Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words of Medical Testimony?
In the recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case, Garvin v. Malone, the Plaintiffs wanted to introduce pictures of a damaged vehicle to prove the extent of the physical injuries they suffered in a car crash. It does raise an interesting question: what correlation is there between the damage that appears on a car following a collision and the injuries to the bodies inside that car? And does this rise to the level of relevant evidence? The trial court and Court of Appeals say yes...
The parties in this case were involved in a car collision when the Defendant rear ended Plaintiffs’ car. Plaintiffs – Mr. and Mrs. Garvin, a husband driver and wife passenger – filed a negligence action against defendant, Joy Malone, seeking to recover damages in the amount of $900,000.
At trial, Mr. Garvin testified that the impact of the collision felt “heavy”; that he did not strike anything in the car following the impact; and that his airbag did not deploy following the collision. Ms. Malone testified that she “tapped” the passenger side rear bumper, leaving an eight-inch mark on the bumper, but without removing any paint from the bumper.
Plaintiffs filed a motion in limine to prevent Defendant from introducing into evidence photographs, auto repair documents, or testimony offered for the purpose of showing a correlation between damage to the vehicles and the injuries sustained by Plaintiffs, unless the evidence was supported by expert testimony. Ultimately, the Defendant was permitted to offer such evidence to show that the impact caused little to no visible damage to either vehicle and to impeach Mr. Garvin’s testimony that the impact was “heavy.” The trial court instructed the jury that it should not “make any inference regarding any correlation between property damage to the vehicles and the personal injury damages claimed by the plaintiffs.” The trial court further instructed the jury how the evidence was to be used as impeachment of the Garvins’ testimony.
The jury found that the Defendant was not at fault and judgment was entered in favor of the Defendant. Plaintiffs ultimately appealed.
The Plaintiffs asserted that it was error for the trial court to admit the photographs as impeachment and that the photographs should not have been admitted in the absence of expert testimony. The Court of Appeals reviewed the issue under an abuse of discretion standard.
In support of their argument, Plaintiffs relied on the case of Hardeman County v. McIntyre, 420 S.W.3d 742 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013). The Court in the Hardeman County case reversed a finding of negligence based on the defendant’s speed, where the only evidence of speed offered by the plaintiff were photographs depicting damage to the cars involved. The Court found that speed may not be inferred merely from such photographs.
The Court here dismissed the comparison to Hardeman County since speed was not what Plaintiffs were trying to prove by having the photographs admitted into evidence. The Court instead looked to the case of Allen v. Albea, 476 S.W.3d 366 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015). The Allen case involved very similar facts to the one at hand where the same type of motion in limine was denied. The Court in the Allen case concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion in limine, and found that the weight to be given to the photographs was a matter to be determined by the jury.
Accordingly, the Court here found that the Defendant was entitled to rebut Plaintiff’s contention that the impact felt “heavy” and to impeach Mr. Garvin’s testimony by offering the photographs. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the photographic evidence and the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.
While the Plaintiff's point is a good one, a trial court will generally be safe under an abuse of discretion standard by admitting evidence and allowing the jury to give it whatever weight it desires. And that's just what happened here.