Important Lessons In New Iowa Court Of Appeals Decision In Car Accident Case

By harley erbe


The Iowa Court of Appeals issued a January 13, 2016 decision in a car accident case, Knowlton v. Grinnell Select Insurance Company, that included two useful lessons for future car accident cases. First, plaintiffs in motor vehicle accident cases must make sure that they've adequately asserted a claim for medical expenses if they want to be able to claim such expenses at trial. Second, strong consideration must be given to hiring a medical expert or paying a treating doctor to testify if a plaintiff wants to claim future or permanent injuries. These same concepts would also apply to truck accident, drunk driving accident, motorcycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, bicycle accidents, fire and explosion cases, dog bite cases, railroad and train accidents, nursing home injury cases, products liability cases, and other types of personal injury or wrongful death actions.

The first issue on appeal was the trial court's refusal to allow the plaintiff, Ellen Knowlton, to claim damages for medical expenses at trial. The first time Knowlton expressed a desire to claim past medical expenses was a few minutes before trial. The trial court concluded that Grinnell would be prejudiced by the submission of medical expenses to the jury since Grinnell had no warning of that claim. The trial court relied on the untimely nature of Knowlton’s claim because she did not include medical expenses in any of her pretrial filings. The lesson from that ruling is that personal injury lawsuits should include a specific request for all damages that may be claimed at trial, including medical expenses. 

The second issue on appeal concerned the trial court's decision that Knowlton wouldn't be able to present claims for future injuries. At trial Grinnell argued that Knowlton had presented insufficient evidence to support those claims because they included medical questions and no expert testimony had been presented to show that the injuries were permanent or may cause future problems for Knowlton. Knowlton contended that expert medical testimony is not required to establish a permanent injury if its permanency can be inferred from its nature and sufficient evidence was presented to justify submitting the future damage claim to the jury. The trial court, after reviewing Knowlton's medical records, agreed with Grinnell because there was neither medical testimony nor support in Knowlton's medical records regarding claims for future injuries. This is an issue that I wrote about in an earlier blog post.

The Iowa Court of Appeals observed that there can be no recovery for future pain and suffering unless it's reasonably certain that it resulted from the injury.  Expert testimony is often necessary to establish future pain and suffering. However, when pain is suffered right up to the time of trial and there is evidence plaintiff has not fully recovered, future pain and suffering may be submitted to the jury without medical testimony. But a mere statement by the plaintiff that she still suffers pain is not sufficient per se to warrant a finding that there will be any future pain or physical suffering because of her injuries. When the symptoms from which personal injury may be inferred are subjective only, and a plaintiff presents no medical testimony to establish that future pain and suffering or permanent injury are reasonably certain, the trial court need not instruct the jury on that element of damage. Applying that law, the court of appeals agreed with the trial court that Knowlton presented insufficient evidence to submit her claim for future injuries to the jury.

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