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Oakland County car crash victim can sue for back and neck injuries

June 14, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Court rules Oakland County auto accident lawsuit can go forward based on cervical and lumbar MRI evidence & accident victim’s ‘more sedentary’ post-crash life

Hawamda MRI

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that a car crash victim who suffered back and neck injuries in an Oakland County auto accident on Telegraph Road in Bingham Farms can sue for pain and suffering compensation. Lawyers who litigate these car accident cases should take special note — this will be an important case for lawyers defending injury threshold summary disposition motions.

The case is Hawamda v. Kineish, et al. The judges in Hawamda address two central issues that crop up in nearly all Michigan auto accident cases where the crash victim is suing for “noneconomic loss” damages under Michigan’s auto law, i.e., pain and suffering compensation based on having suffered a “serious impairment of body function.”

This “serious impairment” prong is the third and most difficult part of Michigan’s three-part auto accident threshold law, and the one under which cases have most commonly been dismissed in the past.

Specifically, the judges in Hawamda addressed the following issues:

  • Whether the victim’s injuries were caused by the motor vehicle accident?
  • Whether the victim’s injuries “affect[ed]” his “general ability to lead his … normal life” by “influenc[ing] some of the [his] capacity to live in his … normal manner of living”?

On each point, the judges in Hawamda said there was enough of a “fact question” that the crash victim’s lawsuit should be decided by a jury — rather than a judge on a defense motion to dismiss.

In reaching this outcome, auto accident attorneys will find the following conclusions particularly significant:

  • Positive cervical and lumbar MRIs taken two and three years after the car crash were deemed to be related to the accident in light of consistent documentation in the medical records of the victim’s complaints of neck and back pain.
  • Even if it’s “not overwhelming,” evidence that a car crash victim’s activities “are more sedentary since the accident” can be enough to have a jury — not a judge — decide whether a victim’s “claimed manifested impairments affected his ‘general ability to lead his or her normal life’” sufficiently to entitle him to pain and suffering compensation.

What if positive MRIs don’t occur until years after the car crash?

In Hawamda, the at-fault driver moved to dismiss the victim’s lawsuit, insisting the crash victim’s claimed back and neck injuries weren’t caused by the May 9, 2011, car accident because:

  • “[A]ll objective testing of [the victim’s] head, spine and shoulder [on the day of the car crash] were negative for injury.”
  • The victim’s positive lumbar and cervical MRIs “were taken some two and three years after the accident” in 2013 (indicating that some of the findings were “possibly related to injury”) and in 2014.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, concluding that “objective MRIs and medical records offered by plaintiffs relate the findings and subjective complaints to the accident”:

  • “Plaintiffs offered documented manifestations of Hawamda’s subjective symptoms [“complaints … of back and neck pain”] through medical records that traced Hawamda’s symptoms and treatment from the time of the accident in 2011, through 2014. Plaintiffs also offered objective manifestations of a serious impairment through MRIs of Hawamda’s cervical and lumbar spine.”
  • “Defendants’ basic argument is that because an injury did not immediately appear after the accident, there was no injury.” However, “[c]ausation is generally an issue of fact to be decided by a trier of fact …and whether a condition temporally follows an event is not conclusive evidence of causation …”

What if a car accident victim’s new ‘normal’ life is more sedentary after a crash than before it?

In Hawamda, the Court of Appeals observed that:

“[B]efore the accident, [the victim] played basketball and soccer twice a week at neighboring parks with his family and friends. He bowled in the winter. After the accident, [the victim] has not played any sports and instead, he walks around the park. … Comparatively, [the victim’s] activities are more sedentary since the accident.”

Based on that, the judges concluded:

“While this evidence is not overwhelming, it does support that [the victim’s] claimed manifested impairments affected his ‘general ability to lead his or her normal life’ … in such a way that his life is different since the accident.”

Hawamda is truly an important case. One issue where I have consistently criticized the appellate courts — particularly during the Kreiner v. Fischer era, is when judges who had no background in medicine decided to “play doctor” — often to horribly unfair effect.

In Kreiner v. Fischer, we saw this with the Michigan Supreme Court’s footnote about doctor-imposed restrictions, a judge-created additional requirement found nowhere in the statute. The problem with physician-imposed restrictions requirement is this: it was pure fantasy. Most doctors in the few minutes they have to examine a patient do not then sit down and dictate out a long-list of physician-imposed medical restrictions. It just never happens in real-life. It was a fantasy that a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court who never practiced auto accident law and clearly had no understanding of the underlying medicine decided to create as an obstacle that caused hundreds of auto accident victims to have their injury cases dismissed in the trial courts.

Likewise, here in Hawamda, we saw the defense attorney urge the court to say that because there was no immediate diagnostic proof of injury, that the case should be dismissed. This ignores that usually only X-rays are performed in emergency rooms, and X-rays will not visualize soft tissue and disc injuries. Even when an MRI is performed — which is very rare — it doesn’t mean that there has not been a very significant disc injury that can later be manifested in the days and weeks that follow. Often a sudden trauma such as a car crash will cause a tear in the annulus of the disc, and it is only in the days and weeks that follow that the disc material begins to jut out of this tear and can then be visualized on diagnostic imaging like MRI.

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