UPDATED: OCTOBER 2013
If your hearing has been impacted after an accident, it is important that you immediately speak with an attorney at our law firm about your case. We have successfully handled many cases resulting in hearing loss or tinnitus - whether due to whiplash or the deployment of an airbag. We routinely work with some of the top audiologist, doctors and experts in California in handling our cases and in the treatment of our clients. Call now for a free legal consultation 888.222.8286.
Below is some educational information about dealing with hearing loss, the legal consequences and the biological background of its causes.
When we think of hearing loss, we typically think of a person who has listened to loud music for years, has worked in noisy industrial buildings or construction areas all of his or her working life, or the natural decline of the auditory senses with age. But hearing loss can also be due to a sudden event, such as hitting one’s head in a fall or a swift powerful blow to the side of the head such as that suffered in an automobile accident. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness can lead to an inner-ear concussion and hearing loss. Other damages that can result in trauma to head or ear include the dislocation or fracture of the middle ear bones, fracture of the cochlea in the inner ear (the cochlea is the main sensory organ of hearing), a hole in the inner ear leading to inner ear fluid leakage, a fracture of the temporal bone fracture leading to hearing loss, and bleeding in the inner ear. Serious traumatic injuries to the ear arising from an automobile collision can cause permanent hearing loss or balance problems.
The ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The outer ear captures the sound vibration and sends it through the ear canal to the middle ear, which contains the eardrum and three tiny bones—the hammer, anvil, and stirrup (known collectively as the “ossicles”). The sound causes the eardrum to vibrate. The ossicles amplify these vibrations and carry them to the inner ear. The inner ear is made up of a snail-shaped chamber (the “cochlea”), which is filled with fluid and lined with four rows of tiny hair cells. When the vibrations are strong enough, the inner hair cells translate them into electrical nerve impulses in the auditory nerve (the “vestibulocochlear” nerve), which sends electrical signals to the brain to be interpreted as sound.
There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is due to some mechanical problem in the external or middle ear. The three tiny bones of the middle ear may fail to conduct sound to the cochlea, the eardrum may fail to vibrate in response to sound, or there may be fluid in the middle ear. Sensorineural hearing loss results from a dysfunction of the inner ear. The most common reason for hearing loss is due to the tiny hair cells (“cilia”) that transmit sound through the ear are injured. This is often referred to as “nerve damage,” but that is not quite an accurate description. Sensorineural hearing loss often makes it difficult to hear high tones, such as women’s or children’s speech. Usually it will be difficult to hear the person you are talking to if there is background noise. Conductive hearing loss is often reversible and can often be cured simply by cleaning the ear wax out of the ear. Sensorineural hearing loss, on the other hand, is not reversible; once you lose your sensorineural hearing, it is usually lost forever and cannot be restored.
Serious and permanent hearing injuries can result in a traffic accident when the airbag deploys. The airbag explodes with a sound pressure level that may be greater than 170 decibels. To put this into perspective, a jet engine at takeoff has a sound pressure level of 140 decibels, a shotgun blast 165 decibels, and a rocket launch 180 decibels. A sudden, extremely loud noise such as an airbag exploding can damage any of the structures in the ear, causing immediate and permanent hearing loss (“acoustic trauma”). The occupants in a car in which the airbag deployed may suffer from ruptured eardrums, significant loss of equilibrium (such as unsteadiness or dizziness), or permanent and persistent ringing of the ears (“tinnitus”). The hearing damage a person develops from the deployment of an airbag may be due to the tremendous sound explosion of the airbag, which can cause severe ear pain, loud ringing, and bleeding from the ear canals. Or the damage to a victim’s ears may result from the sudden violent contact of the airbag with the person’s head.
Research tends to show that over 15 percent of persons whose airbags deployed in a traffic accident suffer some degree of permanent hearing loss. It is worth noting that an airbag deploys in the same explosive manner whether the accident was at a relatively low speed as it does at a high rate of speed. The problem is that an airbag is deployed using a tiny explosive device. This explosive device is necessary because the airbag must inflate in the extremely brief period of time it takes between the initial car crash impact and the moment the driver’s head would otherwise strike the steering wheel.
If severe trauma—such as a skull fracture of the temporal bone—dislocates the bones in the middle ear that transmit sound to the inner ear, or injures the inner ear structures (the cochlea), the hearing loss may be severe. To diagnose a fracture of the temporal bone, X-rays or even a CT scan may be necessary to aid the doctor. Temporal-bone fracture is a more serious injury than a simple concussion, and is more likely to be associated with permanent injury to the inner ear.
Symptoms of hearing loss include muffled hearing, difficulty understanding what people are saying especially when there are competing voices or background noise (you may hear the other person speaking, but you cannot distinguish the specific words), listening to the television or radio at a higher volume than before, avoiding conversation and social interaction, and depression because of how the hearing loss is affecting your social life. Other symptoms that may accompany hearing loss include ringing, roaring, hissing, or buzzing in the ear (“tinnitus”), ear pain, itching or irritation, pus or fluid leaking from the ear, and vertigo.
Depending on the place and extent of injury to the ear, it may heal on its own or surgery may be required to restore hearing. Damaged eardrums can be repaired surgically. Ossicles (the three small bones of the middle ear) can be replaced with artificial bones. Some causes of sensorineural hearing loss can also be improved. If there is no cure for the hearing loss, a hearing aid for one or both ears usually helps most people, whether the hearing loss is the result of either conuctive or sensorineural problems. When a hearing aid does not give enough amplification, as with profound deafness, a cochlear implant may help.
