Do You Have a Car Accident Injury When a Preexisting Condition is Worsened?

Photo of personal injuries from car accidentWhen a person is hit by a negligent driver, does he or she have a car accident injury case if the wreck exacerbated a preexisting injury? This issue was part of a recent case on appeal in Tennessee stemming from a rear end accident on I-24 that occurred in 2011. In Kempson v. Casey, No. E2015-02184-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2016), the Plaintiff alleged neck injuries and pain from the accident, which necessitated a three level cervical discectomy and fusion for cervical disk herniation and myelopathy in 2012.

Defendant argued these injuries stemmed from an incident in 1998, when Plaintiff had preexisting complaints regarding his cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. Further, Defendant pointed out that Plaintiff had been involved in a different car accident in 2006. At trial, Plaintiff’s surgeon and chiropractor testified that his complaints about neck pain were similar pre and post accident. However, the surgeon testified that the 2011 accident caused the injury to worsen to the point of needing surgery in 2012. This testimony was uncontroverted.

The jury awarded no damages to Plaintiff, because it found Defendant did not cause the injury to Plaintiff in the car accident. The jury found that there was insufficient evidence that the car accident was the cause of Plaintiff’s neck and back injuries due to the fact that he had similar problems before the accident. Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court took up the case to decide whether a new trial on the issue of damages would be warranted.

Did the Appeals Court Decide the Case in Plaintiff’s Favor?

The appellate court found in favor of the Plaintiff. Although the court recognized that Plaintiff had neck and back problems for over a decade before the accident, the expert witness surgeon offered evidence that the accident aggravated his injuries. The surgeon testified that “but for” the car accident, the preexisting condition would not have worsened to the point of needing surgery. The appellate court pointed out that Defendant had offered no evidence that controverted the expert witness surgeon’s testimony.

In Tennessee, there is well-settled law that a jury must not ignore “unimpeached, uncontracted testimony of a physician in respect to scientific information of which a layman would not be expected to have any reliable knowledge.” The appellate court held that this testimony was unimpeached and uncontracted, and therefore the jury could not ignore it. The appellate court also pointed out the well-established notion that a defendant takes a plaintiff “as he finds him.” This means that simply because a plaintiff is already in a weakened or injured state, that fact is not a defense to a personal injury claim.

Finally, the appellate court noted that a plaintiff in a negligence action is entitled to reasonable expenses that were demonstrated by unrefuted expert proof. As that was the case here, the jury made a mistake when it denied damages for the worsened preexisting condition. The appellate court vacated the jury’s verdict and sent the case back to the lower court for a new trial on damages.

Stanley A. Davis is a car and truck accident lawyer who has been successfully representing injured drivers, passengers and taxi cab operators in the greater Nashville area since 1997. He offers free, no obligation consultations to discuss the aftermath of an auto accident.