Sometimes, even after all the hours of trial preparation, a trial, and jury deliberation, a new trial is appropriate. In a recent Florida Supreme Court case, the court considered the automobile accident injuries of a man (the plaintiff) who was injured when rear-ended by a drunk driver (the defendant).
The plaintiff claimed that he suffered neck pain that led to him needing a cervical spinal fusion surgery. The defendant did not contest liability, but he did claim that the accident didn’t cause the plaintiff’s injuries. He also defended on the grounds that the plaintiff had preexisting back pain and spinal degeneration, plus a previous surgery and car accident.
However, the medical experts agreed that the accident was partly the reason for the neck injury. A pain specialist testified on the plaintiff’s behalf that he would never be free. A neurologist testified there wasn’t necessarily a connection between the amount of damage sustained by a car and a plaintiff’s injuries.
He testified as to a connection between the neck injury and the accident, but found it difficult to correlate the plaintiff’s lower back pain with the accident. A neurosurgeon testified that smoking was a risk factor for spinal degeneration, but still opined the accident caused the plaintiff’s neck problems.
The defense’s expert testified that he noted degeneration on MRIs and x-rays after the cervical spinal fusion surgery. He noted this was more degeneration than would be expected from his age, but that the trauma could have aggravated it. He testified that the plaintiff’s neck became symptomatic because of the accident, but the plaintiff had been complaining of low back pain before the accident.
The plaintiff’s wife and daughter also testified regarding the plaintiff’s complaints about his pain right after the accident. The emergency room records corroborated that. The plaintiff, his wife, and his daughter also testified as to a loss of ability to engage in activities like carpentry, mechanic work, walking the dogs and more. The plaintiff acknowledged his emphysema diagnosis, but claimed that it did not impact his activity level before the accident.
At trial, the defendant argued the accident was minor and he showed photographs of the auto to that effect. He also relied on the plaintiff’s prior back pain for which he was taking medication at the time of the accident and pointed out that the plaintiff was not totally forthright in describing his history to his treating physicians.
The jury found that the plaintiff had not suffered injury due to the auto accident. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial, and the judge granted this motion because he found the jury’s verdict contrary to the weight of the evidence.
Among many other things, the judge noted that the low level of vehicle damage could circumstantially show there was no causation, but there was no expert testimony from which the jurors could draw the same conclusion. All the doctors testified otherwise and there was no accident reconstruction expert who testified regarding a lack of causation.
An appellate court ruled that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting the new trial. It ruled that the trial court had made an error in ruling that the jury could not find injury to the plaintiff despite conflicting lay testimony, simply on the basis of the experts’ testimony. It also reinstated the jury’s verdict. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court explained that a trial court is usually in a better position than an appeals court to determine whether a jury verdict is correct. However, a trial court must consider the credibility of the witnesses along with the weight of other evidence in order to determine whether the weight of the evidence went against a jury’s verdict. A judge whose order is premised on a legal error, however, is less entitled to deference with respect to legal conclusions.
The supreme court noted that the appellate court, when reviewing the trial court had to focus on whether reasonable people could differ about the propriety of the action taken. The record showed that all the experts agreed there was causation and the judge found three of the experts to be credible. Because it wasn’t able to determine from the record whether the trial court would have come to the same conclusion if it focused on witness credibility and evidence, it returned the case back to the trial level for reconsideration in light of the law it had explained in its opinion.
This is an important clarification from the Florida Supreme Court–while a trial court is entitled to deference on questions of fact resolved at trial, legal errors that form the basis of a judge’s decision to grant a new trial are not subject to the same level of deference. Although the clarification worked against this particular plaintiff, it may help other plaintiffs under other circumstances. If you’ve been hurt and it is somebody else’s fault, call the experienced personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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