Language Matters

The medico-legal world is strewn with landmines for the unwary when it comes to language use.  Perhaps the most famous and public example of this was then President Bill Clinton’s insistence that a decidedly unambiguous two letter word, “is,” is in fact ambiguous.  Fame and political machinations notwithstanding, the language we use in claims is important to the outcome of the claim and any slack, vague, or ambiguous usage can wreak havoc on defending or prosecuting a claim. 

One example we see regularly at Medical Systems arises in the context of motor vehicle personal injury claims.  During and IME, examinees frequently tell the physician that the vehicle was “totaled” in the accident. Presumably, the examinee states that the vehicle was “totaled” to demonstrate to the physician that the impact was significant (with the unspoken premise that the physical damages to the vehicle were significant. 

The problem with using “totaled” in this way is that total loss is an economic concept arising out of an insurance policy that does not have anything to do with damage per se but instead refers to the relationship of the cost of repairing the damage sustained in the accident to the cost of replacing the vehicle i.e., does the cost of repairing the damages exceed the replacement value of the vehicle.  This is significant because two accidents could have damages causing identical repair value estimates in which one vehicle is declared a total loss and the other is not. 

If two accidents caused $2,500 damage to different vehicles but one is a 2014 Ford F150 and the other is a 1996 Ford F150, the 2014 vehicle would not be a total loss but the 1996 vehicle would be.  This demonstrates that total loss is not a proxy for the severity of physical damage to a vehicle but rather is a measure of whether the cost of repair exceeds the value of the vehicle given such factors as such factors as the age, condition, make, and model of the vehicle.  In both cases, the damage may not suggest the impact was severe, yet the examinee’s use of the word “totaled” is undoubtedly designed to suggest a severe impact.  If the physician has access to photos or an accident report demonstrating the actual appearance of the damages, the examinee’s bold assertion that the vehicle was “totaled” will in fact make him seem less credible than he would otherwise be.

The example above is but one small demonstration of why it is important to use precise language in prosecuting and defending claims in the medico-legal universe.  When the two worlds come together, it is crucial that we, as the inhabitants, speak precisely so that everyone, including the experts, understands exactly what we are saying.  If we fail to do so, we run risks from misunderstanding to impaired credibility to confusion to much more.

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