New York law makes it difficult for a person to recover damages in lawsuits arising from motor vehicle accidents unless he or she can prove a "serious injury" caused by the defendant's negligence. In meeting this legal burden, a qualified medical expert must assess what limitations, if any, are present in the parts of the body where the plaintiff claims an injury occurred. Based on the expert's testimony, the court must ultimately determine whether the plaintiff's "normal range of motion" is restricted as a result of injuries directly traceable to the accident.
Thompson v. New York City Transit Authority
Here is a recent example of this principle in practice. This is from a decision by a Manhattan Supreme Court justice dismissing a personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff claimed he suffered serious back injuries after his vehicle collided with a New York City bus. The defendants—the transit authorities and the bus driver—moved for summary judgment and dismissal, citing a medical expert's report purporting to contradict the plaintiff's claims.
A neurologist and an orthopedic surgeon examined the plaintiff. Both found the plaintiff's "range of motion" to be within what they considered "corresponding normal values." The neurologist, for instance, tested the plaintiff's lumbar spine movement at 85 degrees. This is a five-degree variation from normal (90 degrees), but within what is considered a normal range. Both experts determined the plaintiff exhibited a "full range of motion" within their specified ranges.
The plaintiff argued the experts were wrong to rely on a "range of values" rather than a single measure of normal. In other words, the two experts defined normal as anything falling with a certain range, e.g. 30-45 degrees. The plaintiff argued "normal" should be pegged to a specific figure, such as 45 degrees.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Stallman, ruling on the defendants' motion, noted there was support for the plaintiff's view in other personal injury cases. Justices from the Nassau and Suffolk County Supreme Courts previously said an expert should use a specific figure, not a range, in determining the normal range of motion. But Justice Stallman said he declined to follow that approach here because the plaintiff did not present any evidence disputing the reliability of the ranges used by the experts. Stallman said the plaintiff's argument really went to the "weight" of the experts' opinions, not their actual admissibility.
Stallman also cited the plaintiff's own testimony that the accident did not significantly change his life or limit his ability to carry out normal activities. And although there was some medical evidence the plaintiff suffered from a herniated disc, Stallman said there was nothing to connect that injury with any "significant limitations" on the plaintiff's life. Accordingly, the plaintiff could not prove a "serious injury" as required by New York law.
Making Your Case
Expert testimony is often the key to winning a personal injury lawsuit. Indeed, your case will not even get to trial until a judge is satisfied you can document a serious, life-changing injury. That is why, if you are contemplating a lawsuit, you need to work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can help document every step of your injury and recovery. Contact our office today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.