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The 'Eggshell Plaintiff' Rule

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The "eggshell plaintiff rule" is a case every American law student studies in the course of learning about liability in battery.

For those of you who didn’t have the misfortune of sitting through a semester of tort law, you may happen to encounter this phrase if you have the different misfortune of being in an accident that results in a civil lawsuit. Worry not, we’ve got you covered with a quick digest of the old but still relevant legal doctrine.

Walking on Eggshells

The eggshell plaintiff doctrine is also called by a variety of other colorful names, like the thin skull rule, the papier-mâché-plaintiff rule, or the talem qualem rule. But what do all these cryptic phrases mean? Well, imagine a fragile eggshell and a normal skull. If someone negligently bumps into the eggshell and it cracks, they are still liable for breaking the eggshell even though a normal skull wouldn't have been damaged.

As the names suggest, the rule encapsulates the idea that if someone is particularly delicate (has a skull as thin as an eggshell, say), then someone who injures them is still responsible for the extent of the damage, even if it’s unforeseeable because a non-delicate person wouldn’t have suffered the same damage. In other words, the principle states that a defendant takes their victim as they find them. This means that a defendant is liable for all the injuries they cause to a plaintiff, even if the plaintiff's pre-existing condition or susceptibility made the injuries worse than what a typical person would suffer.

The real kicker in the rule is that it doesn’t matter if you knew ahead of time about their condition. The defendant is held responsible even if they didn’t know or couldn’t have known about the plaintiff’s condition. It is enough that the defendant's actions were the proximate cause of the injury, even if they couldn't have foreseen the full extent of the harm.

Examples: Brittle Bones, Easy Bleeders

What are some examples of the rule playing out? It often happens with car accident cases. Ever heard of osteogenesis imperfecta, or its street name, “brittle bone disease”? This is a genetic condition where someone fractures their bones super easily with very little cause. Imagine someone with this condition getting into a car accident; needless to say, it’s going to be a lot worse for them than the average person. If the accident isn’t that bad but they break their bones partly due to the brittle bone disease, the defendant would be liable for the full cost of medical treatment, even though a healthy person might not have been injured at all.

Something similar would happen if someone had hemophilia, which is a condition in which someone’s blood doesn’t clot properly, and as a result, they keep bleeding much more than the average person. Imagine someone is in a car accident that would have drawn blood from the average person, but a non-lethal amount. The average person would bleed, but would be able to stay mostly functional without major medical treatment. But it may be that a hemophiliac in the same situation loses so much blood that they need a transfusion or organ transplant. The defendant would be responsible for covering that.

Let’s Not Get Rash

What about pre-existing conditions that are more along the lines of “sensitivities,” such as allergies? These would be covered by the rule in theory, but not in some situations that you might think. Let’s take peanut allergies, for example. This type of allergy isn’t uncommon, and it can range in severity. If a restaurant negligently served someone with a severe peanut allergy food with peanuts and they had to be hospitalized, the restaurant would be just as liable as if they had served it to someone with only a mild allergy that broke out in a rash and nothing more.

But the allergy liability doesn’t always apply, especially in cases where the allergy is extremely rare. Recent courts in New York and California have not found liability for defendant manufacturers when their products did not have warnings about a particular ingredient when that ingredient was generally not an allergen to the vast majority of the population.

For example, in an old, well-known case in New York, the plaintiff bought spray-on deodorant which was labeled as containing aluminum sulphate (which most deodorant on the market contains). The plaintiff developed a very severe reaction to it and sued the manufacturer for failing to warn on the label that the aluminum sulphate may be an allergen. But when the company’s expert witness showed that the ingredient was safe for most people, the court did not hold them responsible for failing to warn about the possibility of it being an allergen. As they put it: “The law requires a person to exercise reasonable care to guard against probabilities, not mere remote possibilities.”

Difficulties With the Doctrine

Even with these limits, the eggshell rule can seem like a huge windfall to plaintiffs. But keep in mind that it’s not as easy as it looks for plaintiffs to win, even with the rule in place. This is because there are other elements that the plaintiff must establish to show negligence or liability for the defendant — including causation. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that the defendant's actions were the cause of the injury. This can be challenging, especially if the plaintiff has a rare or complex condition.

If the eggshell plaintiff doctrine seems complicated, what we’ve covered is just the tip of the iceberg. The application of the doctrine will vary depending on the specific facts of each case and the jurisdiction involved.

Every U.S. jurisdiction follows the eggshell plaintiff rule to some extent or another. How they apply the rule will change based on both the state you’re in and the individual facts of the case. If you have any questions about how it might apply to your situation, you should consult with a personal injury lawyer to discuss how courts apply it in your jurisdiction.

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