A 15-year-old schoolgirl who sustained a serious spinal and other injuries while on a school trip to Italy in 2016 has secured a substantial lump sum in damages and annual payments for her care for the rest of her life.
Associate Rebecca Huxford, who was part of the team that helped Sophie with her claim and rehabilitation, outlines her case here.
Sophie was a 15-year-old pupil at Cheltenham Bournside School on route to Italy by coach as part of a school trip in July 2016. As the coach travelled through France along the A39 motorway at Lons-le-Saunier, the driver suddenly lost control, and the coach veered off the road.
The coach continued along a grass verge, rolled over onto its side and slid for approximately 50 meters before crashing into a ditch. Sophie was ejected from one of the broken windows and landed on a grass embankment.
Paramedics attended the scene and transferred Sophie to the Regional University Hospital Centre of Besancon. Sophie sustained life-changing injuries. The most significant was a spinal column injury of the lower lumbar spine resulting in fractured vertebrae, partially damaging her spinal cord and causing an incomplete spinal cord injury.
This left Sophie with weakness and altered sensations in muscles in her legs and feet, meaning she would have to learn how to walk again. It also caused some bowel and bladder dysfunction. In addition, Sophie sustained serious fractures of her pelvis and had to have metalwork inserted to stabilise her spine and pelvis.
Sophie had an emergency laparotomy due to bleeding within the abdomen. She had injuries to her liver and right kidney and a tear of the colon (the large bowel). Sophie also sustained multiple rib fractures to both sides of the chest.
Sophie remained in intensive care for 10 days before being repatriated to the UK, where she was admitted to Bristol Royal Hospital for Children. Sophie was subsequently transferred to Stoke Mandeville for specialist spinal rehabilitation.
After a five-month inpatient stay, Sophie was discharged home. As Sophie had ambitions to become a PE teacher, she was keen to return to school to continue her GCSE studies.
Sophie’s family were put in touch with Julian Chamberlayne at Stewarts, Head of the International Injury team, and instructed Stewarts to act on Sophie’s behalf.
Rebecca Huxford and the rest of the team at Stewarts secured funding for a case manager and private rehabilitation, aids and equipment and suitable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Code and subsequently via interim funding from the defendant.
This enabled Sophie to focus on learning to walk again using specialist orthotics for short distances and purchase specialist wheelchairs, including a sports wheelchair, so she could mobilise over longer distances and try to get back into sports.
Sophie also purchased an adapted car as soon as she passed her test, so she did not have to rely on others. Given her love of sports, Sophie’s private physiotherapist arranged a personal trainer for Sophie and helped Sophie to get back to swimming, trial horse riding and running, using an ‘Alter-G’ anti-gravity treadmill.
Sophie needed larger accommodation as the family home was not wheelchair accessible. The funding she received was used to rent a more accessible home for the family until Sophie was old enough to purchase her own home to live more independently of her parents.
The defendant insurer disputed liability and causation early on, alleging that Sophie was either not wearing her seatbelt or not wearing it correctly. We had to liaise with the authorities in France while they completed the criminal investigation and secure permission for our accident investigator to inspect the coach. Following negotiations, liability was agreed with the defendant insurer on an 85/15 basis in Sophie’s favour.
Throughout the legal case, Sophie had to undergo several major operations due to ongoing spinal and pelvic instability leading to the development of scoliosis (curvature of the spine). We instructed medical experts on Sophie’s behalf to comment on the complications, which included a 0.5% risk of developing syringomyelia (a cyst causing damage to the spinal cord) and adjacent segment degeneration (ASD). ASD is extra stress, wear and tear (degeneration) on the spinal joints above and below the spinal fusion.
Consultant spinal surgeon Mr Alex Gibson advised that if the degeneration were to become severe, Sophie was at a 5-10% risk of developing:
- proliferative/osteophytic arthritis, bone spurs, or disease of the spinal joints causing severe spinal cord compression, and
- abnormal curvature of the spine (proximal junctional kyphosis) leading to wear and tear of the spinal joints causing instability and further fracture or even dislocation, which could also cause severe spinal cord compression.
In either of these scenarios, Sophie would probably need surgery to prevent any further deterioration. The surgery carries an additional 2-5% risk of global deterioration (even if the surgery successfully prevents further deterioration), including total paralysis.
Given the significant impact these complications could have on Sophie’s future care and medical needs, at a settlement meeting in May 2021, we sought an award of provisional damages from the defendant. This meant that if these risks materialise in the future, she can go back to court for additional compensation.
The defendant insurer was prepared to agree to a provisional damages award in the event of syringomyelia, which is widely recognised as a potential ‘trigger’ event for a significant neurological deterioration, but not the other spinal deterioration Sophie was at risk of suffering.
The parties made progress at the settlement meeting in attempting to agree what compensation Sophie should receive but could not reach a final agreement. We continued negotiating with the defendant, particularly on the provisional damages award, but the defendant remained entrenched in their position. This was despite the fact that after the settlement meeting, an updated MRI scan of Sophie’s spine suggested the curvature was getting worse, indicating a potential fusion failure (pseudarthrosis).
Both Mr Gibson and the defendant’s spinal surgery expert agreed there was a 50% risk that Sophie will need major corrective surgery in the future, placing her at risk of substantial deterioration following surgery.
In September 2021, six weeks before the trial and following a further round of tough negotiations, the defendant agreed to an award of provisional damages in the event Sophie suffers a serious deterioration in the condition of her spine not remediated by appropriate surgery or by other appropriate treatment. Once this was agreed, we were also able to finalise the agreement for substantial lump sum damages along with annual payments for care and case management for the rest of her life, which are tax-free and index-linked for inflation.
Life Beyond Injury
The settlement has enabled Sophie to purchase a new build accessible home close to her parents that provides her with the freedom and independence she seeks as a young adult making her way in the world.
During her claim, Sophie sought out sports in which she could participate to replace the numerous team sports she enjoyed pre-accident. Sophie successfully applied to the GB Paralympic Academy and has excelled at pistol shooting. She has since competed in national competitions, each time improving on her personal best and securing two gold medals at a competition in Wales over the summer and, more recently, a silver medal. Next year, Sophie is going to Germany to obtain her international classification to compete abroad, and it is hoped we will see Sophie at the Paralympics in the future.
“Stewarts were absolutely incredible and went above and beyond. It was an absolute honour to have you representing me, and you have done everything you possibly can. I cannot recommend you enough. All of you went out of your way to find out information and investigate the issues in my case, whether they were small or large, and you kept me updated. This reassured me that I had the correct people on the case and I did not need to worry.
“You were always easy to contact and would respond straightaway, whether it was the French side of the case or the English side. The compensation has made a huge difference. With the money, I have been able to buy the wheelchairs I need, an adaptable car and my house. It has enabled me to live independently without having to rely on my parents, and I finally have my life back.”
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