What Is the “Eggshell Skull Rule?”

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Some accidents are just that – mistakes that can have grievous consequences. Unfortunately, the fact that a person’s injury or damages arose from a mistake does little to compensate the victim for the harm he or she suffered. The civil justice system exists to provide an important avenue of recourse for victims of negligence, no matter the intention or how an accident occurred. One of the most important doctrines that aids this process goes by the name of the eggshell rule.

The eggshell rule states that if one person harms another, he or she must pay for whatever damages the plaintiff suffered, even if they were far beyond what anyone would have expected.

The eggshell skull doctrine gets its name from a fictitious example usually used to illustrate the subject in law school. In this example, a person has an extremely thin and fragile skull. Another person – the defendant – punches this person in the head. Though any other person would have only suffered bruises in the incident, the person with eggshell skull dies. Under the eggshell skull doctrine, the defendant would still be liable for the victim’s wrongful death, even though it was not what anyone would have expected.

The eggshell skull rule also applies in instances of negligence. For example, say a furniture store knowingly sells a dangerous or defective crib that’s easy for a baby to climb out of. A normal baby might only suffer bumps and bruises, but this furniture store sold the crib to parents of a child with hemophilia. The child climbs out of the crib and bumps his or her head and has to spend weeks in the hospital recovering from an internal brain bleed. In this case, the furniture store would be responsible for the child’s hospital bills and the cost of any future medical care, even though they didn’t foresee such a grievous injury.

Grounds for the Eggshell Skull Doctrine

The rule regarding eggshell skulls or plaintiffs lies in the idea that a defendant must compensate for the harm he or she actually causes, not what any reasonable person would expect it to cause. In legal terms, the defendant must take the plaintiff “as he or she finds him,” or with any complications that could exacerbate the degree of injury.

On the other hand, a defendant is not required to exercise a higher duty of care to a plaintiff with a medical condition. The duty of care is the same regardless of whether a plaintiff has a proverbial eggshell skull.

Certain exceptions to the eggshell skull exist. For example, when the injured plaintiff injures himself or herself, the eggshell skull doctrine might not apply. Humpty Dumpty makes for an interesting analogy; Humpty Dumpty took it upon himself to climb up on the wall where he had a great fall. Even if the wall were negligently constructed, he knowingly put himself in harm’s way. As a result, he may be partially liable for the damages he incurs under the rule of contributory negligence.

When a personal injury case leads to significant damages, an accident attorney may see if the eggshell skull doctrine applies in some cases a motorcycle accident attorney as well. If a judge deems that it should apply during trial, then a jury must consider this fact when awarding damages. Simply, a judge will instruct a jury to calculate damages as they stand, without considering what another person without an eggshell condition would have suffered – even if those damages would have been significantly lower. In general, the eggshell skull doctrine preserves an important form of recourse for those who suffer invisible medical conditions.