A Simple Miami Car Accident Case Gets Complicated

Charles Terek’s 2004 car accident case in Miami has taken one of the strangest legal journeys I have seen in more than 20 years of practicing law in Florida. From the record, it is unclear how the accident happened, though most likely he was rear-ended by the vehicle driven by Paul Pugliese, and that collision caused Mr. Terek to sustain a spinal surgery known as a percutaneous discectomy.

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The first unusual thing about this case is that Mr. Pugliese admitted to causing the accident, and he admitted that Mr. Terek’s surgery was necessitated, or caused, by injuries Mr. Terek suffered in that accident. The orthopedic doctor hired by Mr. Pugliese himself examined Mr. Terek and confirmed his injuries. Dr. Stephen Wender opined that the surgery was in fact necessitated by the accident and that after the surgery Mr. Terek had reached what is commonly referred to as Maximum Medical Improvement or MMI. He relied in part on a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI), which confirmed no fractures but revealed one herniated disc, consistent with the surgical procedure. MRIs are the gold standard for diagnosing and proving spinal injuries in these types of accident cases. Leer este artículo en español

MAXIMUM MEDICAL IMPROVEMENT (MMI)

MMI is a key term in motor vehicle cases in Florida because it suggests that the plaintiff has crossed the magical threshold of having a permanent injury and therefore should be entitled to make a claim for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages, rather than just lost wages and medical bills. To read more about what PIP (Personal Injury Protection) and other types of insurance cover, click here.

For a car accident case lawyer in Homestead, this is about as easy a case as one could ever hope to see–clear and admitted liability, and clear and admitted causation, for an injury that resulted in surgery. However, as with most cases, things did not stay easy and simple in the long run.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN NEW INJURIES APPEAR YEARS LATER?

In 2008, four years after the car wreck and two years after the surgery, Mr. Terek complained for the very first time of pain radiating down his left leg. In 2009, Mr. Terek underwent a new MRI, which this time showed three new herniated discs and three compression fractures. Mr. Terek then underwent an anterior lumbar discectomy surgery for $200,000 to repair those herniations and fractures. The defense argued that these new findings must have been caused by a separate and subsequent trauma, which Mr. Terek denied. The case went to trial.

THE VERDICT

Not only Dr. Wender but also Mr. Terek’s own doctors agreed that the new fractures were not visible in the first 2004 MRIs. The jury agreed with the defense, awarding Mr. Terek money only for his first surgery and refusing to compensate him or reimburse him for the much more complex and expensive anterior lumbar discectomy. Instead, the jury returned a new verdict for $169.041.00, consisting of the following:

$70,041 for past medical expenses

$24,000 for future medical expenses

$25,000 for past pain and suffering

$50,000 for future pain and suffering

And here is where it gets even stranger. Notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, the trial judge, Amy Steele Donner, ordered an additur of $341,980.86, which is, candidly, something that is very rarely seen in personal injury cases in Florida. An additur is an arrangement whereby a trial judge can literally add dollars to a jury’s verdict when he or she feels, based on the evidence, that the jury reached the wrong conclusion.

Car accidents may cause more pain and injuries down the road.

Car accidents may cause more pain and injuries down the road.

THE APPEAL

For some reason, then Mr. Terek’s lawyers rejected Judge Donner’s additur and requested a new trial. Inexplicably, Judge Donner’s order did not contain any rationale for granting the Plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, which would make it difficult for an appellate court to analyze her reasoning in granting the motion.

Not surprisingly, the defense appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, claiming that Judge Donner was in error for offering the additur and for ordering a new trial. The Third agreed with the defense, and in its opinion stated that Judge Donner (who by this time had retired from the bench) was in error for granting a new trial, in light of the conflicting evidence regarding whether or not the second surgery was in any way related to the car accident. Instead, the appellate court ordered that the original jury verdict be reinstated. Read the entire opinion of Pugliese v. Terek here.

FLORIDA PERSONAL INJURY CASES ARE NOT LIKE FINE WINE–THEY DO NOT AGE WELL

This case is yet another example of how long and difficult a journey a typical motor vehicle case can take to reach its resolution in Florida. Mr. Terek’s case was about as simple and straightforward a claim as I have ever seen–admitted liability, with a surgery that even the insurance defense doctor testifies is related and caused by the accident. I always tell my clients that most personal injury cases–including slip and falls, trip and falls, assaults, or cruise ship passenger incidents–are unlike fine wines; they do not age well.

Had Mr. Terek’s case been resolved shortly after the first surgery, his case would have been closed in 2006. Instead, he and his hard-working lawyers embarked on a nearly 10-year journey that included a full-blown jury trial and an appeal. Appeals, I have come to believe, are rarely helpful to an injury victim. Rarely if ever do I report that a plaintiff’s original verdict escapes intact from the Third District Court of Appeal. Although this case was more complex than most others, the result was not surprising.

We are passionate and experienced personal injury lawyers and car accident case lawyers in Miami. We are pleased to offer you a consultation at no cost regarding any potential claim or case you might have for a car, motorcycle, bicycle, or other type of accident, across the State of Florida. We are currently representing claimants in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Volusia, Orange, and Hillsborough Counties. Call us today at 305-441-0440 or Toll-Free: 866-597-4529, or Email me, Spencer Aronfeld.

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