Case details

Defense: Passenger could not have fractured arm in crash





Result type

Not present

arm, back, fracture, humerus, lower back
On March 7, 2010, at 1 a.m., plaintiff Joseph Lake, 25, a part-time laborer, was riding as a passenger in a vehicle owned and operated by his girlfriend, Melissa Stewart, on Highway 12 in Suisun City. Lake was a right, front seat passenger, reclined in a 45 degree position and reportedly wearing his seat belt. Driving ahead of Stewart in the left lane was another vehicle operated by Lakesha Johnson, who was traveling between 45 and 50 mph in a 50-mph zone. When Johnson’s vehicle came to a stop on the highway, her vehicle was rear-ended by Stewart, resulting in major damage to both vehicles. As a result, the front airbags deployed in Stewart’s vehicle and the front windshield was shattered. The vehicle was ultimately deemed a total loss and had to be towed from the scene. Photographs taken by police at the scene depicted Lake lying on the ground. He had fractured his right arm in six places and suffered abrasions to both hands. Lake sued Johnson; Stewart; and the owner of Johnson’s vehicle, Hertz Vehicles, LLC. Lake alleged that Johnson and Stewart were negligent in the operation of their respective vehicles, and that Hertz was vicariously liable for Johnson’s actions. Lake initially claimed that Johnson unnecessarily came to a stop, causing the crash. However, Johnson and Hertz both settled out of the case prior to trial. Thus, the matter proceeded to trial against only Stewart only, and the judge ruled that the jury could not be informed of the settlement with Johnson. Lake claimed that Stewart was following Johnson’s vehicle too closely, and caused or contributed to the accident. However, Lake testified at deposition that he was asleep at the time of the incident, but there was conflicting trial testimony regarding this with both Lake and Stewart testifying that he “may” have been awake on and off. Stewart testified that she was one car length behind Johnson and that Johnson “pumped” her brakes on perhaps four separate occasions as they proceeded down the highway. Thus, she claimed that Johnson was negligent for stopping on a highway without just reason. Johnson claimed that she braked abruptly because a dog had run out across the highway in front of her vehicle. That explanation was also echoed by her passenger when the incident was investigated by the police. Both occupants of the Johnson vehicle claimed that they ultimately “ran over” the dog after being impacted by Stewart. However, Stewart’s counsel noted that despite searching for evidence of a dog, the police found no dog, no blood or tissue, and no damage to the front of the Johnson vehicle. In addition, Stewart’s counsel presented before the jury evidence of a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship between Stewart and Lake, arguing that there were issues of bias and prejudice due to this. Counsel also contended that the relationship continued during the three-year period between the accident and the trial, during which they lived together on occasion and ultimately had a son together. However, Stewart and Lake testified that although they remained “intimate” and in a relationship, they were not actually living together. Stewart’s counsel also presented documentary evidence and deposition testimony made by Stewart and Lake that allegedly contradicted some of the claims made by both parties, such as regarding where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with in the hours preceding the accident., Lake was attended to at the scene by paramedic personnel, who documented an obvious humeral fracture and bleeding abrasions. Lake was subsequently transported by ambulance to the local hospital, where he was admitted and remained for approximately seven days. Lake claimed that his primary injury consisted of a severe, comminuted fracture of his right humerus, consisting of six separate bone fragments. He also claimed lesser in the form of abrasions to both hands and on his forehead, and lower back pain. On his second day of hospitalization, Lopez underwent open reduction and internal fixation surgery on his right arm by his treating orthopedic surgeon. The physician testified that during a “long and complicated” surgery, the bone fragments were reconstructed into anatomic position using two long contoured plates and multiple screws. Over the course of the year post-surgery, Lake received physical therapy and underwent follow up exams and evaluations by his treating orthopedic surgeon. Ultimately, the physician released Lake to return to whatever activities he desired, with no restrictions, including playing contact sports (football), if Lake wished. At trial, the parties stipulated to the Howell numbers for medical treatment in the amount of $30,809.35. Although Lake had claimed during litigation that he also sustained a loss of income as a result of being unable to return to labor work and having to give up his dream of playing in the NFL, the loss of income claim was withdrawn just prior to trial. In addition, the physicians who testified for the plaintiff and defendant both agreed that there was no need for any future medical treatment, but that Lake would have to “live with” the hardware for the rest of his life. Thus, plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury to award Lopez $250,000 in total damages. Stewart’s counsel did not contest that Lake was found to have a fractured humerus immediately following the accident. However, counsel argued that the fracture did not occur as a result of the subject crash. Stewart’s experts testified there was no mechanism of injury for the type of fracture Lake sustained, given Lake’s positioning in the vehicle, the evidence that he was asleep at the time, and the lack of any other significant other than the fractured arm. While Stewart’s counsel could point to no other occurrence or incident wherein Lake fractured his arm, it was argued that the injury was likely sustained at some point during the evening prior to the accident, given that the parties appeared unwilling or unable to discuss the events occurring during that period of time. Thus, Stewart’s counsel argued that this rendered the entire claim suspicious.
Superior Court of Solano County, Solano, CA

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