February 5, 2018

Admit Fault = No Damages?; Spaulding v. Cook

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

It seems obvious—when a defendant admits fault, the plaintiff is going to be entitled to some damages. Right? This case shows that this is not as obvious as it may seem.

In June 2012, Cook and Spaulding were involved in an automobile accident. Cook described the accident as “mild” or “moderate,” and there was some damage to Spaulding’s car. Cook’s van sustained very little damage. Spaulding did not have any obvious injuries and did not seek medical attention on the day of the accident.

The next day, Spaulding woke up with pain in his left shoulder. He went to the emergency room that afternoon, but X-rays did not show anything in particular. Spaulding was given some motion exercises and a Vicodin prescription.

A few days later, Spaulding saw his family doctor about the pain in his shoulder. He was given a cortisone shot, and prescriptions for Percocet and a muscle relaxer. He then attended a number of physical therapy appointments. His doctor suspected that Spaulding may have a torn rotator cuff and referred him to a specialist. An MRI revealed a “significant rotator cuff tear,” a possible biceps tendon tear, and other conditions. The specialist performed a surgery to correct the tears.

In the meantime, Spaulding was involved in another accident in which he rear-ended another vehicle. It was a low-speed accident, Spaulding was not injured, and he did not seek medical treatment.

Spaulding eventually filed a negligence claim against Cook. Cook stipulated that he was at fault for the accident, but denied responsibility for any damages allegedly incurred by Spaulding. The case went to trial, at the conclusion of which the jury awarded no damages. Spaulding appealed.

On appeal, Spaulding argued that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the evidence, because both of his doctors testified that they thought his injuries were caused by the accident with Cook, and the lack of any evidence to the contrary was conclusive. The Court disagreed, finding that there was sufficient evidence to undermine the medical expert testimony:

  • At the time of the accident, Spaulding had pre-existing conditions in his left shoulder, namely, arthritis and a ganglion cyst;
  • Spaulding did not seek medical attention until the day after the accident;
  • Cook testified that the accident was not “very serious;”
  • There was only minor damage to the cars;
  • Spaulding did not tell his specialist about the second accident; and
  • Spaulding had a history of three prior automobile accidents, which could have injured his shoulder.

We hold that, in light of Spaulding’s pre-existing conditions in his left shoulder, his failure to inform Dr. Pritchard of the July 27 accident during the consultation one week after that accident, the degree of certitude underlying Dr. Pritchard’s opinion, and the relatively minor impact in the June 8 accident, the issue of causation is “outside the ‘purely medical realm’ requiring expert testimony to controvert it.”

The jury’s verdict was affirmed.

Lessons:

  1. Sometimes, there are no damages in a stipulated fault case.
  2. It is not always necessary to engage in a battle of the experts on medical causation; sometimes circumstances can take that issue outside the purely medical realm.