Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Defense Verdict in Rear-End Car Crash

This was a case of a rear-end car crash in which the plaintiff, William Kevin Peach, brought a lawsuit against Lyndsey E. McGovern  stemming  from personal injuries he sustained in an automobile incident. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant, and the judgment on the verdict was entered.

The plaintiff appealed, contending that the jury verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence, especially when the defendant was adjudged negligent as a matter of law. The plaintiff further asserted that the trial court erred in allowing the defense counsel, over objection, to present evidence pertaining to the relative amount of damage sustained by the vehicles. The plaintiff also argued that there was a direct correlation between the amount of damage to the vehicles, as depicted in photographs and plaintiff’s injuries.

In this case, the plaintiff was on his way home around 10 p.m. after visiting his girlfriend on the evening of July 17, 2010. As he was driving home, he had to stop at an intersection to allow traffic to clear. While waiting at the stop sign, the rear of plaintiff’s pickup truck was hit by another vehicle driven by the defendant who was also on her way home. The defendant claims she was fully stopped behind plaintiff, when her foot slipped off the brake. She further testified that the vehicle simply rolled into the rear of the plaintiff’s truck. The plaintiff, on the other hand, estimated the defendant’s speed to have been 20-25 mph at the time of impact.  He also noticed that the defendant was on her cell phone.

After the crash, the plaintiff and defendant got out of their vehicles to inspect damage. However, the defendant was unwilling to call the police or exchange information with the plaintiff and left the scene. The plaintiff recorded the license plate number of the defendant’s vehicle and drove back to his girlfriend’s house because he was experiencing severe pain in his neck. He also reported a severe headache. He was taken to an emergency room and underwent various tests.  The police were contacted so that a police report could be made.  At trial, there was testimony by treating physicians, who connected the rear-end crash to the plaintiff’s reported injuries and continuing pain as a result.

The important legal part of the case was the photographic evidence.  Photographs are used at trial for a variety of purposes. Some require the testimony of an expert witness, while others may not. The general rule is that a photograph is admissible if it has a reasonable tendency to prove a material fact at issue in the case. Smith v. Baker’s Feed & Grain Inc., 2013 Ill. App.3d 950, 952 (1991). Here, plaintiff filed a motion in limine to preclude the introduction of the photographs of the vehicles involved in this crash. The plaintiff made no claim for property damage, and the fact of the impact was uncontested. The question then became: Why were the photographs relevant, and thus admissible?

During the evidence deposition of the treating physician, the doctor indicated that he did not have the expertise to relate the damages depicted in the photographs to the various medical findings in plaintiff’s neck, such as the overextension and flexion of plaintiff’s neck, which allegedly caused plaintiff’s chronic pain, the right disc protrusion of C3-4, with foraminal narrowing, the annular tear, and the loss of integrity to the disc space. The defendant had no other witness who could testify that the damage shown in the photograph did not cause the various injuries testified to by the treating physician of the plaintiff. The only evidence regarding the photographs was that they depicted the damage to the vehicles. While the court initially deferred a ruling on the admissibility of the photographs, plaintiff’s motion in limine to bar their use was ultimately denied, and the photos were admitted.

When faced with cases involving rear-end collisions between two vehicles, courts often refer to Fronabarger v. Burns, 385 Ill.App.3d 560 (2008), in resolving whether to admit photographs depicting damage to the vehicles involved in a collision. The court in Fronabarger declined to accept a rigid rule that photographs depicting damage to the vehicles were always admissible or that expert testimony was always necessary for such photographs to be admissible. Rather, according to the court, the critical question in admitting such photographs into evidence is whether the jury can properly relate the vehicular damage depicted in the photos to the injury, without the aid of an expert. Fronabarger, 385 Ill.App.3d at 564-65. In reaching this decision, the court in Fronabarger declined to follow the earlier holding of Baraniak v. Kurby, 371 Ill.App.3d 310 (2007), which concluded that, absent expert testimony on the correlation between vehicular damage and a plaintiff’s injuries, photographs of the parties’ damage vehicles should be excluded.

The appellate court found that the trial judge abused discretion in allowing the photographs to be admitted into evidence and seen by the jury to correlate the plaintiff’s alleged injuries with the damage to the vehicles. The court noted that there was no expert testimony that any party brought to support defendant’s proposition that the photographs showed normal damage and thus minimal injury.

The treating physician did provide testimony that a low speed vehicular impact can cause the type of injuries plaintiff was suffering from and that plaintiff’s injuries were related to the rear-end impact. Without expert testimony regarding a relationship between what was seen in the photographs and the injuries suffered by the plaintiff, the photographs were simply not relevant to any issues in the case, and irrelevant evidence is not admissible. DiCosola v. Bowman, 342 Ill.App.3d 530, 535 (2003). In addition to this abuse of the court’s discretion as to the admission of the photographs into evidence, the appellate court also believed the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The appellate court found that it was unreasonable that any jury, under the circumstances and the evidence presented, would not have at least awarded recovery for the plaintiff’s hospital expenses incurred immediately after the collision.  The court recognized that the jury can disbelieve any testimony, at any time, even when it is not contradicted, but the court concluded that in this instance, the jury’s findings are unreasonable and not based on the evidence presented at trial. Accordingly, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded the case for further proceedings.

William Kevin Peach v. Lyndsey E. McGovern, 2017 IL App (5th) 160264.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automobile accident cases, truck accident lawsuits, bicycle accident cases and motorcycle accident cases for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Rosemont, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates, Northlake, Elmhurst, Maywood, Oak Park, Cicero, Joliet, Chicago (Ashburn, Marquette Park, Englewood, Gresham, Washington Heights, Pullman, Lake Calumet, Chatham, Grand Crossing, Woodlawn), River Grove, Schiller Park, Mount Prospect and Elk Grove Village, Ill.

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