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Georgia Appeals Court Upholds Accident Victim’s Claim Against Insurance Company

In personal injury cases, trial juries are expected to employ their common sense and knowledge in determining liability. Expert testimony may provide a jury with specialized knowledge, but, as the Georgia Supreme Court has said in Cower v Widener, most “simple negligence” cases such testimony is not required “to establish a causal link between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury.” Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals applied this principle to a dispute between an accident victim and his insurance company.

In February 2002, the victim was waiting in his car at an intersection. An unknown driver rear-ended him. The victim’s head slammed against the window. The victim exited his vehicle in a “dazed” state and proceeded to speak briefly with the other driver. However, before the victim could obtain any further vehicle or insurance information, the other driver fled the scene.

Shortly thereafter, the victim started receiving chiropractic treatment for lower back pain. Nine months later, an MRI revealed a herniated disk. The radiologist supervising the MRI concluded the injury was “possibly several months of age,” putting it within the time frame of the February accident.

The victim held an uninsured motorist coverage policy from the Safeway Insurance Company. The victim filed a claim based on his herniated disk. The insurer denied the claim and litigation followed. A jury trial in Fulton County resulted in a judgment for the victim and an award of $13,000 in damages. Safeway appealed the verdict.

Juries Don’t Always Require Expert Testimony

On appeal, Safeway challenged the trial judge’s decision to permit the victim’s radiologist to testify as well as her instructions to the jury. The Georgia Court of Appeals found no error with either. Regarding the first issue, Safeway objected to the absence of any direct link between the radiologist’s testimony about the results of the MRI and the accident. Safeway argued causation was a “medical question” requiring specific expert testimony. Here, the radiologist expressly testified “that he was not opining as to causation.”

Judge Michael P. Boggs, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, rejected this claim. Judge Boggs said that while more complicated injuries–such as those arising from a long-term exposure to an alleged harm–might require an expert to provide the jury with specialized knowledge, in a simple automobile accident case like this one, the jury could use its own “common knowledge” to make the connection between the rear-end collision and the victim’s herniated disk.

Safeway’s only other argument on appeal addressed the trial judge’s instructions to the jury. The victim had been in another automobile accident 15 months prior to the one at issue in this case. The trial judge told the jury it could award damages if it found the second accident aggravated any preexisting injuries arising from the first accident. Safeway argued there was insufficient medical testimony to justify such an instruction. Judge Boggs disagreed. He pointed to the radiologist’s testimony on this subject and said that even that “slight evidence” was enough to sustain a jury instruction.