I was out in Midland recently, meeting with a client whose case I was in the final stages of resolving, when I took a break to get lunch with an old friend. One of the things that goes along with being a commercial truck accident attorney is that your friends are always bringing up 18-wheeler accidents that they hear about in the news.
My friend told me about a collision that happened on State Highway 158, where one truck driver pulled out to make a left turn, and it appears as though his actions resulted in the death of another truck driver. He also mentioned that the truck driver who died in the crash (whose name I later discovered to be Ray Montez Reyes) was 74.
This led my friend to ask: "Do trucking companies whose drivers cause wrecks like this one, in which an elderly person died, ever try to argue that a younger man would have survived the crash?" My friend's not an attorney, and he was surprised when I told him that civil courts don't permit this kind of argument, known in legal circles as a thin skull or eggshell plaintiff argument.
My friend is a pretty educated man, so I figured if he wasn't familiar with these arguments and the reasons why they're not permitted in civil suits, most members of the general public probably wouldn't be either. In the interest of furthering our firm's mission to educate the general public, I thought I'd take a few minutes to explain the details of this argument and why it's not permitted.
How The Thin Skull Argument Relates to Personal Injury Law
In order to understand how the thin skull argument relates to personal injury law, it's helpful to start with the elements of a successful personal injury case. In brief, these are:
- Someone (the defendant) owed another person (the plaintiff) a duty;
- The defendant failed to fulfill that duty;
- The plaintiff was harmed as a result; and
- That harm resulted in losses (damages), such as medical bills, lost wages, or pain and suffering.
Drilling down a bit more, another issue that enters into such claims is whether both the risk of the injury and the resulting damages were reasonably foreseeable, or, in other words, whether the average person could be expected to foresee their actions causing a defendant's injuries.
For example, one case in Virginia involved a seaman throwing a candy wrapper through a hatch, which brushed up against another man's leg, leading him to jump into the air and injure his back. A court found that a reasonable person could not have expected this to be the result of tossing out the wrapper, and therefore found the back injuries not foreseeable by the seaman.
Reasonable foreseeability ensures that someone is not unfairly held responsible for events beyond their control. The law holds people accountable for carelessness, not the random chaos of our world. For example, if a truck driver is traveling down the road when he experiences a sudden medical emergency, and he had never experienced symptoms before, he could not have reasonably been expected to prevent the emergency through proper ongoing treatment. Our legal system would be unlikely to hold him responsible for a crash that resulted.
A thin skull argument represents a bastardized version of a genuine foreseeability defense. In a thin skull argument, a lawyer suggests that a plaintiff suffered from a preexisting condition or status that made their injuries worse than they would have otherwise been. As a result, the argument goes, the person accused of causing the plaintiff's injuries couldn't reasonably be expected to have been aware of that condition and therefore can't fairly be held responsible for the ensuing damages.
Fortunately, for the countless people who've suffered losses as a result of someone's negligent behavior, these sorts of arguments are not permitted in civil trials. The law holds that defendants must "take their plaintiffs as they find them," and are still responsible for any injuries that ensue from their actions, even if a plaintiff's condition led those injuries to be more severe than the defendant might have had reason to expect.
Courts don't permit thin skull arguments, because doing so would reward careless people who injure or kill others, simply because they won the victim lottery and happened to hurt a fragile person. The law seeks to hold people accountable for careless behavior, not give them clever ways to dodge responsibility.
The Thin Skull Rule Protects the Weak Among Us
To see how unjust eggshell plaintiff arguments are, imagine that someone was speeding down the road when they ran over your grandmother. If the thin skull rule didn't exist, the person who was speeding would be free to argue that they're only responsible for the injuries a young, vigorous person would have sustained in a similar collision, not the harm that they actually inflicted on your sweet, but frail grandmother.
Beyond keeping the courts out of the business of speculating about how a healthy person would have responded to a particular negligent act, it allows all people the full protection of the law, regardless of any pre-existing conditions. When you get right down to it, we only have law in the first place to protect the weak from the strong. Without courts of law, the only way for people to resolve conflict is through violence, and that means of dispute resolution inherently favors those with the most strength.
Without the thin skull rule, personal injury law would offer greater protection to the healthy, the young, and those in great physical condition, and fail to protect the old and sick. Because most of us will be in one or both of those more vulnerable conditions at some point in our lives, it's ultimately in everyone's interests that courts focus on actual harm, not hypotheticals.