or a loved one’s quality of life or ability to work may qualify as catastrophic. 

In Indiana, the legal definition of “catastrophic injury” is established in Indiana Code § 35-31.5-2-34.5, which states:

“Catastrophic injury” means bodily injury so severe that a person’s ability to live independently is significantly impaired for a period of at least one year. The term includes an injury causing blindness, deafness, paralysis, or an intellectual disability. 

Serious catastrophic injuries often occur suddenly, and many are commonly referred to as “freak” accidents. But many accidents are preventable, and millions of innocent victims are permanently harmed every year by reckless, inadvertent, or negligent acts of others. 

By working with an experienced personal injury lawyer, catastrophic injury victims and their families can recover expenses related to medical treatments, prosthetics, mobility devices, rehabilitation, counseling, in-home care, lost wages, future earning capacity, and more.


Catastrophic Injury Examples

The causes of catastrophic personal injuries vary, from motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian accidents to medical malpractice, hazardous workplaces, defective products, and more. Some of the more common injuries follow:

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 200,000 TBI-related hospitalizations yearly. Traumatic brain injuries can cause irreversible central nervous system damage, leading to significant cognitive impairments, a decline or loss of motor functions, or drastic changes in behavior. Falls and motor vehicle accidents, especially motorcycle accidents, are some common causes of TBIs, including severe concussions, skull fractures, and other penetrating head injuries.

Neck or Spinal Cord Injury and Paralysis

Nerve damage and injuries to the neck or spine can seriously impact the brain-body connection, causing pain, a loss of feeling, and partial or complete paralysis. Injuries, such as high falls and motor vehicle accidents involving large trucks or tractor-trailers, are examples of incidents with an increased risk of severe spinal cord injury.

Loss of Sight or Hearing

Sight and hearing do not have to be lost entirely to qualify as a catastrophic personal injury. By definition, they must only be life-altering. For example, a ten percent hearing loss can significantly affect the ability to hear people nearby or on the phone and television. Common causes of sight and hearing loss include strikes from flying debris, chemical burns, explosions, and brain injuries.


The sudden loss of a limb may result from either external trauma—such as a motor vehicle accident or workplace accidents involving industrial, manufacturing, or agricultural machinery—or an internal emergency like a bacterial infection. Processing the shock of the loss can be an early challenge, and amputees often require lifelong assistance. Per the Amputee Coalition and National Limb Loss Resource Center, nearly 2 million people are living with limb loss in the United States, with roughly half (45%) of the amputations caused by trauma.

    Severe Burns

    Third-degree burns covering large areas of the body can be severely disfiguring and result in permanent damage. Across residential fires, vehicle crash fires, and other sources, according to the American Burn Association, nearly half a million burn injuries need medical treatment, and more than 40,000 require hospitalization each year.

    LEARN MORE:  Types of Personal Injury Cases

    Do I Have a Catastrophic Injury Case?

    Proving a catastrophic injury claim can be complex, and it’s crucial to work closely with legal and medical professionals to build a comprehensive case. That said, before taking on a case, a personal injury attorney must assess the following elements of your case:

    Direct result of an injury. Damages, including physical, mental, emotional, financial, and vocational consequences experienced by the victim that trace back directly to their injury.

    Severity of the injury. The injuries must be deemed catastrophic, such as causing difficulty living independently, permanent disabilities or disfigurements, ongoing care, and other severe impairments. 

    Liable person or persons. There must be a liable party whose actions, inaction, or negligence directly caused or led to the victim’s injuries. When determining liability, there is a high burden of proof on the plaintiff to show that the defendant caused their catastrophic injuries. 

    Comparitive injury fault. Under Indiana law’s modified comparative fault rule, defendants must be at least 50% responsible for a victim’s catastrophic injuries. If a plaintiff bears at least 51% of the blame for their injuries, they are not eligible for compensation. Thorough investigations are required, but settlements will correlate with the defendant’s percentage of fault. In other words, if a defendant holds 60% of the fault, they are responsible for paying 60% of the damages.

    How to Prove a Catastrophic Injury Claim

    A catastrophic injury claim typically involves gathering evidence to demonstrate the severity and long-term impact of the injury. Each case is unique, and the evidence required may vary based on the specific circumstances surrounding the injury. The key steps your attorney will employ to prove a catastrophic injury claim include the following:

    Medical Documentation

    Obtain thorough medical records detailing the extent of the injuries, treatments, surgeries, and prognosis. Include expert opinions from medical professionals who specialize in the type of injury sustained.

    Documentation of Functional Limitations

    Clearly document how the injury has affected the individual’s ability to perform daily activities, work, and enjoy life. This may involve assessments from occupational therapists or other relevant experts.

    Expert Testimony

    Engage medical experts who can testify to the severity and long-term consequences of the injury. Experts may include physicians, surgeons, rehabilitation specialists, and other relevant professionals.

    Rehabilitation Plans

    Document rehabilitation plans and therapies prescribed by healthcare professionals to demonstrate ongoing medical needs. Show the anticipated costs and duration of rehabilitation and therapy.

    Financial Documentation

    Keep records of all medical expenses related to the injury, including hospital bills, medication costs, rehabilitation expenses, and future treatment estimates. Document lost wages or income due to the injury.

    Life Care Plans

    Develop a life care plan outlining the injured person’s future medical needs, rehabilitation, assistive devices, and any modifications needed for daily living. Include cost estimates for each aspect of the life care plan.

