Tennessee Law and the Pre-Existing Injury Instrution


For more than a century, Tennessee courts have recognized that a tortfeasor “must accept the person as he finds him” and have allowed injured parties to recover all damages proximately caused by tortfeasors. This means that injured victims of negligence are allowed to recover damages for aggravation of pre-existing injuries as long as there is expert medical proof linking the additional harm suffered by the injured person to the acts of the wrongdoer. 

In the case of Pyle v. Mullins, No. E2012-02502-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 25, 2013), the plaintiff was injured in a car crash and at trial received a jury verdict for $15,000 (an amount less than his claimed medical expenses).  Plaintiff believed the verdict was too low and appealed the judgment. One reason for the low damage award, according to the plaintiff’s appeal, was that the judge refused to instruct the jury regarding the defendant’s liability for aggravation of the plaintiff’s pre-existing neck condition. (Note: while it is the jury who determines the amount of compensation to award an injured plaintiff, it is the judge who makes the legal determination on the types of damages that can be awarded.  Exactly why the plaintiff thought the award would have been larger if the jury had been charged on aggravation of a pre-existing condition is not clear.)  The plaintiff argued that the jury should have been allowed to award additional damages because, he claimed, proof at trial showed the crash caused his pre-existing degenerative disc disease to become a chronic condition requiring extended treatment.

After reviewing the evidence at trial with a focus on the testimony of plaintiff’s medical expert, the court of appeals disagreed with the plaintiff and affirmed the trial court’s decision to not instruct the jury on plaintiff’s pre-existing neck condition. While the plaintiff’s medical expert testified that a person with degenerative changes like the plaintiff’s is more susceptible to injury and that car crashes commonly cause neck pain to manifest itself in a person with degenerative changes, the medical expert did not testify, as required by law, that the plaintiff’s car crash aggravated his degenerative disc disease or had any specific effect on it at all. In other words, the medical expert’s testimony about general observations and correlations between neck pain and car crashes was insufficient and not material because it did not specifically relate to the plaintiff’s injury.

This ruling does not mean that the plaintiff was faking his injury. Nor does it mean that the courts thought the plaintiff did not suffer additional pain after the crash. It simply means the plaintiff did have the appropriate expert proof relating his injury to the crash as required by Tennessee law. A jury cannot find a defendant liable and award damages to a plaintiff for the exacerbation of a neck injury unless a medical expert testifies that (1) there was a pre-existing injury at the time of the wreck (2) that was aggravated because of the wreck.

Lastly, in affirming the jury’s verdict, the Pyle court also ruled, contrary to the plaintiff’s arguments, that there was material evidence to support the damage award and found no reversible errors in several of the trial court’s evidentiary rulings.  

Read this opinion to see a laundry list of things that can go wrong in the trial of a soft tissue injury case.  I don’t know what the plaintiff was offered in this case but given the summary of the evidence set forth in the Court of Appeals’ opinion this case was, shall we say, weak.

Click on the link to see more Tennessee case law on aggravation of pre-existing condition.