In any car accident lawsuit, there are a number of elements that must be proven in order for the case to be successful. Those elements include:
- Defendant owed plaintiff duty of care;
- That duty of care was breached;
- That breach resulted in injury to plaintiff;
- Plaintiff suffered damages as a result.
While many cases often focus on the duty that was breached – i.e., who was at fault in the crash – it is essential to make sure the causation and extent of damages is not overlooked in proving the case.
A failure to do this may result in an empty win. That is, the court may find in favor of plaintiff or defense might even concede total liability for the crash, but the damages awarded plaintiff will be minimal if non-existent if causation and damages aren’t proven.
Causation can be especially tricky where a plaintiff may have suffered a previous, unrelated injury. Defense may attempt to attack plaintiff’s purported cause or extent of injuries in an attempt to significantly limit damages.
Plaintiffs must be prepared for this by working with a highly experienced legal team. Even where pre-existing conditions may exist, if the condition was aggravated as a result of the crash, plaintiffs are still entitled to damages.
In he case of Mathis v. Huff & Puff Trucking, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, it was these type of issues that caused problems for plaintiff.
The case stemmed from a 2008 trucking accident in which a tow truck driver slammed into a semi-tractor trailer, injuring the semi driver.
It was later determined the tow truck driver was at-fault for the crash. He was traveling too fast for the icy conditions of the road (the crash happened in Wyoming) and he should not have been driving in the far left lane.
Plaintiff contacted 911 from the scene and was transported for emergency treatment, where the physician diagnosed him with a strained neck and back. He was released later in the evening.
Prior to the crash, plaintiff had suffered back injuries. He had undergone spinal surgery in 1989 and again in 1993. The day after the crash, he followed up with his own physician, who reviewed the X-rays and ordered an MRI. Doctor noted numerous areas of sprain to the spine, which were attributed to the collision.
Plaintiff was referred to a neurosurgeon, who again diagnosed him with sprains and aggravation of a pre-existing degenerative condition. He prescribed conservative treatments, which included massage and physical therapy.
Recovery went well after that point, and work restrictions were removed, with plaintiff continuing to work a physically demanding job, though he did still receive occasional treatments.
In his lawsuit, plaintiff sought $1 million in damages.
At trial, however, expert witnesses for the defense characterized his spinal injuries suffered in the crash as temporary. Expert witnesses for plaintiff testified the injuries to the spine and head were permanent and had reduced his future earning capacity.
Although jurors determined the tow truck driver was 100 percent at fault, it awarded him only $145,000.
Plaintiff appealed. He argued the award was clearly erroneous, and further, the judge’s law clerk had a conflict of interest because her husband worked for the law firm representing the defense.
The appellate court affirmed, finding the conflict was a harmless error. The judge had been aware of the potential conflict, but noted the clerk was not a visible presence in the courtroom and neither did the clerk’s husband present in trial for the case, though he was assigned to monitor it.
Justices further found sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion and damage award based on defense assertion the injuries sustained were temporary and not permanent.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Mathis v. Huff & Puff Trucking, June 2, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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