If you suffer injuries as the result of an automobile accident, it is essential to properly document all medical care you receive. New York law requires proof of “serious injury” as a precondition to filing a lawsuit against other parties responsible for an accident. This is because New York has a “no-fault” liability system, in which your own insurer is presumed responsible for paying your medical bills. In order to recover damages beyond your no-fault benefits, you must satisfy a judge that you suffered a serious injury caused by the defendant's negligence. This can include evidence of a “permanent, consequential and significant limitation” to any part or organ of your body.
It is often difficult to know in advance how much proof a judge will require before allowing a personal injury lawsuit to proceed. Recently, a panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, split 3-2 on just such a case. The majority ultimately found there was insufficient evidence to support the plaintiff's claims.
Alvarez v. NYLL Management, Ltd.
The plaintiff here claimed she suffered serious injuries to her knee, shoulder, and neck as the result of a rear-end automobile collision caused by the defendant's vehicle. Before a Bronx Supreme Court judge, the plaintiff presented the report of her orthopedic surgeon to document her injuries. The surgeon treated the plaintiff two weeks after the accident, and performed surgery on her knee. The surgeon reported that she “sustained a partial tear to her right shoulder and injuries to her right knee from the accident,” and an MRI also indicated “impingement” of her cervical spine.
This was not enough for the judge, however, who sided with the defendant's own orthopedic expert. The defense expert said the plaintiff's injuries were caused by her own “degeneration” condition, including her preexisting arthritis, and there was no concrete proof—beyond her own surgeon's “opinion”—that the accident caused her injuries. Accordingly, the judge granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment.
In an opinion issued on September 11 of this year, the divided First Department panel agreed with the defendant and the trial judge. The majority said the plaintiff “failed to raise a triable issue of fact” because she presented little more than her own surgeon's “conclusory opinion” regarding the cause of her injuries. The majority said the plaintiff's expert also failed to address what role, if any, the plaintiff's arthritis played in her condition, nor did he address “conflicting findings” made by other physicians regarding the extent of her injuries.
The two dissenting judges argued the orthopedic surgeon's opinion was, in fact, enough to create an issue for a jury to decide. The dissent said the plaintiff presented ample medical evidence that she had “continued difficulty in performing daily activities after the accident,” and that her “continued treatment would be futile” given the nature of her ongoing medical problems.
The fact that the appellate division was divided so sharply in this case demonstrates how personal injury lawsuits often rely on close calls by judges, who must consider often incomplete or contradictory medical testimony. That is why, if you are the victim of an accident caused by someone else's negligence, it is important to work with a New York accident lawyer who can assist you in properly documenting every aspect of your treatment and recovery. Contact our office today if you have any questions.