    Witness Statements

    Collect statements from witnesses who observed the accident or can attest to the impact of the injury on the person’s life. Testimony may include family members, friends, coworkers, or anyone who can speak to the individual’s condition before and after the injury.

    Photographic Evidence

    Use photographs or videos to visually demonstrate the severity of the injury, the accident scene, and any ongoing physical challenges. Include images of medical procedures, surgeries, or assistive devices being used.

    Emotional Impact

    Consider the emotional and psychological impact of the injury on the individual’s life. Include mental health evaluations and testimonies from mental health professionals, if applicable.

    Independent Medical Examinations (IME)

    An independent medical examination may be requested by the opposing party or insurance company. Your attorney can guide you through this process to ensure fairness.

    LEARN MORE: Proving Liability: Key Elements in Catastrophic Injury Cases

    When a catastrophic personal injury occurs, worlds and priorities change dramatically in an instant for the afflicted victim and their family. Complete recovery is not attainable, and life will not be the same.

    Moving forward may feel impossible, with uncertainty surrounding long-term physical and mental well-being or the ability to work and provide for one’s family. Personal injury cases of any kind, especially those involving catastrophic injuries, can be complex. The prospect of navigating the necessary legal processes, in addition to recovery efforts, can seem daunting. 

    Catastrophic injuries can involve extensive medical costs and massive financial losses exceeding insurance limits. While no amount of money can erase the pain and damage caused, the legal system provides a path to life-rebuilding settlements by holding the responsible party accountable for the harm they’ve caused. 

    Some steps that the injured person and their family can take to navigate the process include:

    Pursue Recovery and Ongoing Medical Attention

    The first priority for every victim and their family should be improving their physical health and mental or emotional well-being. Focusing on treatment isn’t just essential for recovery but also plays a role in establishing a clear link between the incident and the plaintiff’s injuries.

    Consult an Attorney

    Having the guidance of an experienced catastrophic personal injury lawyer will be invaluable. Identify attorneys with expertise in personal injury law, particularly those who have handled the complexities of catastrophic injury cases. While victims typically have up to two years in most cases to file their claim under Indiana’s personal injury statute of limitations, time is of the essence, and it’s critical to begin examining your legal options with an experienced attorney as soon as possible. Witness memories may fade over time, or evidence essential in proving a case’s liability could be lost as time goes on.

    Assist Attorney With Pertinent Information

    Personal injury attorneys are thorough investigators, although they can be assisted by proactive victims of family members who maintain detailed records of incident details, doctor communications, costs incurred, and other relevant evidence. The investigative process may involve obtaining medical records, soliciting accident reports, or interviewing eyewitnesses who can corroborate a victim’s claims of negligence by the defendant. All of the assembled evidence, testimonies, and documentation or receipts associated with the case will be used to establish the amount of damages due to the plaintiff.

    Be Prepared for Negotiation and/or Litigation

    Many catastrophic injury lawsuits go through mediation and settlement negotiations before proceeding to a trial. Attorneys on both sides of the case and the defendant’s insurance provider often prefer to negotiate a fair settlement outside the courtroom. If a settlement can’t be reached, the lawsuit moves forward in Indiana court with the legal processes of discovery, depositions, the testimony of expert witnesses, and trial before a judge and jury. Negotiations can continue throughout the process, with experienced attorneys able to personally recommend the best course of action for their clients in each instance.

    Prepare For the Long-Term

    It’s difficult to assign a monetary value to a victim’s pain and family’s suffering. That’s why experienced injury attorneys often enlist the services of economists and life care planners to place a fair and accurate value on the damages in each case.

    Two critical factors that can entitle catastrophic injury plaintiffs to larger settlements are their capacity to work and age. With lower work capabilities, more will be required to care for the injured person. Younger victims would have had more prime working years ahead of them, so their care is assumed to be more prolonged than an older person.

    If the defendant is proven liable or a settlement is reached, victims and their families may be awarded compensatory damages to cover medical expenses, lost wages, future earnings, pain and suffering, and other recovery costs related to the catastrophic injuries. Attorneys, healthcare professionals, and financial planners should be involved in preparing for the victim’s long-term needs, medication or rehabilitation costs, and any other ongoing care.

    LEARN MORE: Navigating Catastrophic Injury Claims

    Finding an Experienced Catastrophic Personal Injury Attorney

    If you or a loved one have experienced a catastrophic injury through the fault of another, resulting in significant or permanent damage, the road ahead may be challenging. Engaging an experienced attorney who specializes in catastrophic injury cases is paramount to ensuring you can prepare for the injured’s long-term needs and that you can receive compensation for the profound impact your injuries have had on your life.

    While the journey can be complex, a knowledgeable and compassionate legal team can help you navigate your legal options and pursue a favorable, life-rebuilding resolution. At a minimum, enlisting an experienced law firm that can strongly litigate your case and sympathetically communicate your family’s personal story is essential.

      LEARN MORE: How to Find a Personal Injury Lawyer


      With more than 40 years of experience handling medical malpractice cases across Indiana, Montross Miller has developed a reputation for handling complex cases and getting deserved results.

      We’re committed to serving those who have experienced devastating negligence and medical malpractice, making your story heard, answering your questions, and helping you find a path forward. We aggressively pursue life-rebuilding compensation for our clients and their families and look forward to helping you recover in every way we can. Reach out to our team and get strength today for security tomorrow.