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Rodman v. Deangeles

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

February 16, 2017

TROY J. RODMAN, Appellant,

          Calendar Date: November 21, 2016

          Lynn Law Firm, LLP, Syracuse (Patricia A. Lynn-Ford of counsel), for appellant.

          Law Office of Keith D. Miller, Liverpool (Keith D. Miller of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: McCarthy, J.P., Lynch, Rose, Clark and Aarons, JJ.

          Clark, J.

         Appeals (1) from an order of the Supreme Court (Rumsey, J.), entered December 9, 2015 in Cortland County, which granted defendant's motion to set aside a verdict in favor of plaintiff and dismissed the complaint, and (2) from the judgment entered thereon.

         On June 7, 2011, defendant's vehicle struck plaintiff's parked car as plaintiff was unloading items from his vehicle, thereby causing plaintiff's vehicle to strike plaintiff and "send[] him a distance through the air and onto the sidewalk." Plaintiff struck the back of his head against the curb, knocking him unconscious and causing a three centimeter laceration on his scalp that required five staples. Plaintiff thereafter commenced this action, alleging that he sustained a serious injury as a result of defendant's negligence. Following joinder of issue and discovery, defendant conceded the issue of liability and the matter proceeded to trial solely on the issue of whether plaintiff sustained a serious injury within the meaning of Insurance Law § 5102 (d). Supreme Court denied defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint at the close of all the proof, and the jury ultimately returned a verdict for plaintiff finding that, as a result of defendant's negligence, plaintiff had sustained a permanent consequential limitation of use of a body organ or member and a significant limitation of use of a body function or system [1]. Supreme Court subsequently granted defendant's motion to set aside the verdict on the basis that it was not supported by legally sufficient evidence and dismissed the complaint (see CPLR 4404 [a]). Plaintiff appeals from Supreme Court's order, as well as the judgment entered thereon.

         "[T]he legislative intent underlying the No-Fault Law was to weed out frivolous claims and limit recovery to significant injuries" (Dufel v Green, 84 N.Y.2d 795, 798 [1995]; see Toure v Avis Rent A Car Sys., 98 N.Y.2d 345, 350 [2002]; see also Licari v Elliot, 57 N.Y.2d 230, 234-235 [1982]). With this legislative purpose in mind, the Court of Appeals has held that where, as here, a plaintiff seeks to satisfy the statutory serious injury threshold under the permanent consequential limitation of use or the significant limitation of use categories, he or she must proffer objective medical evidence "involv[ing] a comparative determination of the degree or qualitative nature of [the] injury based on the normal function, purpose and use of the body part" (Dufel v Green, 84 N.Y.2d at 798; see Toure v Avis Rent A Car Sys., 98 N.Y.2d at 353). The required "comparative determination" may be established by either "an expert's designation of a numeric percentage of a plaintiff's loss of range of motion" or "[a]n expert's qualitative assessment of a plaintiff's condition..., provided that the evaluation has an objective basis and compares the plaintiff's limitations to the normal function, purpose and use of the affected body organ, member, function or system" (Toure v Avis Rent A Car Sys., 98 N.Y.2d at 350; see Simpson v Feyrer, 27 A.D.3d 881, 882 [2006]; John v Engel, 2 A.D.3d 1027, 1029 [2003]). "[S]ubjective complaints alone are not sufficient" to meet the threshold (Toure v Avis Rent A Car Sys., 98 N.Y.2d at 350; see Perl v Meher, 18 N.Y.3d 208, 216 [2011]).

         Here, the trial evidence undisputedly demonstrated that plaintiff sustained a severe head wound as a result of the accident. Immediately following the crash, plaintiff was discovered lying on the ground in a pool of blood, which was flowing from the back of his head, and plaintiff reported that he was briefly knocked unconscious. The responding paramedic testified that plaintiff's head wound had "exposed fatty tissue, " which indicated to him that plaintiff had sustained "a pretty good blow to the head, " and that the collision must have had "great kinetic force" because it had knocked plaintiff out of his shoes. The paramedic further stated that plaintiff immediately complained of a severe headache, dizziness and increasing sensitivity to light and sound. At the emergency room, five staples were required to close the gash on plaintiff's scalp, and plaintiff remained in the hospital for two nights.

