The Basics of a Personal Injury Lawsuit

There are two basic elements to any successful personal injury lawsuit in New York. First you have to prove the defendant was negligent—that is, he or she caused the accident in question. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you must demonstrate you suffered a “serious injury” as a direct result of the defendant's negligence. Many lawsuits fail to even get to a jury because the plaintiff cannot demonstrate the existence of such an injury.

Geary v. Fancy

Here is a recent example of a personal injury lawsuit that survived a defense motion for summary judgment. The situation is a common one: The plaintiff alleges the defendant rear-ended him. The plaintiff said this caused him serious injuries. The defendant disputes both his own liability and the existence of any serious injury.

The accident occurred in Erie County. But because the plaintiff and defendant are from different states, the case was brought before a federal judge bound to apply New York State law. In a December 2014order, the judge granted the plaintiff summary judgment on the issue of liability, while simultaneously denying the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the serious injury question. This means the latter question—did the plaintiff suffer a serious injury?—will be put before a jury.

Regarding liability, the judge cited deposition testimony from both the plaintiff and defendant. The plaintiff said he was stopped “for several seconds” before the defendant hit him. For his part, the defendant said the plaintiff had made a “sudden stop” after decreasing his speed from 55 miles per hour to about 5 miles per hour in just a few seconds.

But that was inconsistent with the defendant's own testimony there was “heavy traffic” at the time of the accident, the judge said. And in any case, the defendant had a duty under New York law to maintain a “safe distance” between his car and the plaintiff's. A driver who rear-ends another vehicle is presumed to be negligent. A defendant cannot rebut a presumption of negligence merely by accusing the plaintiff of making a “sudden stop.”

With respect to serious injury, the defendant argued the plaintiff has not exhibited any significant limitations in his day-to-day activities. He has not had to miss work, for instance, and he can still perform other “physically demanding” tasks. The defendant argued this proves there is no reason to believe the plaintiff suffered a serious injury.

Not so, the judge said. The plaintiff has presented expert medical testimony regarding purported back and neck injuries. More specifically, the plaintiff's physician calculated the “limited range of motion in [the plaintiff's] neck and spine” and said surgery may be required in the future to relieve “chronic pain in the neck.” This is a specific enough diagnosis to justify presenting the serious injury question to the jury, especially since the judge found the defendant presented no contradictory expert testimony.

While this case may be typical, it does demonstrate the complex legal questions that underlie any personal injury lawsuit. If you have been the victim of another driver's negligence and believe you have suffered a serious injury as a result, you should consult with a New York accident attorney who can help assess your claim.Contact our office today with any questions.