A ruptured eardrum may heal on its own in several weeks after it was injured, but the remaining scar tissue may affect the person’s ability to hear low sounds. Where the injury has resulted in a perforated eardrum, typically the size of the perforation determines the level of hearing loss. A larger hole will cause a greater hearing loss than a smaller hole. The location of the perforation also affects the degree of hearing loss.
If you have been injured in an automobile accident in which an airbag deployed or you hit your head, you should seek immediate medical care if you experience a sudden loss of hearing. Likewise, if your sudden hearing loss is combined with any of the following, you should seek immediate medical care:
Numbness or paralysis on one side of the face or body
Eye or vision problems, such as blurred or double vision, or the inability to see out of one eye
Slurred speech, the inability to speak, or difficulty understanding speech
Difficulty standing or walking (ataxia)
Falling of stumbling a lot (clumsiness)
Severe nausea or vomiting
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Vertigo (a sudden feeling of spinning or whirling that feels like moving while sitting or standing still)
Sudden ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus)
Blood or other fluid (other than earwax) oozing out the ear
In any event, if you have suffered a sudden loss of hearing as the result of an automobile accident or any other head trauma, you should see your doctor as soon as possible for medical evaluation. If your doctor suspects or diagnoses a hearing loss, he or she may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (“otolaryngologist”) or an audiologist.
A blow, cut, or other trauma to the ear or ear canal may result in bleeding and infection, leading to temporary hearing loss. Traumatic injury to the inner ear or cochlea can result in permanent hearing loss. A blow to the head suffered in an automobile accident may cause the three bones of the middle ear to change position (“dislocation”), resulting in sound not being sent to the inner ear. A head injury may also cause a ruptured eardrum. A forceful blow to the head may damage the delicate nerves in the cochlea or in the brain. Injuries to the ear come sometimes heal themselves; other times surgery is required to repair the damage. However, severe injuries may cause permanent damage to the ear, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
Which part of the ear is affected determines the type of hearing loss the victim suffers. In conductive hearing loss, sound waves are blocked before they reach the inner ear. One of the most common causes of conductive hearing loss is an accumulation of ear wax, which can be safely and quickly extracted by an otolaryngologist. In sensorineural hearing loss, sound reaches the inner ear, but a problem in the inner ear or the nerves that allow you to hear (the “auditory nerves”) prevent proper hearing. Examples of sensorineural hearing loss include noise-induced hearing loss and age-related hearing loss. Another, less frequent form of hearing loss is central hearing loss, in which the ear works, but the brain has difficulty understanding sounds because the parts of the brain that control hearing are damaged. This type of hearing loss may occur after a traumatic head injury.
A person injured in an automobile accident may sustain a “labyrinthine concussion.” The inner ear is sometimes referred to as the labyrinth (maze), as it is made up of an elaborate system of interconnected, tube-like fluid-filled chambers. The labyrinth includes the organ for hearing (the cochlea), as well as the organs for balance. The labyrinth is surrounded by the temporal bone. If you suffer a femoral bone fracture in an automobile accident, you may experience all of the symptoms of a labyrinthine concussion, including hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance problems. Temporal-bone fractures are more serious than simple concussions, and are more likely to be associated with permanent injury to the inner ear.
The amount of your monetary compensation will depend upon such factors as whether the hearing loss is in one or both ears, whether your hearing loss is mild or severe, whether there is decreased hearing acuity (whether words sound garbled), whether there is ringing in the ears (“tinnitus”), and whether there is any ear pain and, if so, how severe it is. In many people suffering a hearing loss in an automobile accident, it may be necessary for them to wear a hearing aid. Some victims will require a cochlear implant to improve hearing. A cochlear implant transmits signals directly into the auditory nerve via electrodes that are surgically implanted into the cochlea. The results of a cochlear implant vary between people, and it is hard to tell how useful it will be before it is implanted.
In some cases, the hearing loss shows up immediately after the accident, especially where it has involved physical impact to the ear. In other cases, the hearing loss resulting from the accident comes on more slowly. The victim may notice ringing in their ear (tinnitus) after the accident, become unable to hear sounds at a distance, hearing muffled sounds rather than crisp, sharp sounds, have difficulty understanding people who are talking to them, pain in the ear, continual itching in the ear, vertigo, and the discharge of fluid or blood from the ear.
Hearing loss can affect both your ability to work and your social life. A person who suffers a hearing loss may be subject to loneliness, despair, social isolation, depression, and loss of independence. In many cases, however, hearing aids and other devices are available to help you hear.
If you have suffered a partial or total hearing loss in a traffic accident, you should contact an experienced personal injury law firm as soon as possible. It is important to contact such a law firm promptly, as the law firm may want to send its own investigators to the scene of the accident to inspect and take pictures of the accident site and any dangerous condition that caused or contributed to the accident, especially before there is a change in the condition of the area or vehicle. The attorney or his or her investigator will also want to talk to any witnesses to the accident as soon as possible while the facts are still fresh in their minds.
An experienced personal injury law firm can also help with seeing to it that you obtain appropriate and thorough medical care for your physical, emotional, and psychological injuries suffered as a result of the accident. The attorneys in the firm can also do everything possible to ensure that you obtain full compensation for your medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, property damage, lost wages, and all of your other injuries and damages.
Slaughter & Slaughter has experience in diligently representing clients who have suffered hearing loss because of a motor vehicle caused by another driver’s carelessness. We understand the physical, financial, and emotional toll the loss of hearing takes on the injured victim and his or her family. Call now and talk to one of our lawyers for a free consultation of your case. Don’t let the insurance company take advantage of you. Call now: 310.882.6810