         As to the medical evidence, at least three separate physicians examined plaintiff and determined that he sustained a traumatic brain injury - commonly known as a concussion - as a result of the accident and that he continued to suffer from post-concussive syndrome thereafter. Plaintiff's longtime primary care physician, who had known plaintiff since 1994, examined plaintiff one week after the accident and continued to treat him every two to three months through the date of trial for his ongoing complaints of dizziness, vertigo, chronic headaches, vision issues and impaired balance, memory and concentration. Plaintiff's primary care physician testified that, prior to the accident, plaintiff was a "[v]ery active" person with no physical or mental limitations. Relying on his knowledge of plaintiff's preaccident status as a point of reference, the primary care physician testified that he personally observed a "slow[ing]" of plaintiff's mental and physical faculties after the accident. Specifically, he testified that he had observed plaintiff wince his eyes in pain, struggle to focus and make eye contact, exhibit signs of decreased concentration, have difficulty with problem solving and word retrieval and experience balance issues. The primary care physician testified that, overall, the functionality of plaintiff's brain had "been limited" in that he was "[n]ot as quick" and his "candle [was] burning a little dimmer than what it used to be." When asked to support his opinion that plaintiff had a significant brain limitation, the primary care physician stated that plaintiff had suffered "decreased cognition, [a] decrease in focus with vision, [and a] decrease in some physical ability." Considering the foregoing, the jury was not required to reach the dissent's conclusion that the primary care physician was merely parroting the statutory language when he indicated that plaintiff suffered a significant limitation to his brain, as a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences would support the conclusion that the primary care physician's assertion that such limitation was significant was based on his assessment of the combined cognitive and physical functioning decreases that he described.

         The record also established that plaintiff was treated at the Upstate Concussion Center on an outpatient basis beginning in July 2011. A rehabilitation psychologist performed an initial psychological examination on plaintiff in July 2011 and a psychological reevaluation in May 2013 and diagnosed plaintiff as having sustained a concussion during the accident and as suffering from several "physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms that are consistent with post-concussion sequelae." During both examinations, the psychologist observed that plaintiff had a reduced language "processing speed." The nurse practitioner responsible for coordinating plaintiff's care at the concussion center testified that a concussion is "an alteration in the normal brain function due to trauma" (emphasis added) and that symptoms of postconcussion sequela include, among other things, headaches, dizziness, vision changes, issues with balance and cognitive changes. The nurse practitioner further explained that plaintiff received physical therapy to address balance issues, occupational therapy for vision rehabilitation and cognitive therapy for plaintiff's memory and concentration impairments. The physical and occupational therapy records demonstrated that plaintiff experienced some limited quantitative improvements in his balance, memory and concentration, but continued to suffer from cognitive impairments at the end of his treatment. [2]

         With respect to permanency, plaintiff's primary care physician and the nurse practitioner each testified that symptoms stemming from head trauma are generally permanent if they continue to present more than 12 to 18 months after the injury-producing event. Here, as plaintiff's symptoms persisted more than four years after his accident, both the primary care physician and the nurse practitioner opined that plaintiff had sustained a permanent limitation of his cognitive functioning.

         While the CT scan taken of plaintiff's brain at the hospital immediately following the accident revealed a large hematoma on the back of his scalp, that CT scan, as well as a subsequent scan, did not show any brain abnormalities. However, plaintiff's primary care physician explained, without contradiction, that the negative scans were not out of the ordinary because "usually no... injury can be seen on a CT scan, " and the nurse practitioner similarly testified that the majority of concussions do not show up on imaging. In addition, although the primary care physician acknowledged that plaintiff's reported and ongoing complaints were subjective in nature, he testified that a concussion, by its very definition, is a subjective diagnosis. The nurse practitioner similarly testified that a concussion diagnosis is a clinical diagnosis that necessarily relies on a patient's subjective complaints, as well as the patient's medical history and certain inclusion criteria.

         Notwithstanding the negative scans, the absence of neurological testing [3] and the subjectivity of plaintiff's complaints, many of plaintiff's reported symptoms, including his impaired concentration and balance and difficulty with problem solving and word retrieval, were objectively and personally observed by plaintiff's primary care physician, who had the necessary historical knowledge and ability to compare his clinical, postaccident observations of plaintiff's condition to his prior observations of plaintiff's preaccident condition (see Toure v Avis Rent A Car Sys., 98 N.Y.2d at 353 [clinical observations of a plaintiff's limitations may constitute objective medical evidence]). Contrary to the dissent's assertion, the primary care physician's treatment and assessment of plaintiff's injuries were also informed by his review of the medical records of the rehabilitation psychologist and plaintiff's physical and occupational therapists, which documented their objective observations of plaintiff's physical and cognitive deficiencies and limited improvements over a period of nearly two years. Moreover, the bases for the primary care physician's qualitative assessment of the seriousness ...

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