Even a seemingly “minor” car accident can cause serious injuries to the drivers and passengers involved. In Van v. Schmidt, the Florida Supreme Court took on a case where the property damage was apparently minimal, but one driver claimed significant personal injury.
Mr. and Ms. Van were injured in an October 2007 car accident when the automobile in which they were driving was rear-ended by a car driven by Mr. Schmidt, who was allegedly intoxicated at the time. Mr. Van alleged that he ultimately underwent cervical spinal fusion surgery to address a neck injury sustained in the accident. While Schmidt acknowledged that he caused the accident, he argued that the crash was not the cause of Van’s injury. The accident was a minor fender bender (causing only $800 in damage to Van’s car), according to Schmidt, and Van had pre-existing back and neck conditions at the time, stemming from a prior fusion surgery and car accident.
All three of the experts who testified for Van said that his injuries were caused at least in part by the 2007 accident. So did the defense’s expert, Dr. Trimble. Meanwhile, Van, his wife, and their daughter all testified that Van was able to perform a number of activities before the 2007 accident that he was no longer able to do, including yard work, playing with grandchildren, walking dogs and swimming. Van was also no longer able to travel to see his grandchildren and had problems sitting for extended periods of time, according to these witnesses. Although Van admitted that he suffered from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease well before the accident and had not been able to work since 1976 as a result, he said these impairments did not prevent him from engaging in hobbies and activities.
After a three-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that Van had not suffered injury as a result of the 2007 accident. The Vans then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The trial judge agreed. The trial court ruled that the question of whether Van was injured by the accident was one that required expert evidence and noted that all of the experts who weighed in on the matter agreed that Van suffered at least some injury in the crash.
The First District Court of Appeals reversed the decision on appeal, however, and ordered that the jury verdict be reinstated. The appeals court found that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the new trial. The First District said the trial court’s decision was “premised on an erroneous conclusion of law,” specifically that the jury could not find that Van wasn’t injured in the accident without expert evidence supporting the conclusion. The First District noted that other lay evidence conflicted with the expert testimony, including photos of the damage, Mr. Van’s testimony, and medical records showing that he complained of back pain and was taking medication for it before the accident.
On further appeal, the Florida Supreme Court agreed that the trial judge’s ruling was premised on the erroneous conclusion that the jury could not find against Van without expert evidence supporting the conclusion that he wasn’t injured in the accident. However, the high court said the appeals court wrongly ruled that the jury verdict should be reinstated. Because the court could not say whether the trial court would have reached the same decision but for its erroneous conclusion regarding expert evidence, the court held that the case should be remanded to the trial judge for further consideration.
While this case is out of the ordinary in that it went all the way to the state’s highest court, it is a good example of the complicated issues that arise in car accident cases and the long and winding road that often comes with a personal injury lawsuit. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, contact the South Florida car accident lawyers at Anidjar & Levine. From offices in Ft. Lauderdale, we serve clients throughout the area, including in Boca Raton, Hialeah and Pompano Beach.
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