Calling an Accident Victim a "Liar" Is Not a Successful Defense

In a personal injury lawsuit, defendants and their attorneys may attempt to paint injury victims as gold-con artists. While every defendant is entitled to mount a zealous presentation of their case, there are limits to how far you can go. A recentdecision by a Queens Supreme Court justice illustrates just where the boundaries are located.

The case itself arose from a 2010 accident between a school bus and another vehicle. The driver of the second vehicle filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver and owner of the school bus. The driver admitted he was negligent in operating the vehicle, and he and his employer conceded his actions were the direct cause of the accident.

This still left a jury to determine whether or not the plaintiff suffered “serious injuries” as defined by New York law, and if she did, how much compensation to award. During the trial before Queens Supreme Court Justice Robert J. McDonald, the plaintiff introduced evidence the accident resulted in a herniated disc, a cervical sprain, and sprains to her leg and shoulder. The defendants presented their own medical experts, who argued these injuries were all the result of previous back problems unrelated to the bus accident.

During cross-examination of one of the plaintiff's physicians, defense counsel repeatedly questioned the doctor's ethics. The attorney's questions strongly implied the physician conspired with the plaintiff and numerous prior patients to document false injuries. At one point, the attorney asked the physician, “Almost all of the patients in your practice are in litigation of one kind or another?” The physician denied this, yet the attorney persisted in questioning the witness' “ethics and veracity,” according to the plaintiff. Finally, during closing arguments, defense counsel called the plaintiff a “liar” several times and said her lawsuit was a “scam.”

The jury apparently believed this and returned a verdict for the defendant in February of this year. But last month, Justice McDonald set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial. Justice McDonald said the defense attorney's cross-examination and closing statement were “inflammatory” and “unduly prejudicial” to the point it “tainted” the jury's verdict.

This was not simply a case of a defense attorney zealously representing a client, according to Justice McDonald. Rather, defense counsel's statements “contained counsel's own view of the facts, and contained character attacks on the plaintiff, plaintiff's counsel and the plaintiff's witnesses.” Justice McDonald said that was enough to deprive the plaintiff of her right to a fair trial.

It is rare for a trial judge to disregard a jury verdict. And one should not read this case to mean a plaintiff will get a new trial simply because a defense attorney made an intemperate remark or two. The lesson here is that personal injury lawsuits must be decided on the basis of evidence, not personal attacks. If you have suffered injuries in an accident as the result of someone else's negligence, you should not be deprived of your day in court by a bullying defense attorney. If you need to speak with an experienced New York accident attorney,contact our office right away.