Not All Injuries Are Equal in Personal Injury Lawsuits

Not all injuries are equal when bringing a personal injury lawsuit. Even if you can prove one injury was the direct result of an automobile accident, a court may still prevent you from tying another injury to that same event. New York law requires proof of "serious injury" in order to sustain a lawsuit, and any evidence that an injury predated an accident will undermine, and in most cases defeat, your case.

Vandetta v. Adams

Recently, the Appellate Division, Third Department, addressed a case where it said the plaintiff could pursue a claim for one injury allegedly arising from a motor vehicle accident, but not another injury. The accident itself took place in September 2007. The plaintiff claimed the defendant was at fault for the accident, the result from which he suffered a shoulder injury and aggravated an existing hernia.

Saratoga County Supreme Court granted summary judgment to the defendant in 2012. Although the defendant did not contest her liability for the accident, she presented medical evidence that the plaintiff did not suffer a "serious injury" as defined by New York law. The Supreme Court agreed. The defendant presented medical testimony from an orthopedic surgeon who examined the plaintiff and determined both his shoulder and hernia injuries predated the accident.

The Third Department did not entirely agree. In anopinion issued on October 23, a five-judge panel reinstated the plaintiff's lawsuit with respect to his shoulder injury only. Before Supreme Court, the orthopedic surgeon testified the plaintiff "had previously complained of left shoulder pain and his conclusion that the tear in the shoulder was degenerative in nature." From this, he determined the shoulder injury predated the accident. But the Third Department said a more careful examination of the plaintiff's medical records indicated just the opposite. "In fact," the Third Department said in its opinion, the plaintiff's "preaccident medical records are completely devoid of any indication that he suffered from shoulder pain or any condition regarding his shoulder." The appeals court also cited evidence the plaintiff sought extensive treatment after the accident—including physical therapy and surgery—as evidence his injury was not a preexisting condition.

The Third Department did agree, however, that the plaintiff's hernia condition was a pre-existing ailment. The plaintiff's medical records indicated he "suffered from a chronic or recurrent hernia, and his own treating physicians noted the likelihood that the hernia at issue was the result of his numerous operations or preexisting conditions." Accordingly, the plaintiff could not pursue a claim against the defendant related to the hernia, only the shoulder injury.

A case like this highlights the importance of keeping and producing detailed medical records. Any treatment you receive (or do not receive) following an accident can affect a potential personal injury claim. That is why it is important not just to seek the proper medical attention, but also to work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can help document your claim.Contact our office today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.