Mr. Riley was waiting to take a left-hand turn from Mountain Industrial Boulevard onto Hugh Howell Road in DeKalb County, Georgia. At that same time, a landscaping truck, which was pulling a trailer with a 15,000 pound forklift, was attempting to make a right-hand turn from Hugh Howell Road onto Mountain Industrial Boulevard. During this turn, the trailer with the 15,000 pound forklift broke loose from the truck, crossed over two northbound lanes of Mountain Industrial Boulevard and collided with Mr. Riley’s vehicle. The trailer and forklift collided with Mr. Riley’s vehicle. The left-hand tine of the forklift went under Mr. Riley’s car causing substantial damage to the suspension; while the right-hand tine impaled the driver’s side door, narrowly missing Mr. Riley.
The investigating police officer diagramed the wreck as follows:
The impact of this collision was severe. The police report rated the damage to Mr. Riley’s vehicle as a four (4) which translates to “extensive”. The weight ratios between the two vehicles substantially favored the trailer and forklift. The cost of repair inevitably exceeded $16,000.00. Prior estimates were lower and if they had been more accurate, Mr. Riley’s car would have been totaled.
Our investigation revealed that the trailer hitch had broken once before and that the landscapers had welded it back together at the shop. Nothing was done to test the strength of this weld. The wreck with Mr. Riley was caused when the untested weld failed.
The landscapers also failed to properly utilize safety chains. The ad hoc configuration of the welded hitch called for the safety chains to be hooked to the hitch assembly itself, not to the frame of the vehicle.
After the wreck with Mr. Riley, the truck was fully renovated to provide an appropriate hitch and safety chain configuration:
Injuries. Immediately upon impact, Mr. Riley developed a debilitating headache and sharp pain in his right shoulder. His complaint of injury was confirmed in the police report. He declined an ambulance to the emergency room, deciding instead that he would be optimistic that these symptoms would hopefully subside.
Unfortunately, Mr. Riley was wrong. The pain quickly migrated to his left shoulder and neck area and, soon thereafter, he sought treatment at Resurgens Spine Center. The doctors performed right and left cervical epidural steroid injection a few days later. Unfortunately, the epidural steroid injections and physical therapy did not provide sufficient relief and, a month later, Mr. Riley underwent a two-level cervical fusion at C5-6 and C6-7. The discs were extracted at these levels and replaced with cadaver bone. A plate and screws was then applied across the interface of these vertebral joints, immobilizing his neck permanently. His medical expenses exceeded $80,000.
Prior Medical History. We anticipated that the defense in this case would be that the surgery was not necessitated by the wreck but by Mr. Riley’s pre-existing conditions. This defense had teeth since Mr. Riley had treated with an orthopedist regarding his left-sided neck and shoulder problems, but we made no attempt to conceal this information.
The best defense is a good offense; so we used the prior medical treatment to strengthen our case. Mr. Riley had had an appointment the day before the subject accident. At that appointment, he was diagnosed with left C5-6 and C6-7 foraminal stenosis with minimal symptoms since a C6 spinal nerve injection in November of 2005. According to the history, Mr. Riley had been “doing well,” and the only time he felt significant discomfort is when he over did it with yard work. Specifically, the orthopedist at Emory Spine Center made the following recommendation: “We discussed if he has a return of radiating arm pain, numbness, or weakness, consideration could be given to repeating his C6 nerve block or surgical decompression. Currently his symptoms do not warrant either.” The appointment concluded with the suggestion that he have a recheck in six (6) months or sooner if any symptoms emerge. The wreck happened the very next day.
In our estimation, Mr. Riley would have made an excellent witness. He would have testified that, while he certainly experienced neck and shoulder problems before the wreck, he had never experienced them to the extent and to the severity that he experienced them immediately following this accident. It is his impression that if the wreck had not occurred, the surgery would not have been required.
Resolution. Obviously, the case would have been stronger if Mr. Riley had never experienced any symptoms before the wreck, but we were fully prepared to fight that fight and let a jury decide. We believed that the conduct of the landscaping company in welding this trailer hitch back together without any testing would carry the day with a jury and result in a verdict in Mr. Riley’s favor. After extensive litigation, including multiple depositions of the landscaping employees, the parties settled the case. The settlement included a payment of $300,000 to Mr. Riley in exchange for a full release of his claim.