Expert testimony not needed to use car damage pics to counter personal injury claims: IL Supreme Court

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jan 31, 2019

Photos of damage to cars that have been involved in a crash, even without accompanying expert analysis, can be used at trial to combat a personal injury claim brought by one of the people involved in the crash, Illinois’ highest state court has ruled.

On Jan. 25, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the ruling of a state appeals court, which had said a judge in southern Illinois had erred in allowing a woman to use photos to sway a jury and defeat the lawsuit brought by a man who claimed a rear-end crash had caused his neck and back injuries.

The case had landed before the state high court after making its way through a circuit court in downstate Marion County, and the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court in Mt. Vernon.

In the underlying action, plaintiff William K. Peach had sued Lynsey E. McGovern after the two were involved in a minor traffic accident.

Justice P. Scott Neville  

According to the Illinois Supreme Court opinion, McGovern’s 2001 Mitsubish Eclipse collided with the rear end of a 1985 Nissan pickup truck driven by Peach while it was stopped at a stop sign in Salem, about 20 miles north of Mt. Vernon, during the evening of July 17, 2010.

According to narrative in the decision, McGovern testified she came to a complete stop behind Peach’s truck, but then “spaced out” and let her “foot off the brake just a little bit” and collided with the truck.

Both parties drove away from the scene. The decision notes photographs were taken of the vehicles after the crash, though it does not indicate where or when those photos were taken.

According to the decision, the photos showed “minor damage” to both vehicles.

After the crash, however, Peach and his girlfriend, who was not involved in the crash, testified Peach returned home and began complaining of pain in his head, neck and back. He sought medical attention for the injuries, but continued to complain of pain from the injuries more than five years later.

A police report was completed later.

The decision notes Peach racked up more than $23,000 in medical bills.

In his lawsuit, Peach asserted the crash had occurred at more than 25 miles per hour, and the crash caused his injuries.

When the lawsuit went to trial, Peach’s doctor testified, over Peach’s lawyers’ objections, that the injuries could have been caused by something other than the crash.

McGovern’s attorney also submitted the post-crash photos of the vehicles to bolster their claims Peach’s account of the crash didn’t match the damage caused to the vehicles.

Peach’s counsel objected, saying the photos weren’t enough, because they needed to be accompanied by expert testimony to counter the testimony of Peach’s doctor, who had testified the injuries could have been caused by even a low-speed collision.

The Marion County judge sided with McGovern, and the jury ruled for the defendant.

But on appeal, the Fifth District Appellate Court backed Peach, finding the “ordinary juror” couldn’t use the photos to relate the damage depicted in the photos to Peach’s injuries.

“We find it unreasonable that any jury, under the circumstances and the evidence presented, would not have at least awarded recovery for plaintiff’s hospital expenses incurred immediately after the collision,” the appeals court ruled. “We recognize that the jury can disbelieve any testimony, at any time, even when uncontradicted, but we conclude that, in this instance, the jury’s findings are unreasonable and not based on the evidence presented at trial.”

McGovern’s team then appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

And the justices unanimously sided with McGovern, saying the appeals court improperly “substituted its judgment for that of the jury” and the photos of the damaged cars were relevant to the jury’s verdict.

Justice P. Scott Neville authored the court’s opinion, with concurrence from all of the court’s other justices.

The Supreme Court justices found the photos, when combined with other “contradictory testimony” from Peach “regarding the nature and speed of the impact,” could be used by a jury to determine who was providing a more accurate account of the incident.

To require an “expert witness” in a case like this, Neville said, would place a large financial burden on all who become embroiled in such litigation, particularly if they are representing themselves.

“Requiring an expert witness when there is no prior accident or preexisting injury forces parties to the task of finding and employing experts instead of simply permitting the jury to apply common sense and experience to evidence relevant to the causation issue in the case,” Neville said.

“…Witness testimony about the speed of the vehicles, the force of impact, and the existence or extent of any resulting injuries in an automobile accident does not necessarily require scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge in order for the trier of fact to understand the evidence and determine a fact in issue.”

McGovern is represented in the action by attorneys Edward Adelman, Robert Susman and Lori Koch, of the firm of Goffstein, Raskas, Pomerantz, Kraus & Sherman LLC, of St. Louis.

Peach is represented by attorney George Ripplinger, of Ripplinger & Zimmer LLC, of Belleville.

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Organizations in this Story

Goffstein, Raskas, Pomerantz, Kraus & Sherman LLC Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court Marion County Ripplinger & Zimmer

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