At last, the news media is filled with stories about professional athletes and soldiers who suffer traumatic brain injuries, raising the public awareness and understanding about these invisible injuries. Missing from this discussion are the police officers who suffer traumatic head injuries in collisions, as well as in scuffles and falls. Vehicle crashes are a leading cause of brain injury. Even where the head is not struck in a collision or a fall, the mechanics of the trauma can cause the brain to move inside the skull striking back and forth against the hard and jagged interior surfaces of the skull causing a traumatic brain injury. Where there is no fracture of the skull or penetration of the skull, such an injury is often referred to as a “closed head injury”, “post-concussive syndrome” and “mild traumatic brain injury.” It is critically important that all police officers, their superiors and the families of officers become familiar with the signs and symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI). These injuries to the brain are frequently overlooked, even by emergency room physicians and primary care physicians, who often rely upon x-rays, MRI scans and CT scans of the head, which results are often reported as being normal. This is not fair to the head injury victim as most of the damage from an MTBI is microscopic and will not show up on such standard tests. It is important you all become familiar with the signs and symptoms, so the injured officer can seek and receive prompt and appropriate medical attention from medical professionals who specialize in treating this often overlooked debilitating injury.
Each year it has been reported an estimated 1.7 million people suffer a traumatic brain injury in the U.S. Approximately 75% of that number suffer a concussion or some other form of MTBI. “Mild” traumatic brain injury is an unfortunate term. It implies there are some forms of traumatic brain injury which are minimal or acceptable. This is not true. There is no acceptable form of brain injury. Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of death and disability for Americans under the age of 45. You do not have to be completely unconscious to have suffered an MTBI. It is now understood an altered state of consciousness, where the officer appears out of it, fuzzy or has an incomplete recollection of the events before, during or after the incident may indicate an MTBI. This case involves a police officer who was injured while working a road construction detail. It was initially thought by responding officers and the emergency room physician that he had his “bell rung” and would be back to work quickly.
At 6:30 a.m. the foreman for the general contractor for the repaving project of this City’s streets arrives at the work site. The foreman directs the milling crew where work is to be done that day. He leaves before 7:00 a.m. to visit other projects. He never returns. By 7:00 a.m. the section of busy road under construction is closed. Police officers are positioned at the top and bottom of the hill where the road is closed. They direct traffic away from the work site. Dump trucks line up on the closed road to receive the milled pavement. One by one trucks leave the work site hauling away the millings and then return for another load. Robert Brown is driving one of the dump trucks. He works for one of a half dozen subcontractors hired to work that day. The subcontractors do the milling and hauling during this phase of the job. His dump truck is parked on the work site and faces downhill. It will not start. He works under the hood for half an hour. The dump truck still won’t start. Before noon the milling crew takes a break. It begins to rain heavily. At the bottom of the hill Officer Blue returns to his vehicle. He enters his vehicle to put on his rain gear. He looks down as he adjusts the clasps on his rain coat. His vehicle is pointed up hill in the direction of the milling operation.
Around noon, Robert Brown gets out of his dump truck. The foreman for the general contractor is not there to observe the tell-tale signs of a 33,000 pound broken down dump truck on the work site: no movement, no rotating and flashing warning lights and workers under the hood. Nor is he there to observe the unsafe condition: the dump truck is parked on the hill with no wheel chocks and no driver behind the wheel. Brown begins pushing against the rear of the dump truck. He wants to roll the dump truck down the hill to jump start it. The dump truck begins to roll with no driver. Robert Brown runs to get into the dump truck. He cannot get in. The dump truck picks up speed. Robert Brown continues to chase it, but is unable to catch up to it. The dump truck is now traveling at an estimated speed of 20 – 25 mph. The dump truck crashes into the front end of Officer Blue’s pickup truck. Officer Blue’s body and head is rocked back and forth. His pickup truck is pushed backwards. He recalls looking up and seeing the grill of the dump truck through his windshield. He recalls thinking the driver must have had a heart attack. There is another impact. He recalls slamming on his brakes in an almost standing position to stop the dump truck. The top of his head strikes the roof of the cab damaging the interior side of the roof. Both trucks stop, grill to grill, just feet away from the busy intersection below.
A witness stopped at the intersection sees the collision. He bolts from his car. He finds Officer Blue slumped over on to the passenger seat. The witness bangs on the window. Officer Blue appears unconscious. Given the severity of the collision, the witness fears there will be an explosion. The witness finally wakens Officer Blue and helps him out of his vehicle. Officer Blue is unsteady on his feet. Witnesses describe Officer Blue as looking out of it and disoriented. He is repeating himself and not following commands. He is taken away by ambulance to the local emergency room where he is treated. He keeps grabbing the top of his throbbing head which feels like it is bleeding but there is no blood. He is released at the local emergency room. The diagnosis is a head contusion and concussion. It is expected Officer Blue will return to work within days. Officer Blue never recovers from this injury. Fortunately, he returns to another emergency room and is later treated by some of the best brain injury professionals in Massachusetts. After several years of treatment they conclude, as does the City’s and PERAC’s doctors, that he will never recover from his MTBI and will never be able to work again as a police officer.
