Discovery

Russell & Wright Insights

Relevance Of Later Accidents

Posted by Steve Russell on May 12, 2015

One of the things a plaintiff injured in a truck accident must prove is that the defendant trucking company caused the injury.  This is part of the plaintiff’s burden of proof in a negligence claim and is called the causation element.  Although the plaintiff has the burden of proving causation, the defendant may offer evidence and argue the injury was caused by another accident or by a pre-existing medical condition (or both).  Because evidence of other accidents can have a powerful impact, plaintiffs often ask trial courts to exclude (not allow) such evidence.  Motions to exclude evidence of other accidents or medical conditions can be real battlegrounds in lawsuits involving trucking accidents.

Such was the case in JLG Trucking, LLC v. Garza, 466 S.W.3d 157 (Tex. 2015), in which the Texas Supreme Court discussed the relevance of a later accident to a plaintiff’s claim for injuries from a motor vehicle accident.  The plaintiff, Lauren Garza, alleged she suffered neck injuries in July 2008 when a tractor-trailer operated by JLG Trucking rear-ended her truck.  An x-ray taken five days after the accident showed straightening of the lordotic curve, which Ms. Garza’s doctor said at the time was caused by muscle spasms in her neck.  The doctor prescribed physical therapy.

In early October 2008, less than three months later, Ms. Garza was in another motor vehicle accident.  This time, she went by ambulance to a hospital, where she complained of head, neck, and chest pain.  Ms. Garza later returned to the same doctor who treated her for the July accident.  The doctor ordered an MRI, which showed two herniated disks in Ms. Garza’s neck.  She ultimately had spinal fusion surgery in January 2012.

Ms. Garza filed suit against JLG, alleging that her neck injuries were from the July accident and that JLG’s driver was negligent.  JLG defended the suit, in part, by asserting that Ms. Garza’s injuries were from the October 2008 accident.  Ms. Garza’s attorneys moved to exclude evidence of the October accident, asserting it wasn’t relevant.  The trial court granted that motion.  Following a jury verdict for Ms. Garza, JLG appealed, arguing the second accident was relevant to the causation issue and that the trial court’s exclusion of evidence of that accident allowed Ms. Garza to prevail without proving that JLG caused her injuries.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the jury verdict, finding that evidence of the second accident was relevant to Ms. Garza’s burden of proving JLG caused her injuries.  Citing its opinion in Guevara v. Ferrer, 247 S.W.3d 662 (Tex. 2007), the court noted that accident victims suing for medical expenses must show “both ‘what all the conditions were’ that generated the expenses and ‘that all the conditions were caused by the accident.’”  This requires expert medical testimony if the condition at issue is outside the jury’s common knowledge (as it generally is with medical issues).  In the Garza case, the trial court’s exclusion of evidence of the second accident limited JLG’s ability to cross-examine the plaintiff’s medical expert witness about whether the plaintiff’s injuries were caused, either in whole or in part, by the second accident.

The Garza case makes clear that part of a plaintiff’s burden of proof in a trucking accident is to show, with reasonable certainty, that her injury was caused by the defendant trucking company and not by other plausible causes, such as other accidents or pre-existing medical conditions.

Steve Russell
Steve Russell

Steven Russell is the founder and managing member of Russell & Wright, PLLC.