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Guzman v. Jones – Truck Accident Lawsuit Weighed by Federal Appeals Court

A federal appeals court sided with a plaintiff in a trucking accident lawsuit, after defendants appealed trial court’s denial of motion for a new trial. Defendants alleged trial court erred in admitting evidence of medical bills, as well as refusal of sanctions for spoliation of evidence after the victim underwent back surgery before undergoing an independent medical exam.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed trial court’s denial of a new trial in Guzman v. Jones, finding the court did not abuse its discretion.

According to court records, the case arose from a motor vehicle accident involving a truck that was driven by one defendant (trucker) and owned by another (trucking company). Plaintiff sustained personal injuries as a result.

The question of liability was answered early on in this case. Defendants conceded fault for the crash, and they also conceded the trucking company was vicariously liable because the accident happened while trucker was operating the vehicle in the course and scope of employment. (In Florida, owners of vehicles may also be found vicariously viable for the negligence of those operating the vehicle with permission solely based on ownership.) So the primary issue at trial was the amount of damages.

Jurors awarded plaintiff more than $1.3 million. Of that, about $1 million was a reflection of coverage for past medical expenses. Another $20,500 of that was awarded to a co-plaintiff.

A contentious issue at trial was the court’s allowance of plaintiff’s medical bills into evidence. The bills reflected the amount charged to plaintiff by a number of medical providers. One bill does indicate plaintiff “may be” eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, there is no reduction of charges for that purpose. Further, at the time of the crash, no one argued that plaintiff was not a Medicaid participant, received no benefits from that program toward medical expenses and he didn’t receive any workers’ compensation benefits. Still, just before trial, defense moved to exclude the bills as evidence, arguing plaintiff was in fact eligible for Medicaid as well as workers’ compensation. Trial court denied this motion.

Then, during the discovery phase of the trial, defense requested plaintiff undergo an “independent” medical examination. (Note: These are never “independent”; they are conducted with the sole purpose of discrediting the injured victim.) Defendants intended to assert plaintiff’s injuries were not the result of the crash. Plaintiff’s counsel agreed to the exam. However in the meantime, prior to that exam, he underwent back surgery. He informed defense of this fact prior to it happening. When he did undergo the exam, he provided to defense scans that were taken prior to his surgery. Defendants later alleged this action was a form of evidence spoliation and requested sanctions, including a jury instruction that could be read in defense favor. Trial court denied these requests.

After plaintiff won the case, defendants appealed on the grounds these actions were improper. However on review from the appellate court, those allegations were deemed unfounded. Whether plaintiff was eligible for insurance and whether he was actually covered for it are two different things and, in this case, there was no dispute he didn’t have it and the bills as presented were the amounts he actually owed. Thus presentation of those bills was proper.

With regard to the back surgery issue, the appeals court found evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that the timing of the surgery did not reflect bad faith on the part of the accident victim.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Guzman v. Jones, Oct. 22, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

GHSA: Drugged Driving a Growing Problem on Nation’s Roads, Oct. 19, 2015, Palm Beach County Accident Lawyer Blog

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