How Serious Is a “Serious Bodily Injury”?

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Here’s a question for you: which of the following injuries is more serious?

  • The victim, a police officer injured while fighting with a suspect, “sustained puncture wounds [from bites] on his left forearm and right bicep.” The officer testified that the bites were extremely painful, and they caused “severe bruising and depressions, [and] permanent scarring . . . includ[ing] a large circle on his right bicep, ‘just over a half an inch to an inch in a circle’ with a ‘large depression[,]’ and ‘a deep ridge’ on his left arm. The officer experienced loss of sleep and extreme stress [and] had to be tested multiple times for communicable diseases.”
  • The victim, a six-year-old girl injured when her father “forcibly twisted” her leg until it broke, suffered a “spiral fracture” of her femur. A physician described such fractures as “incredibly painful,” and the child required morphine to control her discomfort. She was placed in traction and underwent surgery to place titanium rods in her leg. The surgery resulted in lifelong scars. The victim was in a cast for several weeks, and used a wheelchair and a walker during her recovery. She regained the full use of her leg in five to eight months, but had to repeat kindergarten as a result of missing so much school.

You can vote on the answer below. Once you have voted, read on to see how the court of appeals viewed these two scenarios.

Which injury was more serious?

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Both injuries sound bad to me, but between the two, I view the second injury as more serious: it required narcotics, surgery, and a lengthy period of rehabilitation. So it was surprising to me that the court of appeals recently deemed the broken femur insufficient to qualify as “serious bodily injury” while ruling the bite wounds to the officer sufficient.

Statutory definition. The statutory definition of a “serious bodily injury” is:

[B]odily injury that creates a substantial risk of death, or that causes serious permanent disfigurement, coma, a permanent or protracted condition that causes extreme pain, or permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, or that results in prolonged hospitalization.

G.S. 14-32.4(a) (assault); G.S. 14-318.4(d)(1) (child abuse).

Recent cases. The officer case is State v. Burwell, decided in December 2017. The court’s analysis of the “serious bodily injury” issue is fairly brief: “Here, the [o]fficer testified that Defendant’s bites caused extreme pain, skin removal, permanent scarring, and hospitalization. Photographs of the injuries were shown to the jury. Further, the trial court permitted the [o]fficer to show his scarring to the jury . . . A reasonable juror could find this evidence sufficient to conclude the [o]fficer’s injuries caused serious permanent disfigurement, or a permanent or protracted condition that caused extreme pain, or injury that resulted in prolonged hospitalization.”

The child abuse case is State v. Dixon, decided last month. The court focused on differentiating between child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury and the lesser offense of child abuse inflicting serious physical injury, defined as “physical injury that causes great pain or suffering.” G.S. 14-318.4(d)(2). The court wrote:

In cases where the charge for child abuse inflicting “serious bodily injury” was upheld, the children tend to be very young, and present with injuries that would appear to be life threatening, prolonged, or permanent. . . . In contrast, the cases where a defendant was charged with felony child abuse inflicting “serious physical injury” tend to involve older children, with less permanent or life-threatening injuries.

It observed that the child in question was not extremely young; that her injuries were not life-threatening; and that she recovered fully. Further, it stated that surgical scars on the leg are not a substantial disfigurement. Therefore, it found insufficient evidence of serious bodily injury.

Analysis and Further Reading. Another recent case of interest is State v. Williams, __ N.C. App. __, 804 S.E.2d 570 (2017), which held that there was insufficient evidence of serious bodily injury when an officer suffered a painful bite wound that caused bleeding, required medical attention but no stitches, and left a permanent discoloration on the officer’s forearm. As these cases illustrate, the statutory definition of “serious bodily injury” leaves room for interpretation, and there are few bright line rules in this area. Williams and Dixon both state that a permanent scar is not necessarily sufficiently disfiguring as to constitute serious bodily injury, but in State v. Downs, 179 N.C. App. 860 (2006), the court determined that the loss of a tooth was sufficient to submit serious bodily injury to the jury.

Even conceding the difficulty of applying the statutory definition, though, the seriousness of the injury in Dixon seems greater than other cases in which the appellate courts have found sufficient evidence of serious bodily injury. The Dixon court may have been influenced by the seriousness of child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury, which is a Class B2 felony while assault inflicting serious bodily injury is a Class F. But given that the statutory definition is exactly the same in both contexts, it seems to me that the severity of the injury required should be the same as well.

The state has appealed Dixon and the Supreme Court of North Carolina has granted a stay – so “stay” tuned for further developments.

5 comments on “How Serious Is a “Serious Bodily Injury”?

  1. Any injury causing serious bodily harm, life altering, and/or death. As a side note, the human bite is one of THE most injurious and poisonous known to man.

  2. I did not vote, by the way, as I view each by its own merits. Both are equally serious in causative effects and maliciousness, in my opinion.

  3. Everyone needs to keep these decisions in mind during election times. Sometimes I am amazed at the decisions that come from the Courts. How in the world could they ever consider that a spiral fracture to a child’s leg is not serious bodily injury? How much trouble will that child have in life dealing with that type of injury? I just don’t understand the logic behind such a decision, probably because no logic was ever used in making it.

  4. What the heck!!!!!! How many people over their life time have been bitten by someone ; I can not believe a bite is serious injury if nothing more then a bite (no disease). If the officer can not sleep at night because of a bite then he should probably not be an officer. The officer could not sleep because he thought he might have a disease, yet when the tests come back and no disease, no serious injury.

  5. In a trial for AISBI and AWDWISI, the Judge dismissed the Class F AISBI at the close of the State’s evidence. My client was indicted on both charges and was accused of striking the state’s victim in the face with a baseball bat. I argued that, although the victim suffered several broken facial bones and a subdural hematoma, he did not have a protracted hospital stay, go into a coma, or require surgery. Interestingly, the Judge cited the Dixon case involving the child’s broken limb and found that the injuries in my case were NOT what our court’s intended to be a “serious bodily injury.”

    The jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the one remaining charge of AWDWISI.

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