A magistrate judge’s ruling that expert testimony was needed to show that a truck driver’s back injury was caused by a five-vehicle crash on a highway near Baltimore was a mistake, according to a recent ruling by a federal appellate court.
Arthur Galloway, an Alabama-based truck driver, was driving his tractor-trailer on I-95 in Harford County, northeast of Baltimore in September 2006 when traffic slowed and Galloway came to a stop in the center lane of the highway. Galloway was sitting behind a tractor-trailer operated by Apollo Incorporated. Sasa Djuric, who was also driving an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, then came to a stop behind Galloway. Djuric’s rig was rear-ended by a dump truck driven by a Horne Concrete Construction employee who failed to stop in time. As a result, the Djuric tractor-trailer was “pushed violently into Galloway’s rig” and Galloway’s rig was pushed into the back of Apollo’s truck. Galloway’s tractor-trailer was later declared a total loss by the insurer.
Galloway did not receive medical treatment at the accident scene but did start experiencing lower back pain during the night he spent in his vehicle when it was at a Maryland salvage yard. Galloway told the insurance adjuster the next morning that he needed to go to the hospital. The adjuster told Galloway to hold off on medical treatment until he returned to Alabama. Galloway complained of severe back pain during his doctors visits, eventually resulting in his getting surgery – a spinal fusion – in 2007 after an MRI showed a herniated disc.
Galloway then filed a single-count complaint in federal district court in Maryland against Horne, Djuric and Apollo. Galloway said that the defendants’ negligence had caused his back injury as well as other injuries. He sought damages of $1 million. The court threw out the claim against Apollo but denied summary judgment to Horne and Djuric.
Because Galloway’s treating physicians were in Alabama, he prepared for trial by conducting evidentiary depositions of two of his doctors. They were not identified as expert witnesses, but were identified as fact witnesses in Galloway’s discovery responses.
Horne moved to exclude Galloway’s three treating physicians from testifying at trial. Horne argued, among other things, that their evidence was not admissible because the physicians had never causally linked Galloway’s injuries or his need for the spinal fusion, to the accident. Following the lack of proof of causation, Horne also sought to exclude any evidence of lost wages and the permanent nature of Galloway’s’ back injuries.
The magistrate judge determined that Galloway’s back injuries and treatments presented a “complicated medical question” for which expert testimony was necessary to prove causation, but that no such testimony had been offered. Galloway was prohibited from testifying about his back treatments, including the spinal fusion. Galloway’s treating physicians’ evidentiary depositions were excluded. The magistrate judge also concluded that Galloway was not entitled to claim damages for permanent injuries and thus agreed with Horne that Galloway could neither seek nor recover future lost wages. The magistrate depended on a decision where the Court of Special Appeals concluded that expert testimony was needed to establish that a soft-tissue injury had been caused by a vehicle accident.
The only two witnesses who testified on Galloway’s behalf were Galloway and his wife, who also worked as the family’s business manager. She was prevented from testifying that her husband was permanently injured and that his income had been diminished and that the back injury and spinal fusion would negatively affect his future earnings.
The jury found Horne liable to Galloway on his negligence claim but found in favor of Djuric. The jury assessed $125,000 in damages against Horne — $80,000 for past lost wages, $40,000 for past non-economic damages, including pain and suffering, through the date of the trial and $5,000 for future non-economic damages. The verdict form had authorized only three types of damages: 1) past lost wages (through the date of the trial); 2) past non-economic damages, including pain and suffering (through the date of the trial); and 3) future non-economic damages.
Galloway appealed, challenging the amount of the judgment and asking for a new trial. He said the magistrate’s evidentiary rulings prevented the jury from properly evaluating his damages.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the damages award against Horne and remanded for a new trail exclusively on damages, finding that Galloway’s personal injury claim fell squarely within a case decided in 1962 by Maryland’s top court.
In Wilhelm v. State Traffic Safety Commission, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that when a personal injury claim involves a “complicated medical question” that falls within the province of medical experts, expert testimony must be presented to connect the injuries to the alleged negligent act. But, the court recognized that there are many occasions where the causal connection between a defendant’s negligence and a disability claimed by a plaintiff does not need to be established by expert testimony.
Expert testimony is not required, if the case falls into one of three categories:
• if a disability develops coincidentally with or within a reasonable time after the subject act; or
• if the proof of causation is clearly apparent from the nature and circumstances of the injury; or
• if the cause of the injury relates to matters of common experience, knowledge, or observation of laymen.
“Put succinctly,” the court said, “this dispute qualifies under each of Wilhelm’s three categories of cases where experts are unnecessary.” First, the court explained, Galloway’s back injuries developed coincidentally with and immediately after Horne’s negligence. Second, causation was “clearly apparent” from the nature and circumstances of his injuries. Finally, the cause of Galloway’s back injuries was shown to be the wreck on I-95 and a reasonable jury could so find by using its “common experience, knowledge, and observation.”
“In short, no experts are needed to establish that being rear-ended by an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer in a multi-vehicle interstate accident can cause lower-back injuries,” the court concluded.
The court also noted that Horne’s primary contention at oral argument -that any evidentiary errors made by the magistrate were harmless – was belied by the fact that Galloway’s medical bills were $120,000. Those bills could also lay the claim for a future damage calculation far beyond the $5,000 actually awarded by the jury.
When a jury’s damages award indicates so strongly that the error substantially influenced the jury’s verdict, the error cannot be dismissed as harmless under the federal rules of civil procedure, the court said.
Baltimore, Maryland-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of personal injury and negligence for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.