Verdict in Favor of Family Injured in East Texas Car Accident Reversed on Appeal

Proving negligence in a car accident case requires several elements of proof. In addition to providing evidence regarding the duty of care owed by the defendant(s) to the plaintiff(s) and the defendant’s alleged breach of that duty, the plaintiff must also provide competent evidence of any physical injuries for which he or she seeks compensation. However, simply proving that the plaintiff suffered from a particular medical condition after the accident at issue is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the injuries complained of by the plaintiff were proximately caused by the accident. Oftentimes, this requires the opinion of a medical expert witness – typically, a doctor – who has examined the plaintiff’s injuries, diagnosed his or her medical condition and future prognosis, and made a determination as to whether these injuries and conditions are causally linked to the accident.

Facts of the Case

A recent appellate case involved a multi-car accident in east Texas. The plaintiffs in the case were the driver and occupants of a car that was traveling along the interstate when the car behind them was struck by the defendant’s car. According to the defendant, the accident occurred when the vehicle in front of her “jolted into traffic” as it was entering the interstate, and this did not leave the defendant with enough time to stop before hitting the rear right side of the car that was traveling behind the plaintiffs’ car. After the initial collision, the defendant’s vehicle reportedly ricocheted into the back of the plaintiffs’ automobile. Although the defendant’s vehicle was totaled in the collision and the middle vehicle was substantially damaged, there was only minimal damage to the plaintiffs’ car. No airbags deployed in any of the vehicles that were involved in the wreck.

The case was tried to a judge in Harris County District Court, a jury trial having been waived by the parties. After hearing the testimony of the parties, the trial court judge awarded the plaintiffs past medical expenses of $145,460. The defendant filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court judge denied. She appealed.

The Appellate Court’s Opinion

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals of Texas reversed and rendered judgment in favor of the defendant. On appeal, the defendant argued that the plaintiffs had failed to present legally and factually sufficient evidence to support their negligence claims against her. After reviewing the evidence submitted at trial, the appellate court concluded that expert medical testimony was required in order to establish that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by the accident and that, because no evidence was presented at trial to this effect, the lower tribunal had been in error when it entered a judgment in their favor.

In so holding, the court of appeals pointed out that establishing causation in a personal injury case such as the one at bar required that the plaintiff prove that the defendant’s breach of duty caused a particular event (the accident) and that this event was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Generally, this requires expert testimony. While lay testimony can support a causation finding in some cases, this exception is limited. Because the plaintiffs’ injuries were neither “common nor basic,” the plaintiffs’ lay testimony was insufficient to prove causation in this particular case.

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