The dump truck is not insured for enough money to cover the harms and losses which Officer Blue and his family suffered. The general contractor, Bedrock Industries, denies any responsibility. Bedrock claims it could never have prevented this last minute reckless attempt to jump start a dump truck on its work site. Bedrock and Brown claimed the truck hauled and worked fine all throughout the morning. I filed a lawsuit against all the parties involved. After reviewing hundreds of pages of dump truck hauling documents and invoices, I disproved Bedrock’s and Brown’s contention that the dump truck had been hauling millings all morning and had broken down just minutes before the crash. The only hauling documents and invoices for that truck were for hauling millings at 2:30 a.m. from the prior night on another job. There was no invoice or hauling documents for that truck from this job that morning. The evidence now points to the dump truck sitting broken down on the work site for five hours before the collision. Through depositions of Bedrock and its employees I established its supervisor and the company chose to violate their own safety manual, as well as OSHA and the Massachusetts regulations for the construction industry. These required frequent inspections of the work site for unsafe practices and conditions, an accident prevention program conducted on site and various safety measures which Bedrock chose to ignore.
Bedrock and Brown’s lawyers next tried to prove that Officer Blue didn’t really suffer an MTBI. They relied on his initial x-rays, MRI scans and CT Scans were negative. They also relied upon the emergency room physician and doctor appointed by the department to evaluate Officer Blue, who both concluded he’d be fine in just a few days. I obtained reports from all of Officer Blue’s medical providers contradicting these assertions. The damage was microscopic and diffuse throughout his brain and wouldn’t show up on such scans. I flew Officer Blue out of state to a medical facility where he could receive more sophisticated and sensitive brain imaging tests. These tests proved extensive damage throughout Officer Blue’s brain. The scans showed visual images of areas throughout his brain where large clusters of microscopic connections had been torn and damaged. These damaged connections were no longer able to transmit the signals required on both sides of his brain which accounted for the cognitive deficits, vision problems, and behavioral changes observed by his doctors. When the microscopic connections within the soft tissue of the brain are damaged, the brain’s ability to plan, organize, process and retrieve information sometimes is lost: at other times the brain’s ability slows down and is impaired.
Following is a list of some of the more common symptoms of an MTBI. Everyone should become familiar with these. Officer Blue suffered from all of these initially and some of these continue to persist:
- ringing in the ears
- blurry vision
- nausea and unsteadiness in the hours and days following the trauma
- sensitivity to florescent lights and headlights at night while driving
- short term memory problems
- problems paying attention and concentrating
- difficulty in solving problems and planning
- problems with simple math and following directions
- problems carrying on a conversation and word finding
- changes in taste or smell
- confusion, irritability
- inability to follow conversations when there is background noise
- disrupted sleep
- mood swings
- inappropriate behavior
- changes in personality
- reduced self esteem
Like most MTBI victims, Officer Blue became embarrassed over the years by his limitations. He became isolated and depressed as he became more aware that his condition was not improving. He fears he may not be able to return to the profession he loved and relied upon to support his family. With each passing day he became more humiliated as he went to his medical appointments and sat at home, while his wife carried the burden of supporting the family by working longer hours and his fellow officers continued to work their usual long hours. Even helping with simple household chores such as preparing meals, shopping and doing laundry became difficult. Frequently Officer Blue would call his wife at work to be reminded of what he was supposed to do and how he was to do it. Even his children innocently made fun of his poor memory. As his self-esteem decreased, the level of his humiliation increased. He became reclusive and avoided any contact with friends, family and officers within the department. If he saw an officer working a detail, he’d turn down another road to avoid contact. Once a highly respected and well liked officer within the department, he found himself unable to do simple calculations or unable to drive to a familiar destination without getting lost. He suffered from severe bouts of depression. His wife suffered silently as she struggled to work long overtime hours and then come home to care for and support Officer Blue, as well as their children, in an effort to keep the family unit intact and functioning. The man she married had changed and so had her life now.
I conducted numerous depositions of the defendants, their employees and witnesses at the scene. This ultimately led to the successful $3 million settlement for Officer Blue and his wife. Their struggles are not over. They will have to continue to adjust and cope with his MTBI for the rest of his life. He likely will never be able to work again at any job, unless he becomes prepared to work in a sheltered job environment. Officer Blue took a bullet for the community on the day of his collision. Had he not been in his vehicle and slammed on the brakes in an attempt to stop the run away dump truck, innocent civilians would have been seriously injured and killed as the dump truck entered the busy intersection below. Hopefully this case will teach a lesson to general contractors who ignore their responsibility to frequently inspect the job site to look for unsafe practices and conditions, conduct accident prevention programs and provide a presence which serves as a deterrent for ill-advised practices which endanger workers, the officers working details and the surrounding community. If you don’t haul, you don’t get paid. No wonder a worker will dangerously cut corners when no one is looking to make sure they get paid for the day’s work.
If you know an officer who is struggling with any of the signs and symptoms described in this article, make sure they get prompt and proper medical attention. They, along with other MTBI victims, are our “walking wounded”. Their debilitating injuries are compounded and made worse because they visually appear fine and healthy on the surface, subjecting them to suspicion and ridicule by people who suspect they are faking. They are not. They need our compassion and support. Suspicion by others increases their humiliation. Tragically, it causes some to silently suffer and never get the medical attention they require.
When we work on these cases, we work on a contingent fee basis. That means the injured officer pays nothing up front, nor while the case is pending. He or she only need pay for legal services and expenses at the end of the case, if we successfully collect money on their claim. We typically will receive one-third of the money collected. In the off-chance we are unable to collect money for the injured officer, the officer owes nothing for our legal services.
– Steven M. Ballin, Esq.
Ballin & Associates
Massachusetts Police Injury Attorney
(In order to protect the privacy of the injured officer and witnesses, all names have been changed. Any resemblance to names of real persons, past or present, is merely coincidental and not intended. The injured officer agreed to have this article published in order that police officers around the Commonwealth be better educated about mild traumatic brain injuries and their legal rights to compensation when injured).