We have seen encouraging development in the field of prosthetic limbs over recent years; a far cry from the makeshift wooden blocks once used to return an amputee into society. How though does the law view these limbs in the situation of sustaining damage negligently? As part of a person or simply property?
The History of Prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs date back to early civilisations. The oldest known prosthetic was a false leg taken from a roman burial from around 300bc which suffered the unfortunate fate of being destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. However, in 2012, a prosthetic toe was found belonging to an Egyptian which dates back to around 710bc – 950bc. Early prosthetics of the time were designed to give “fullness” to the wearer as those who suffered an amputation would want to pass through to the next life whole.
Later developments during the middle ages were made so that the limbs replaced severed appendages lost in battle, designing them so they were able to perform a simple purpose such as a hand that held a shield or a leg that easily fit inside a stirrup. One of the most notorious prosthetics of the time was the ‘Iron hand of Götz Von Berlichingen’ which made the knight quite a fierce and imposing figure on the battlefield.
During the 17th to 20th centuries, artificial limbs began to look similar to that of a natural appendage, moving closer to the real article to help wearers feel more comfortable in public. Limbs, like the first non-locking below the knee prosthesis, were introduced; allowing a user to walk normally with bendable knees.
Large strides were made following both World Wars, as for the first time in history we saw mass amounts of people require prosthetics to allow them to operate away from the battlefield. With around 67,000 German amputees and 4,000 US amputees alone in World War 1, there was a need for advances in the development of hands, arms, legs and foot prosthetics.
The most recent improvements have ranged from allowing athletes to achieve similar times to able bodied athletes, attempting to simulate touch to send signals to the rest of the body, and creating limbs that operate using signals from the brain.
How we went from peg legs to biotic limbs: Source
Personal Injury or Property?
Given there have not yet been any landmark cases in the UK regarding damage to artificial limbs, it is hard to give a definite answer when asking if a damaged prosthetic constitutes property damage or personal injury. The main talking point revolves around the ability to cause physical pain when bringing up a personal injury case. With artificial limbs rapidly improving year on year, the ability to rule them as simply property is becoming harder for all in the legal industry. Both sides give credible cases.
No Pain, No Personal Injury
The current legal ruling is that any damage caused by a person’s negligence to a prosthetic limb would only constitute property damage on the basis that the limbs are simply mechanical devices causing the user no pain should they suffer harm.
While there isn’t any case evidence of the legal standpoint in UK law, there have been multiple articles commentating from the United States’ point of view. All articles address the issue utilising the above point regarding property not being part of a person.
Assimilation Makes Damage Personal
The alternative argument for prosthetics being included in a personal injury case, is the degree to which the user feels the limb is a natural part of their body. If somebody uses their artificial hand, arm, leg or foot regularly, and feels it is a part of them, that limb could potentially be considered as integral a body part as any natural part.
While originally limbs were cruder in design and served a very functional purpose, the advance in their integration into the body could see them viewed in future as important as the rest of their limbs. With newer prosthetics able to read nerve responses and be controlled via brainwaves, a newer amputee may begin to feel as though that limb is the same as it was previously except made from a different material.
While this area of law would currently still favour the accepted notion that prosthetics are “property” due to the previous nature of these limbs being purely functional, the rapid advance in technology could open up future debate regarding their connection to the person they are part of.
Sincere Law Catastrophic Injury Partner Chris Walker spoke to us regarding the issue, stating “Currently the law favours the stance that artificial limbs operate outside the body, hence being property. It also accepts that no harm or pain comes to the person if damaged. However; it can be feasible to think in the future, that new technology could bring that theory into question. Anything is possible in science and we are continually seeing strides made in this field. As injury solicitors, we always strive to return a victim to how their life was before an accident. With artificial limbs approaching biotic integration, it is becoming easier for us to achieve this as we get to see our clients happy that life is not as drastically affected as first feared.”
Will we ever see a further movement to produce prosthetics that are more biotic than robotic? The future is (as usual) unclear, and despite the strides towards helping amputation victims regain as much of their former self as possible; the law will continually need to take stock as to whether the devices attached to them are still simply property, or eventually become part of a person’s natural body.
Götz Von Berlichingen Hand – commons.wikmedia.org
Amputee Cyclist – commons.wikimedia.org