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No damages to plaintiff despite fault of defendant in car accident affirmed.

Where defendant admitted liability for a car accident but denied that the accident caused plaintiff’s alleged injuries, a jury verdict for defendant was affirmed where there was material evidence showing that the accident was minor, evidence showed plaintiff had a history of back and/or neck pain, and plaintiff’s expert witness admitted that “she based her opinion on purely subjective findings[.]”

In Bell v. Roberts, No. M2018-02126-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 8, 2020), plaintiff, a 70-year-old woman, filed suit after her vehicle was rear ended by a car driven by defendant. Defendant admitted fault, but he denied that the accident caused any injury to plaintiff.

During a jury trial, plaintiff, defendant, plaintiff’s doctor, and the police officer who responded to the accident testified. Plaintiff stated that she drove herself to the ER after the accident, and “scans of her spine showed changes consistent with degenerative disc disease.” After the medicine prescribed at the ER failed to alleviate her neck pain, she went to her doctor 15 days later and was given “additional pain relief measures and physical therapy.” Plaintiff admitted that she had a history of degenerative disc disease and back surgery, but she stated that she had never had neck pain before the accident. On cross examination, however, defense counsel pointed out that her testimony about previous pain was different in her deposition. Plaintiff also admitted that she did not complain about neck pain to her doctor past April 2016, although she maintained that she did not fully recover.

Defendant testified that the accident was minor, that there was only minor damage to plaintiff’s vehicle and none to his, and that no air bags deployed. The police officer corroborated this testimony and stated that the accident report said there were no injuries, and neither driver requested an ambulance.

Plaintiff’s doctor’s deposition was played for the jury, wherein she stated that “[i]n her expert medical opinion, the impact from the accident had aggravated [plaintiff’s] pre-existing condition.” She “emphasized the close temporal relationship between [plaintiff’s] initial pain complaints and the accident,” but she also admitted that “she based her opinion on purely subjective findings, namely the patient history and physical examination,” and she “could not identify any objective evidence to support her opinion.” The doctor also “agreed that degenerative disc disease could cause neck pain.”

The jury returned a verdict for defendant and awarded zero damages to plaintiff. Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied, and then this appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.

When the Court of Appeals is reviewing a jury verdict, it must affirm if “there is any material evidence to support the verdict,” and plaintiff had the burden of proving her injuries were caused by the accident. (internal citation omitted). The Court first looked at plaintiff’s argument that “she met her burden of proof with the testimony of [her doctor],” as she asserted that “the jury was not entitled to ignore the unimpeached, uncontradicted testimony of her medical expert.” (internal citation omitted). The Court noted, however, that because the doctor’s “causation opinion was based on purely subjective findings gleaned from [plaintiff]…the jury was free to disregard the unrefuted medical proof.”(internal citation omitted).

Based on the other testimony presented at trial, there was material evidence to support the verdict for defendant. The Court cited the fact that the accident was minor with minimal damage, as well as plaintiff’s statement to the police officer at the scene that she was not injured. The Court also specifically noted that plaintiff’s credibility was “successfully challenged” at trial, and that the doctor admitted that plaintiff’s pain could have been caused by her medical condition.

Plaintiff next argued that “she was entitled, at the very least, to recover the cost of her evaluation at [the emergency room].” While such damages are recoverable “even where it is determined that the plaintiff sustained no physical injuries,” plaintiff would still have had to “convince the jury that the claimed medical expenses were both necessary and reasonable.” (internal citations omitted). Here, plaintiff’s doctor stated that the expenses were reasonable and necessary, but that opinion was based on information gleaned solely from plaintiff. The Court explained that “[h]aving rejected [plaintiff’s] testimony, the jury could have reasonably concluded that the evaluation was unnecessary given the minor nature of the accident, [as the] jury may reject any expert testimony that it finds to be inconsistent with the credited evidence or is otherwise unreasonable.” (internal citation omitted).

Finally, plaintiff asserted that the special verdict form was misleading. The Court agreed that it “may have been inartfully drafted,” but deemed this argument waived due to plaintiff’s counsel’s failure to raise any objection until the motion for new trial, despite being aware of the form’s wording before it was given to the jury.

Because there was material evidence to support the verdict, the finding for defendant with no damages to plaintiff was affirmed.

NOTE: This opinion was published one year after oral arguments in this case.

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