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Court of Appeals Holds Plaintiff’s Evidence of Causation and Injury Sufficient to Survive Summary Judgment on Negligence Claim

On June 26, 2014, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Folks v. District of Columbia, No. 13-CV-688, slip op. (D.C. June 26, 2014), in which it considered whether the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of injury and causation to survive summary judgment on a claim for negligence. Id. at 1-3.

By way of background, the plaintiff alleged in his complaint, inter alia, that “officers of the Metropolitan Police Department arrested [him], handcuffed him, and negligently placed him in the back of a police cruiser without using a seat belt or other safety restraint.” Id. at 2. The plaintiff further alleged that he was transported in the cruiser and, while being transported, an officer “hit the brakes abruptly and negligently, causing [the plaintiff] to be thrown into the cruiser’s safety screen.” Id. at 2. The plaintiff alleged that he “suffered serious head, neck, and back injuries as a result.” Id. Based on these allegations, the plaintiff brought a negligence claim against the District of Columbia. Id. at 1. The case was litigated to the summary judgment stage, at which point the trial court issued an order granting summary judgment in favor of the District because, it concluded, the plaintiff “failed to provide sufficient evidence of injury and causation to create a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 3. The plaintiff appealed. Id. at 1.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis of this case by stating the well-recognized principle that “[t]he plaintiff in a negligence action must establish among other things that the defendant’s negligence caused injury to the plaintiff.” Id. at 4. The Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence and concluded that the plaintiff did in fact present sufficient evidence of causation and injury to survive summary judgment. Id. at 4-6. That evidence consisted of the plaintiff’s own testimony that his “neck pain and headaches arose immediately after the incident,” and “medical records from three different treating physicians, which reflected consistent diagnoses and attributed [the plaintiff’s] injuries to the incident at issue.” Id. at 6.

The Court of Appeals stated that it was “not persuaded by the District’s arguments to the contrary.” Id. at 7. First, the Court of Appeals rejected the District’s argument that the plaintiff was required to present expert testimony to prove causation because he had a preexisting back condition. Id. at 7. It stated: “Even if the District were correct, . . . this point would have at most provided a basis for precluding [the plaintiff] from relying on the injury to his back to establish his case. Whatever complexities [the plaintiff’s] preexisting back condition created, those complexities provide[d] no basis for precluding [the plaintiff] from relying on his alleged head and neck injuries, which did not involve a preexisting condition.” Id.

Second, the Court of Appeals rejected the District’s argument that the plaintiff “was required to designate an expert witness” to establish causation. Id. at 8. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals stated that “in some circumstances a treating physician can testify at trial without being formally designated as an expert witness,” and the medical records that the plaintiff relied upon to oppose summary judgment “fit comfortably within this principle.” Id. at 8-9.

Third, the Court of Appeals rejected the District’s argument that the medical records could not be used to establish causation because they used the word “impression” to describe the treating physicians’ medical findings rather than the standard legal terminology of proximate causation. Id. at 10-11. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals stated that the plaintiff’s “medical [records] must be considered as a whole and viewed in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff],” and, when viewed in such light, “raise a jury question on the issue of causation,” even with respect to the plaintiff’s back symptoms. Id. at 10-12.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 13. To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.