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In November of 2018, a vehicle being driven by one plaintiff with the other plaintiff riding as passenger was rear-ended by defendant on 19th Street East in Walker County, Alabama. All parties could agree that there was a large part of a tree that had fallen in the roadway, but the parties disagreed as to when the tree had landed in the roadway. The plaintiffs both testified that this tree, as tall as their van, and so long it covered two lanes of travel, was already in the roadway as they approached, at which point they came to a stop and turned their vehicle slightly to the left, waiting on traffic opposite them to clear so they could drive around the tree.

The defendant testified that he was driving behind the plaintiffs’ van, both of their vehicles moving, when in a split second this tree landed on top of and in front of his vehicle, to which he slammed on his brakes. The portion of the tree that had fallen was so large he couldn’t open his driver’s side door and had to reverse to clear the area to exit his vehicle. Further, there was debris on the hood of his vehicle when he finally exited. He took photos of this debris, and of the tree in the roadway, photos of which were admitted as evidence during trial. One of the problems with the photos, however, was that as soon as the accident occurred, a man with a chainsaw was in the roadway cutting up this tree – so there was no photo directly depicting the scene when the tree fell. Due to this discrepancy, and the plaintiffs’ testimony that the tree was in front of them at the time of impact, the plaintiffs continued to argue that as a result of the impact, they were pushed over the tree that had fallen in the roadway, so the debris was then behind their vehicle (which was depicted in the photos, although the defendant testified that was because the tree had landed between them).

Defense counsel also used ER records from both plaintiffs to support the defense position as to how this accident occurred – as both sets of records indicated that the plaintiffs had told the treating doctor that a tree had fallen in the roadway and they were unable to stop, or that they had to slam on their brakes due to the tree, which did not line up with their testimony during trial as to how this accident occurred.

The defense argued that there was no negligence in this case, as negligence is the failure to use reasonable care – what more could be expected of someone when a tree fell from the sky, without warning, but to slam on the brakes and hope for the best? Defense counsel argued during trial that the photo evidence from the scene did not support the plaintiffs’ version of how this accident occurred – which would have been that the defendant, with no care as to a stopped vehicle or a large tree in the roadway, simply rammed into the back of their vehicle, despite clear visibility and no evidence of speeding or distraction on behalf of the defendant. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued in close the various ways that negligence could be ‘inferred.’

One of the plaintiffs, who was elderly and had recently undergone a total knee replacement that her attorney told the jury was “not at all related to this car accident,” was claiming a general decline in her health, and aggravation of pre-existing conditions to her neck and back. Medical treatment after the accident for these conditions was slim, but medical records indicated she had been in pain management for many years before this accident occurred, and had, just a few months before this accident, told her doctor she was taking more than her prescribed amount of pain medications due to the level of her pain. Further, she had undergone a cervical MRI and a lumbar MRI (at different times, but both within the same year of this accident, and before) due to her pain. her doctor testified that a motor vehicle accident could exacerbate any conditions she already had going on, but, given her history, he wasn’t sure whether she wouldn’t have continued to complain of the same level of pain with or without this accident occurring.

The other plaintiff, who was in her fifties, was claiming injuries to her neck, back, and right knee as a result of this accident. She had a prior history to all of these areas, having undergone a previous back surgery and a previous knee surgery, but with no medical records showing any complaints in the few years before this accident occurred. She was claiming an exacerbation of pre-existing conditions in this case.

The orthopedic surgeon testified to significant degenerative changes found throughout the plaintiff’s neck and back on the MRIs that were done after this motor vehicle accident. Ultimately, the doctor testified that an accident of this magnitude might have exacerbated any issues she had going on, even degenerative conditions that were likely asymptomatic before this accident occurred, since the plaintiff was not actively complaining of any neck or back issues prior to this accident. For her knee, her treating physician testified that she was suffering from arthritis likely before this accident occurred, but that there was such a thing as traumatic arthritis that could be caused by a motor vehicle accident, and given the fact that her arthritis was not bilateral, he opined that the right sided arthritis was likely traumatically caused.

No medical specials were presented for either plaintiff during the trial of this case. Further, Plaintiffs’ counsel did not suggest a number to the jury during closing arguments – simply asking the jury to award a number they thought was fair and reasonable, given the claimed injuries.

After deliberating for roughly 20 minutes, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant.

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