What Happened?

A rear end motor vehicle accident occurs.  Plaintiff testifies that he struck the back of his head against the rear window of his pick up truck, and claims to have sustained a neck injury that required medical treatment including anti inflammatory medication and a nerve block injection.  A pain anesthesiologist testifies at trial that the car accident caused the patient’s neck pain and need for medical treatment, but that it was “possible” it did not as many things could cause the same symptoms. Plaintiff admitted medical bills totaling more than $23,000. Nearly 6 years later, plaintiff still complained of chronic neck pain.

Immediately after the incident, plaintiff told the investigating police office that there was minimal damage to both vehicles.  Shortly afterwards, he told his girlfriend that he had been “plowed into” from the back.  He told his pain management doctor 4 months after the accident that the defendant was traveling 25-30 mph at the point of contact.

Jury Returns a Verdict of Zero Dollars

Defendant admitted at trial that her car- a Mitsubishi Eclipse- struck the back of plaintiff’s pick-up truck when her foot rolled off the brake, and “tapped his truck.”  Pictures of the vehicles were admitted into evidence and showed minor damage. The court instructed the jury that the defendant was negligent in causing the accident, but left it for the jury to decide whether  plaintiff was injured, and the amount of compensation plaintiff was entitled to. The jury returned a verdict of $0. 

Plaintiff Appeals Zero Award

Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have admitted pictures of the vehicles without the defendant having retained an expert (ie. an engineer) to testify that a low impact accident could not have caused the injuries of which he complained.

Illinois Supreme Court Makes the Call

The case was eventually decided by the Illinois Supreme Court in Peach v. McGovern, 2019 Il 123156 (Peach). Prior to Peach, Illinois law supported the conclusion that expert testimony was necessary for admission of accident photographs depicting a low impact collision to prove that a plaintiff’s injuries could not have resulted from the accident.  Peach overruled these earlier cases, holding that “the essential question in deciding the admissibility of vehicular photographs is whether the jury can properly relate the vehicular damage depicted in the photos to the injury without the aid of an expert.” In other words, “did the photos make the resulting injury to the plaintiff more or less probable and whether the photos may be relevant with regard to impeachment.” These legal questions are to be answered by the trial judge in deciding whether to admit accident photos, and whose decision won’t be reversed unless “no reasonable person” would have decided as the judge did.

Inconsistent Testimony Impacts Credibility

Once credibility is shattered, especially if it results from the inconsistent testimony of the plaintiff, a case is lost.

In thinking about what caused the jury to award no damages in a case where the defendant’s negligence was clear, and there was no doubt that both vehicles had damage, although minor, it may have been the plaintiff’s inconsistent testimony as to the severity of the impact, and claim that he still experienced chronic neck pain 6 years after the accident that sunk his case, far more than did the vehicle photos. Credibility- ie believability- is always the single most important factor in a jury deciding the outcome of a case.  Once credibility is shattered, especially if it results from the inconsistent testimony of the plaintiff, a case is lost. While there can be many technical aspects to a trial, there is a basic truth for a plaintiff: do not over claim your injuries, and do not testify in direct opposition to earlier statements on the same issue. The only thing worse than a small victory, one consistent with the facts, is a jury returning a verdict of no damages.