In almost every personal injury lawsuit, plaintiffs call their treating doctors to the stand to testify about their injuries. Doctors are asked whether the injuries plaintiff claims were caused by the accident and whether and to what extent plaintiff will in the future continue to suffer pain and disabilities. Without such testimony – especially as to the future – it’s generally thought that plaintiffs cannot prove their pain and suffering damages claims.
Here is a physician showing a jury the anatomy of the skull and the mechanics of a gunshot injury:
In a recent case involving a fractured jaw, there was no medical testimony at all but, over defendant’s objection, the trial judge allowed the jury to consider both plaintiff’s past and future pain and suffering claims.
The jury returned an award for both and the defendant appealed. Now, in Barnes v. Paulin the appellate court has ruled that there was no need for medical testimony to support the plaintiff’s claims.
Here are the common fractures of the jaw:
On December 27, 2005, then 19 year old David Barnes was a front seat passenger in Ricardo Paulin’s car when the driver lost control as he rounded a curve on the ice covered road in Hyde Park, New York. The vehicle left the road, struck a rock wall and spun 180 degrees before coming to rest. In the collision, David’s face hit the dashboard resulting in a fractured jaw.
In the ensuing lawsuit, plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on liability was granted and the matter proceeded to trial solely on the issue of damages.
The trial judge in Barnes v. Paulin instructed the Dutchess County jury, according to Pattern Jury Instruction 2:281, that they could award future (and past) pain and suffering damages based on the number of years they concluded plaintiff would continue to have accident related pain, suffering or disability. The jury then assessed damages for David Barnes at $200,000 ($100,000 past – 3 years, $100,000 future – 25 years).
While there was no medical testimony from either side (and the defense waived its right before trial to have plaintiff examined by a doctor of its choice), plaintiff’s testimony, together with his hospital and radiology records, established the following injuries:
- a ramus fracture to the left mandible (a fractured jaw)
- impacted wisdom tooth on the right mandible requiring extraction
- alveolar nerve injury
- jaw was wired shut for seven weeks
- surgery to implant a titanium metal plate and six screws
Here is what it looked like when plaintiff’s jaw was wired shut for seven weeks:
Additionally, David testified as to the accident trauma, the pain he suffered, his grueling surgery, his constant awareness of the metal implanted permanently in his jaw and the pain and irritation he experiences pain when he eats cold food and goes outside in the cold.
Barnes v. Paulin should not be viewed as breaking any new ground insofar as the requirement for medical testimony in pain and suffering cases is concerned. Generally, testimony from doctors will be required – especially so to establish the basis for a jury to consider a future pain and suffering claim – and plaintiffs will nearly always have one or more doctors ready to testify. Here, the jury was allowed to consider future damages in view of the permanence of the metal plate in plaintiff’s jaw and the limited testimony about pain and irritation from cold food and weather. Speculating as to much more in terms of future pain and suffering would likely have required medical expert testimony and counsel in any more significant case will undoubtedly be guided accordingly.
- Plaintiff’s $200,000 verdict was reduced by one-half to $100,000 for his comparative negligence in admittedly failing to use a seat belt as required by Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1229-c.
- The jury’s future pain and suffering award was for 25 years, not plaintiff’s 52 year life expectancy. Figures from the relevant statistical life expectancy table are usually provided to the jury but they are not binding and jurors are free to estimate on their own the number of years in the future that plaintiff is expected to suffer accident related pain and disabilities.