Cleveland v. Ward

Cleveland v. Ward, 2016 MT 10 (Jan. 12, 2016) (Shea, J.; Cotter, J., concurring) (7-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court improperly excluded trial testimony of Cleveland’s treating physician; (2) whether the district court improperly excluded trial testimony of Cleveland’s physical therapist; (3) whether the district court erred in granting a directed verdict on Cleveland’s claim that her rotator cuff tear and shoulder arthritis were caused by the collision; and (4) whether the district court erred in concluding that Cleveland could not recover damages incurred by Shelby House.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; (3) no; and (4) no.

Affirmed

Facts: Shelby Cleveland was involved in a vehicle collision in June 2012 with another driver, Janice Ward. Ward admitted liability and Cleveland sued for damages for physical injuries, emotional distress, past medical costs, and business loss or lost income.

Before trial, Ward moved in limine to exclude references to any damages incurred by Shelby House, and to exclude testimony of Cleveland’s treating physician that Cleveland suffered a rotator cuff injury as a result of the collision. The district court granted both motions, concluding on the first that Shelby House was not a named party, and on the second that Dr. Steele had avoided giving an opinion on causation at his September 2014 deposition (“I don’t really know at this point in time”).

In January 2015, the parties took Dr. Steele’s perpetuation deposition. Ward objected to certain parts of his testimony and the district court sustained several of the objections, concluding Dr. Steele’s testimony could not be offered to establish causation of the rotator cuff injury as his medical opinion did not state that the collision more likely than not caused the injury. The court similarly ruled regarding the testimony of Cleveland’s physical therapist, who could not say whether the accident caused the rotator cuff tear. At the close of evidence, the district court granted a directed verdict on Cleveland’s claim that her rotator cuff tear and shoulder injuries were caused by the collision. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: After a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict of $10,534 for Cleveland. After applying offsets, the district court awarded her $3,057. Cleveland appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Of the five portions of Dr. Steele’s excluded testimony, the Supreme Court holds that the district court properly excluded four. It holds the court did err in excluding testimony about the medical difficulty of determining the pain generator of shoulder and neck pain, as this was factual testimony, not opinion testimony. It notes that Dr. Steele’s deposition contains nearly the same language and was not excluded, and therefore holds it is not reversible error because there is no reasonable possibility the excluded evidence contributed to the jury’s verdict.

(2) Because the physical therapist was unable to state that the collision caused the rotator cuff injury, the district court properly excluded her opinion testimony. The physical therapist was allowed to testify extensively about Cleveland’s shoulder injuries, functional limitations, and pain. Nothing in the district court’s ruling prevented Cleveland from asking whether the collision aggravated a pre-existing injury, or prevented the therapist from testifying about the changes she observed in Cleveland’s pain and limitations before and after the accident.

(3) The district court’s directed verdict on causation of the rotator cuff tear and arthritis did not prevent Cleveland form arguing that the collision aggravated a pre-existing injury or caused her pain and limitations.

(4) Shelby House is a separate entity and is not a named party. The district court did not err in concluding Cleveland could not recover damages incurred by Shelby House.

Justice Cotter’s Concurrence: Cleveland’s doctor testified at his deposition that he would not offer an opinion about whether the collision aggravated Cleveland’s injuries. In spite of the Court’s implication that Cleveland could have argued aggravation, Cleveland had no expert opinion on causation of aggravation.