California Court of Appeals Upholds Finding that Defendant’s Negligence was not Substantial Factor in Plaintiff’s Injuries

In a recent California Court of Appeal case, involving a vehicle collision, the court affirmed the jury’s verdict that only one of the two defendants’ negligence was a substantial factor in the plaintiff’s injuries.

In this case, two vehicles collided in an intersection in Fountain Valley. The traffic light was turning from green to yellow to red as westbound defendant Faith Ciolek began a left turn. Defendant Nathan Heacox entered the intersection, traveling east and intending to proceed straight through. After colliding, Mr. Heacox’s car veered southeast, striking plaintiff Omar Bermudez, who had been on the sidewalk next to his bicycle.

In a special verdict, the jury found both defendants negligent, but Ms. Ciolek was the substantial factor causing harm to Mr. Bermudez. She was responsible for Mr. Bermudez’s $3,751,969 in damages. Ms. Ciolek argues the verdict is inconsistent. Alternatively, Ms. Ciolek claims she is entitled to a new trial on damages, since there is insufficient evidence of the reasonableness of Mr. Bermudez’s medical damages.

The court turned to the consistency of the special verdict, examining the evidence at trial. While Ms. Ciolek does not contest the sufficiency of the evidence for the propositions showing her negligence, she does claim that the inconsistency lies in the jury finding Mr. Heacox negligent but that this negligence was not a substantial factor in causing Mr. Bermudez’s harm.

First, the court reviewed the main factors regarding Mr. Heacox’s potential negligence. Experts and eyewitnesses reported that at the time of impact, Mr. Heacox was traveling at a speed of 50 miles per hour. There was no evidence at trial that had Mr. Heacox been traveling more slowly, his car would not have ricocheted into Mr. Bermudez. Nor was there evidence showing the injuries to Mr. Bermudez would have been less severe, had Mr. Heacox been driving more slowly before impact.

The court reviewed the arguments at trial and stated that the jury’s findings are reconcilable. The jury found that Mr. Heacox breached his duty of care, but that was not a substantial factor in harming Mr. Bermudez. The court reviewed precedent, a California Court of Appeals case in which the jury found that a collision was caused by the plaintiff’s inattentiveness to the road, and not the negligence of a truck driver. The court stated that some acts may be deemed negligent but do not necessarily play a causal role in car accidents.

In the present case, Ms. Ciolek argues the question to the jury was whether Mr. Heacox’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing injuries to Mr. Bermudez, and not the collision. She argued that the jury’s findings are irreconcilable because they ignore the laws of physics. According to Ms. Ciolek, the direction and speed of Mr. Heacox’s deflected car was affected by his speed, and if he had driven at the speed limit and been paying attention, the collision and the ricochet would have been different.

But the court stated that Ms. Ciolek did not make this argument at trial, and instead she claimed Mr. Heacox was the sole cause of the collision and harm to Mr. Bermudez. A litigant must stick to the theory on which their case was tried. The court went on to state that it could be inferred that Mr. Heacox was nearly not negligent. The jury may have nearly found he did not breach his duty of care. He may have been driving a few miles over the speed limit, but he could not have avoided the collision, even if he had exercised due care. In other words, Ms. Ciolek’s negligence “overwhelmed” anything Mr. Heacox may have done.

All four elements of negligence, including causation, are to be proven by the plaintiff. The jury found that Mr. Bermudez did not meet his burden of proving causation as to Mr. Heacox.

In terms of the damages award, the court looked at the evidence presented during trial. Mr. Bermudez sustained multiple injuries as a result of his collision, including a fractured kneecap, fractured pelvis, severe shoulder injuries, and deep bruising. His medical bills were $450,000. Experts testified to the necessity of certain procedures and the reasonableness of the charges for those procedures. Some of these procedures included back surgeries and future back and knee surgeries.

The jury’s special verdict indicated that past medical expenses totaled $460,431; paid lost earnings $11,538; future medical expenses $425,000; future lost earnings $130,000; past noneconomic loss $2 million; and future noneconomic loss $725,000. The total damages were $3,751,969.

Ms. Ciolek argues for a new trial on damages because she claims Mr. Bermudez did not prove his claims were reasonable, measured by market value.

The court stated that the proper measure of medical damages, and particularly in the case of an uninsured plaintiff, is the lesser of the amount paid or incurred and the reasonable value of the medical service. For those uninsured plaintiffs who have not yet paid their bills, there will likely be an inquiry into the reasonable value of medical services. The court also stated that the evidence to prove the measure includes those billed amounts, since the full range of fees is relevant to determining the reasonable value of services.

The evidence sufficient to affirm an award, in this case, included the amount Mr. Bermudez incurred and the reasonable value of medical care received.   Here, the court reduced the amount awarded by $46,175.41 because there is no substantial evidence that the total amount incurred was the reasonable value of services provided. The court stated that the experts in this case did not “merely rubber stamp all the medical bills as reasonable,” and they identified lower numbers that were appropriate. Their opinion testimony was not speculative and was in fact based in the real world. The evidence here supported the award of $414,255.59.

In sum, the court found that the lower court committed no error. While the award was slightly too high, there was no compelling evidence that the excess in past medical damages unfairly prejudiced Ms. Ciolek’s rights regarding noneconomic damages.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent car accident victims throughout Southern California. Contact our office today at 1-866 422-7222 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Appeals Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Favor of Passenger Defendant Due to Special Knowledge of Road and Encouragement to Speed, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 16, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules in Car Accident Award Appeal, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, July 9, 2015

Contact Information