Countless people are at risk of being in a car accident every day. Imagine you are on your usual morning commute to work, but suddenly someone rear-ends you causing injuries that change your life forever. You deserve to be compensated as much as you can to restore yourself to the state you were in before the accident. However, what happens when the defendants appeal the amount of damages you are supposed to receive?
On December 9, 2013, a traffic accident occurred when the automobile operated by the defendant, Justin Wascom, Jr., owned by his employer, Clean Water Opportunities, Inc. (“Clean Water”), and insured by Hallmark Specialty Insurance Company (“Hallmark Insurance”), rear-ended the automobile operated by the plaintiff, Evette Neal. Mr. Wascom was driving the automobile when he rear-ended Ms. Neal’s vehicle. Her vehicle hit the side concrete wall, left the roadway, flipped over, hit a tree, and finally stopped in a canal. Ms. Neal filed suit against Mr. Wascom, Clean Water, and Hallmark Insurance, seeking damages for injuries to her neck, back, shoulders, legs, chest, sternoclavicular (“SC”) joint, collarbone, hands, and fingers allegedly sustained as a result of the accident.
On March 15, 2016, a trial was conducted as to the issue of damages. At trial, the parties stipulated to liability and insurance coverage. On April 1, 2016, Ms. Neal was awarded various amounts for general damages, medical expenses, future medical expenses for continued operations, lost wages, and all costs of the proceedings. However, Mr. Wascom and Hallmark Insurance appealed stating there was an error as to the amount of general damages awarded to the plaintiff. The defendants argued that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding $700,000 to Ms. Neal for her injuries. These injuries included a partially dislocated SC joint, a strained shoulder, a strained neck, and a strained back. However, the defendants assert that Ms. Neal already had neck and shoulder injuries prior to the accident and they were only made worse by the accident. The defendants also asserted that she only missed one month of work and she now has full range of motion in her shoulder and arm.
General damages involve mental or physical pain or suffering, inconvenience, loss of gratification or intellectual or physical enjoyment, or other losses of lifestyle that cannot be measured definitively in terms of money. Boudreaux v. Farmer. The purpose of general damages is to restore the party to the state he was in at the time immediately preceding the injury as much as possible. Daigle v. US. Fidelity.
When the appellate court is reviewing general damages, it is not supposed to decide what it considers to be an appropriate award but instead should review the exercise of discretion by the trier of fact. Wainwright v. Fontenot. An appellate court can only change the amount of an award if the record clearly shows that the trier of fact abused its discretion when awarding that amount in general damages. To make this determination, the particular circumstances of the injured plaintiff must be looked at by the reviewing court. Theriot v. Allstate Ins. Co. An appellate court can only change the amount of the award if the award is beyond that which a reasonable trier of fact could determine for the effects of the specific injury to the plaintiff under the facts of the incident. Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp.
The record established that Ms. Neal had been involved in only one automobile accident prior to the December 2013 accident. This other accident occurred on March 2, 2005. She suffered injuries to her neck but did not file any claims for bodily injury due to the accident. Immediately after the December 2013 accident, Ms. Neal was transported by ambulance to an emergency room. The emergency room physician diagnosed her with a head injury, scalp laceration, head contusion, and contusion of the left shoulder.
Dr. Johnston testified that one month after the accident, Ms. Neal complained of ongoing pain in her shoulder and neck. He further testified that Ms. Neal had restricted the range of motion in her shoulder. She was now in pain and unable to fully lift her arm. She also had a strained neck and lower back. Despite undergoing many treatments, she continued to have many range of motion issues with her shoulder and developed a bump over her SC joint.
On June 2, 2015, she complained she still had neck discomfort and pain in her SC joint even after many treatments since 2013. She had a second MRI of her shoulder where Dr. Johnston testified that she had an “actual problem inside her shoulder.” In an attempt to stop the constant pain, Ms. Neal continued to undergo many treatments throughout 2016. The pain in her neck, shoulder, and right-upper back did not stop.
Dr. Johnston testified that as a result of the accident, most of her pain was being caused by her left-upper body injuries. He stated that her SC joint became partially dislocated and from now on she will experience pain any time she lifts her left arm above ninety degree, or “above chest height.” He further testified that while she could theoretically still lift her arm, he advised she should not try to or she will experience pain. Therefore, Dr. Johnston gave her a list of activities she should not engage in. These included lifting her arm, climbing, and lifting more than twenty pounds. She was also advised to not engage in any activity where her left arm would hold or push something of weight like doing push-ups or getting on the floor to play with pets or children.
Most significantly, Dr. Johnston confirmed at trial that Ms. Neal’s SC joint would never go back to normal. Even though Ms. Neal underwent treatments for years, she was at “maximum” medical improvement. He stated that Ms. Neal would have to live with the injury and pain for the rest of her life. Furthermore, he would have to see Ms. Neal three or four times a year for the rest of her life to monitor her injuries, make sure she can still tolerate her medications, and give her AC and SC joint injections. Ms. Neal testified that she still suffers from headaches, back pain, and cannot fully lift her left arm. She experiences pain while doing many normal human activities such as reaching for objects, playing sports, brushing her hair, dressing herself, and picking up her grandchild.
At the end of the bench trial, the trial court then stated its reasons for ruling in favor of Ms. Neal. The trial court stated that Mr. Wascom was at fault in the car accident. Dr. Johnston gave his expert opinion that Ms. Neal sustained injuries because of the December 2013 accident and she had no preexisting shoulder problems. She stated she could no longer do housework or some of her job activities without asking for help. She was at maximum medical improvement and may never be cured of her pain.
It was for all of these reasons that the appellate court ruled that the trial court did not err in awarding $700,000 in general damages to Ms. Neal. The appellate court concluded that the trial court reasonably decided on this amount after examining the extent of Ms. Neal’s injuries, all of the treatments she had to undergo and will be forced to continue, and the permanent negative changes to her entire life. The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
This case shows that the ruling for the amount of damages you should receive from an accident may be appealed by the other side. By gathering and presenting the proper evidence, you can prove why that ruling was correct and you deserve that amount due to what you suffered. An experienced attorney can help you through the trial and appeals to achieve the result you deserve.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Writer: Giuseppe Fiorentino
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