Smith v. Lyles
5/26/23, Judge Mize
Topics: Biomechanical Expert; Motion for New Trial
This was a motor vehicle accident personal injury case. When Lyles was making a right-hand turn at a red light, he saw a truck approaching the intersection, and he hit his brakes. Smith, the driver behind him, rear-ended him. Neither party reported injuries or took their cars for repairs.
Lyles claimed that later that day, he started to feel achy. He went to the hospital, and they found no evidence of recent injuries, but they found preexisting conditions. Lyles claimed that he suffered head, neck, left shoulder, back, and knee injuries. Doctors ultimately recommended spinal and shoulder surgeries.
Lyles sued Smith, and Smith countered that 1) the accident was Lyles’ fault for stopping so abruptly for no good reason and 2) his health conditions were preexisting and not caused by the low-speed collision.
Lyles moved to exclude Smith’s biomechanical expert via a motion in limine, but the trial court allowed the expert to testify. The judge noted that the expert could not testify about whether Lyles was actually injured or permanently injured in the traffic accident.
During voir dire, Lyles’ attorneys, Morgan & Morgan, explored possible bias against trial attorneys and their firm in particular, and the trial court excluded every juror challenged by Lyles.
After Lyles testified, a juror tried to ask what date he had retained Morgan & Morgan, but the trial court ruled the question inadmissible.
During Smith’s testimony, Lyles’ attorney asked Smith if he accepted responsibility for the impact and crash, and after Smith stated that it was a “dual responsibility,” he stated that the “cause was him, and I think he looked at the—he looked at the TV a lot and saw that Morgan & Morgan doesn’t sue people, they sue companies.” Lyles’ counsel objected and moved to strike, and the trial court gave a curative instruction. Lyles moved for a mistrial. The court reserved on the motion.
In regard to the biomechanical expert, the judge ultimately ruled:
based on Maines v. Fox, 190 So. 3d 1135 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016), that Dr. Scott could:
(1) determine what forces would have impacted a person in Lyles’ vehicle in the accident; (2) provide specific acceleration rates in terms of G forces experienced because of the accident; and (3) equate the amount of force experienced in the accident to other experiences (e.g., dropping something on the floor from a certain height).
The trial court prohibited Dr. Scott from testifying: (
1) that significantly higher forces than the ones at work in the accident were necessary to cause Lyles’ injuries; or (2) that only an extremely fragile human being could have sustained an injury similar to that allegedly sustained by Lyles as a result of the accident.
Scott played a 5-second video simulating a crash, and when he was asked whether the test subject in the video was injured in the 5 mph crash, he answered, “No.” The trial court struck the answer. Lyles than moved for mistrial, and the court reserved ruling.
The jury held for Smith, the defendant. Lyles moved for new trial, and the trial court granted the motion on two grounds: 1) Smith’s answer that Lyles was at fault for the accident because he’d seen Morgan & Morgan TV ads; and 2) Dr. Scott’s testimony that constituted medical causation testimony. The trial court held that the curative instructions were insufficient to remove the prejudice from that testimony.
The trial court also held that the finding of no liability was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence and was the product of prejudice, sympathy, mistake or other considerations outside the record.
Puzzlingly, the DCA found that the trial court erred in granting new trial about Smith’s comment on Morgan & Morgan TV ads because the DCA found that the comment did not actually occur even though the DCA directly quoted the question (relating to who caused the accident) and the answer (which conflated the cause of the accident and Lyles watching Morgan & Morgan TV ads). While it is likely that Smith was complaining about the motive for the lawsuit as opposed to an actual cause of the accident at the time that it occurred, there is no question that the answer was provided in response to a question about causation. But the DCA seems to simply have held that the trial court made all of this up and the statement does not appear in the record.
In regard to the biomechanical testimony constituting inadmissible medical-causation opinion instead of permissible biomechanical testimony, the DCA held that the answer that the test subject in the 5-second video was not hurt did not violate the order in limine prohibiting testimony about whether Lyles was hurt or that only an extremely fragile person could have been hurt by such a low-speed crash. That’s it. No elaboration. The DCA just found that it didn’t violate the order in limine, and there is no explanation about the fact that the testimony was obviously admitted to show that because the test subject was not hurt, it was not reasonable to conclude that Mr. Lyles was hurt in his similar low- speed accident.
In regard to manifest weight of the evidence, while standard of review was abuse of discretion, Judge Mize found that the trial court did not adequately state reasons that were supported by the record. The DCA seems to mix the standard for summary judgment with the standard for whether the greater weight of the evidence favors a party. The DCA noted that there was conflicting testimony about the reason for the stop, with Lyles claiming he saw a truck heading through the intersection, while Smith said there was no truck coming and Lyles stopped for no reason. The DCA held that Smith’s testimony that Lyles stopped so suddenly he could not avoid rear-ending him was sufficient to create a jury question with no manifest weight in one direction or the other (which appears to be the summary judgment standard). Nowhere in the opinion is it discussed that Florida law contains a rebuttable presumption that a rear-end driver in a collision is negligent, though, of course, the presumption can be rebutted by a showing that the front driver was negligent. The DCA also did not reference the well-established rule that “it takes a stronger showing of error in order to reverse an order granting a new trial than an order denying a new trial.” The DCA did not weigh the evidence or elaborate on the plaintiff-friendly evidence and seems to have treated the motion for new trial like a motion for summary judgment, reversing because there was a genuine issue of material fact.
(NOTE: It seems like the analysis constitutes a direct conflict with Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So. 2d 490, 496 (Fla. 1999), which held that the mere fact that “there may be substantial, competent evidence in the record to support the jury verdict does not” demonstrate an abuse of discretion. As recently as 2022, the Fourth DCA cited Brown and also noted that in determining whether the trial court has abused its discretion in granting a new trial, the reviewing court applies a reasonableness test, according to which, if reasonable persons could differ on the outcome, there can be no abuse of discretion in granting a new trial. Polynice v. Burger King Corp., 351 So.3d 619 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022)(citing Ford v. Robinson, 403 So. 2d 1379, 383 (Fla. 4th DCA 1981))
The DCA held that even if Smith was negligent, a jury could also have found that the accident did not cause Lyles’ injuries because there was “ample” evidence that causation was due to preexisting conditions. Reversed and remanded with instruction to enter judgment in Smith’s favor.