The Standard for Reviewing Medical Evidence After Auto Accidents

Medical testimony after an automobile accident is complicated enough. When two accidents close in time are involved, it can get downright confusing. All the more so when a court is trying to determine which accident is to blame for not one but several different injuries. But despite questions of accuracy and the sufficiency of evidence, the role of a court of appeals is not to second-guess or set aside the trial court’s facts – provided they are reasonably arrived at and not obviously wrong.

This principle was on display in a case out of Vermilion Parish. Wanda Turner was involved in two accidents in 2010 – one in September and one in October. After the second accident, Turner filed suit against the insurer of the vehicle from the first accident, alleging neck pain, back pain, and migraines. She attributed all of her injuries to the first accident, rather than the second one, despite the fact that the second was more serious. The trial court ruled in Turner’s favor and awarded $8,500 in general damages ($3,500 for the migraines; $3,000 for aggravating her back condition; and $2,000 for her neck pain) and $1,800 in special damages to cover her medical expenses related to the first accident.

The defendant insurance company appealed the ruling, claiming a lack of medical evidence and unsupported testimony. The appellate court even noted numerous inconsistencies in Turner’s testimony. Despite this, and citing past legal precedent, the court explained that it was obligated to give great deference to the factual findings of the trial court. Unless those findings are obviously unreasonable or rife with manifest error, the appellate court will not set them aside. This was the standard applied to Turner’s claims.

The appeals court reviewed the trial record and found that the neck pain and migraines could reasonably be attributed to the first accident. Turner mentioned them to her doctor after the first accident and before the second. The awards for these injuries were affirmed.

However, the same could not be said of the back pains, which Turner had complained of prior to either accident. She was being treated for chronic back pain and was even on medication for it the day of the September accident. Turner’s first mention of back pain did not take place until the date of the second accident in October. In addition, a doctor reviewing her MRI after the second accident did not attribute the back pain to any “recent trauma.” Simply put, the back pain was a pre-existing ailment. The appellate court therefore reversed the general damages for it.

The special damages award of $1,800 was also scrutinized on appeal. Plaintiffs are allowed to recover for reasonable medical expenses related to their injuries. But obviously, a party is not responsible for medical expenses related to injuries he or she did not cause. In this case, the court reversed the general damages relating to the back pain; it therefore excluded medical expenses for all back-related treatment. Only the expenses incurred in treating the injuries from the September accident could properly be awarded, so the court did so in the amount of $60.

Courts of appeals are reluctant to tamper with the facts established at the trial level. Nonetheless, clearly incorrect or unreasonable determinations can be reversed. Turner’s case shows the importance of accurate medical records and testimony, but also the need for a skilled attorney to adjudicate one’s rights after an accident. The professionals at the Berniard Law Firm are standing by in the event you’ve been injured and are facing steep medical costs.