On June 25, 2007, at about 8:30 a.m., Melody Sweet was driving her 1986 Mustang convertible on Innis Avenue in Poughkeepsie at a speed of 25-30 miles per hour when Christopher Rios pulled his sport utility vehicle out of a parking space on the side of the road and collided with her vehicle.
A red 1986 Mustang convertible (Ms. Sweet’s was pink and was totaled in the accident):
The crash caused neck, back, shoulder and knee injuries to the then 47 year old Ms. Sweet. She was transported by ambulance to the local hospital where she was treated for low back pain and a contusion to her right shin and tibia. Twelve days later, Ms. Sweet began an extensive course of medical treatment that included two surgical procedures.
In her ensuing lawsuit, on April 13, 2011, a Dutchess County jury found Mr. Rios fully at fault and awarded Ms. Sweet pain and suffering damages in the sum of $720,000 ($100,000 past – four years, $620,000 future – 31 years).
The defendant appealed, claiming that the amount awarded for future damages was excessive. The appellate court agreed, in Sweet v. Rios (2d Dept. 2014), and ordered a reduction of the future damage award from $620,000 to $465,000. The court thus determined that the proper total pain and suffering award for plaintiff is $565,000 ($100,000 past, $465,000 future).
The court’s decision mentions some of the injuries; however, here are the injury details:
- Neck and Back – Cervical disc protrusions at C4-5 and C5-6 and lumbar disc bulges at L4 and L5-S1 that required four trigger point injections, extensive physical therapy, pain management and chiropractic treatment and left plaintiff with significant range of motion deficits that her doctors opined are permanent and, as to her back, Ms. Sweet said left her with radiating and stabbing pain that continues to get worse. One of her doctors opined that she will need microdiscectomy lumbar surgery in the future.
- Left Shoulder – Arthroscopic surgery on 11/1/07 to repair the superior labrum, anterior and interior capsulorraphies, glenoid chondroplasty, rotator cuff debridement, partial synovectomy, removal of loose bodies, acromioplasty and distal clavicle resection. Despite the surgery, and a series of three trigger point injections thereafter, Ms. Sweet testified she cannot lift her left arm above her shoulder and has continuing pain and stiffness. Her doctors testified she has significant range of motion deficits, her injury is permanent and “there is no doubt” she will require major reconstructive surgery or replacement.
- Right Knee – Arthroscopic surgery on 3/20/08 to repair or trim back meniscal tears. The surgery was successful, plaintiff regained full range of motion in her knee, sharp pain and snapping resolved and her attorneys on appeal essentially abandoned this aspect of her claim.
- Work Loss – Ms. Sweet had been a waitress for 30 years in and around the Poughkeepsie area. She missed two days of work right after the accident before returning on limited duty for the next few months. Thereafter, though, she never returned and claimed she is permanently unable to do so because of the injuries from the accident.
- Activities of Daily Living – Plaintiff testified that she can no longer enjoy her recreational activities such as hiking, walking in the woods and ice skating. Also, she said she was socially isolated because her social life had revolved around her work and she lost her friends.
The defendant’s expert orthopedic surgeon opined that plaintiff sustained no injury to her neck, the injury to her back was merely a sprain with temporary aggravation of degenerative disc disease, her shoulder conditions were pre-existing and not caused by the accident and her knee injury was not caused by the accident. He noted that significant obesity (plaintiff was five feet seven inches tall and weighed 260 pounds at the time) was a more likely cause of many of plaintiff’s complaints.
- Prior to the accident, Ms. Sweet had never sought medical treatment nor had she experienced any medical problems with her neck, back, left shoulder or right knee.
- Two years after this accident, Ms. Sweet was involved in a slip and fall accident at a grocery store in which she hit her face, cheek bone and jaw causing broken dentures and a ripped off toenail.
- Ms. Sweet was determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration and at trial was collecting Social Security Disability (“SSD”) benefits of $681 per month.
- The jury also awarded (and the appellate court sustained) past and future lost earnings in the sum of $234,000 ($76,000 past, $158,000 future – 7.9 years).
- In denying a motion to set aside the jury verdict, the trial judge stated: “This was somewhat of an unusual case by virtue of the fact that plaintiff’s pleasures in life to a great degree revolve around her work which she could no longer perform…. In many ways, her pleasures in life revolved around being at the diner with her friends …. In effect, her social life came to a halt.”
- Plaintiff’s pre-trial settlement demand was $750,000; defendant’s offer was $60,000.