On January 24, 2014, Barbara Murphy was driving northbound on the Saw Mill River Parkway in Dobbs Ferry. Chris Ford was driving southbound before making a left turn and losing control of his car whereupon Ms. Murphy’s car was struck and she was injured.

Murphy, then 58 years old, claimed that she sustained severe spinal injuries requiring extensive surgery. In her ensuing lawsuit, Ford conceded he was at fault and the Westchester County jury awarded plaintiff pain and suffering damages in the sum of $361,500 ($250,000 past – three years, $111,500 future — one year).

Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the award was  inadequate. In Murphy v. Ford (2d Dept. 2019), the award was affirmed.

Here are details of plaintiff’s injuries and treatment following the 2014 car crash:

  • L-1 burst fracture with retropulsion of fracture fragments into spinal canal

  • C-2 displaced fracture and T-12 fracture
  • vertebral artery dissection
  • six level spinal fusion surgery at T-10 to L-3  with insertion of three rods and 10 screws
  • 27 days in hospital and rehabilitation facility
  • continuing unrelenting pain requiring narcotic pain medication
  • unable to resume prior active lifestyle which had included walking three miles a day, kayaking, swimming and biking

There was no dispute about the extent and nature of plaintiff’s injuries and treatment; the defense, though, claimed that plaintiff recovered well from the injuries she sustained in the car crash, her current symptoms and problems are due to an accident in 2003 when she fell down a flight of stairs and as of trial she was back to her baseline that she was before.

Here are details of plaintiff’s injuries and treatment following the 2003 fall down accident:

  • fell head first down a flight of 12 stairs, landing at bottom fracturing a wrist, smashing her head and resulting in neck as well as low back pain
  • treated and released from hospital next day
  • out of work six weeks, physical therapy for months
  • extensive treatment over the ensuing 10 years including pain management, orthopedics, neurology and narcotic pain medication for neck and back

Plaintiff argued that the major injury from the 2003 incident was to her neck, her back was injured only to a lesser extent and her prior back conditions paled in comparison to the injuries she sustained as a result of the 2014 car accident. While conceding that plaintiff was taking narcotic pain killers before the car crash, plaintiff’s counsel stressed that (a) the continuing and intense pain she had after the car crash required her to now take six times the amount and (b) plaintiff was active and athletic before the car crash and is now fully disabled.

Defendant brought out numerous medical records that demonstrated plaintiff complained of back pain many times over the years before the car crash. For example:

  • in 2012, an orthopedic surgeon noted she had degenerative disc disease and a herniated disc at L5-S1
  • on 7/31/13, she complained of low back pain which her pain management physician diagnosed as chronic and recommended a (second) epidural injection
  • on 10/11/13, she presented to another physician with continued neck and back pain, restricted range of motion and taking narcotic painkillers (the prescription for which was then renewed)

Inside Information:

  • The parties stipulated before trial that the total damages would be capped at $1,250,0000, the reported limits of the defendant’s insurance policy.
  • Defendant’s expert neurologist testified that it was impossible for anyone to sustain a herniated disc as a result of an accident. His expert radiologist agreed with plaintiff’s counsel that this assertion was incorrect, absurd even. Defense counsel conceded in summation that his expert neurologist was a “terrible” witness.
  • Plaintiff returned to work (part-time) and driving four months after the car crash. There was no claim for loss of earnings.
  • The appellate court decision implied that there were significant issues of credibility affecting the jury’s verdict. In fact, plaintiff’s credibility as to the extent of her pre-existing back problems was a major theme in the defense of this case.