Minimal damages affirmed where plaintiff offered no expert testimony on medical expenses

Where a car accident plaintiff was granted summary judgment as to liability but offered no evidence regarding her medical damages beyond her own testimony, including no expert testimony that any of her medical expenses were reasonable and necessary, the trial court did not err by awarding her only $5,000.

In Marsh v. Lowe, No. E2019-00697-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 29, 2020), plaintiff was rear-ended on the interstate, and she filed suit against both the driver and the owner of the car. Plaintiff alleged that the driver was negligent by failing to slow appropriately for traffic, and she specifically pointed out that the driver was cited for DUI and for using a cell phone/ distracted driving by the police. Plaintiff alleged that the car owner was negligent by “entrusting [the driver] to operate the vehicle.”

Plaintiff sent discovery requests, including requests for admissions, to both defendants, but neither defendant responded. The trial court eventually deemed the requests admitted and granted summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of liability. The trial court specifically found that the driver was negligent by “operating her vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and narcotics,” using her cell phone while she drove, and following too closely. The trial court also found that defendant car owner was negligent by entrusting her vehicle to a person “with a history of alcohol and drug use.”

The trial court subsequently held a hearing on damages. In the hearing, the only evidence presented by plaintiff was her own testimony about her medical expenses and injuries. Though plaintiff’s complaint sought $125,000 in compensatory damages, the trial court ultimately only awarded her $5,000, stating that the award was “based on the lack of expert testimony that this was a permanent disability, or expert testimony that [plaintiff’s] pain would last for a lifetime, as well as the fact that there was no damage done to [plaintiff’s] vehicle.” The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals noted that a “plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence the amount of her damages.” (internal citation omitted). “[W]hen a plaintiff seeks economic damages for past medical expenses, she must prove that the medical bills paid and accrued because of the defendant’s negligence were both necessary and reasonable.” (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff “did not try to prove her damages, particularly past medical expenses, by any means other than her own words.” The Court took note of the trial court’s findings that plaintiff failed to offer expert testimony regarding either the cause of her injuries or that her expenses were reasonable and necessary. She also offered no expert proof regarding life expectancy. Further, though several of the medical procedures she claimed to have needed were related to her neck and wrists, she admitted that she was in a serious accident in 2005 and had experienced chronic pain since that time. The trial court wrote that it did not observe any of the disabilities plaintiff claimed, and it pointed out that there was no damage to her vehicle in the accident. The court also took note that plaintiff had been on several pain medications since 2005 and was currently taking less pain medicine than before this accident. Ultimately, the trial court wrote that it “question[ed] the credibility of [plaintiff].”

Since plaintiff chose not to file a transcript or statement of evidence in this appeal, the Court of Appeals based its decision on the trial court’s order. Because the trial court “had the opportunity to weigh the evidence and the credibility of the sole witness,” the Court of Appeals affirmed the $5,000 award, ruling that it was not “so grossly inadequate as to shock the conscience of this Court.”  It is unclear why the plaintiff thought she had any chance of reversing the trial court judgment on damages when she failed to file a transcript or statement of evidence in the appellate court.

This case is a good reminder that a plaintiff must actually prove his or her damages in a personal injury case. If a plaintiff is seeking medical expenses, he or she should be prepared to show that the expenses were reasonable and necessary through expert proof.

NOTE: This opinion was published approximately two months after the case was assigned on briefs.

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