You probably haven’t heard about the fourteen-year-old kid in Waukesha, Wisconsin who kicked an eleven-year-old kid in the shin. The kick was so light that the eleven-year-old never felt it. Nevertheless, the kick caused the kid’s leg to become infected (probably because the kid had recently had an infection in his leg), and he eventually lost use of his leg permanently.
It’s a crazy story, but it is an example of what is referred to in the law as the “eggshell plaintiff rule.” What that rule basically says is that a defendant takes the victim as he finds him. A slightly less legalistic way to explain it is to say that if a plaintiff has a preexisting condition that makes the plaintiff more susceptible to injury, the defendant cannot say, “Well, he already had a pre-existing condition, so I’m not responsible.” For example, if the victim in a car accident case had back problems before the accident, and the accident hurts the victim more than it would have hurt someone with a healthy back, the defendant (actually, from a practical standpoint, the defendant’s insurance company) will have to pay for the worsening of the back. Of course, the defendant is not responsible for how bad the back was before the accident.
So, for example, if the victim already needed back surgery, the defendant wouldn’t be responsible to pay for that back surgery. If, on the other hand, the medical records were clear that back surgery was not necessary before the accident, but was required after the accident, that’s where the eggshell plaintiff rule prevents the defendant from shirking responsibility for paying for the back surgery. That’s where these cases sometimes get difficult, because it can sometimes be tough to prove how bad the condition was before the accident as compared to before the accident.
Now, back to those two kids and the kicking incident. You probably haven’t heard much about that case, partly because you probably don’t follow news out of Waukesha, Wisconsin, but also because that case happened 125 years ago, in 1890. In fact, that case is one of the foundational cases for the eggshell plaintiff rule. Not only does that case serve as a good precedent for cases in which a plaintiff has preexisting conditions, it also serves as a good life lesson: Be careful who you kick!