Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #359254; Unpublished
Judges Kelly, Swartzle, and Feeney; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Objective Manifestation Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – Present [§3135(5)**]
Important Body Function Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – Present [§3135(5)**]
General Ability / Normal Life Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – Present [§3135(5)**]
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment entered in favor of Plaintiff Angell Cyars-Williams following a jury trial in her automobile negligence action against Defendants Thomas Skender and the City of Detroit. The Court of Appeals held, first, that the trial court’s decision to allow Cyars-Williams’s husband to testify regarding the contents of the UD-10 for the subject motor vehicle crash was harmless error because the defendants failed to show that the contents of the UD-10—and not other admissible evidence—influenced the jury’s damages calculation. The Court of Appeals held, second, that the trial court did not err in denying the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict on the issue of whether Cyars-Williams’s mild traumatic brain injury constituted a serious impairment of body function, because Cyars-Williams presented sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to all three prongs of the statutory test for a serious impairment of body function.
Angell Cyars-Williams was stopped at a red light when she was rear-ended by Thomas Skender, a police officer for the City of Detroit. Skender was responding to a police dispatch at the time of the crash, but he did not activate his police cruiser’s lights or sirens and was interacting with the GPS application on his phone for several minutes leading up to the crash—including at the moment the crash occurred.
Cyars-Williams complained of numerous cognitive, neurological, and neuropsychological symptoms for many months after the crash, and her treating neurologist diagnosed her with a concussion. Subsequent testing by her neurologist showed her cognitive functioning to be in the “borderline to normal range,” but that she had decreased sensation in her left arm and on the left side of her face. When Cyars-Williams continued to report symptoms, her neurologist referred her to a neuropsychologist, and testing performed by the neuropsychologist determined that although Cyars-Williams was not ‘significantly impaired,’ her cognitive functioning was below its normal level likely due to the brain injury she suffered in the crash.
Cyars-Williams eventually filed an automobile negligence actions against Skender and the City of Detroit, and at trial, she presented testimony from her neurologist and neuropsychologist. She also presented testimony from family and coworkers regarding the effect of her brain injury on her general ability to lead her normal life, but in spite of this evidence, the defendants moved for a directed verdict on the issue of serious impairment of body function. In their motion, the defendants focused on the fact that the neurologist determined Cyars-Williams’s functioning was in “the borderline to normal range”; the fact that Cyars-Williams’s neuropsychologist testified that Cyars-Williams was not ‘significantly impaired’; and the fact that Cyars-Williams continued to work following the crash. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict, and the jury returned a verdict awarding $1,000,000 in noneconomic damages to Cyars-Williams. The defendants then appealed the trial court’s denial of its motion for a directed verdict, as well as the trial courts’ decision to allow Cyars-Williams’ husband to testify during trial regarding the fact that the original UD-10 crash report listed Cyars-Williams as being at-fault for the crash, which the defendants argued inflamed the jury and unfairly prejudiced the jury against them.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict, holding, first, that although the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Cyars-Williams’s husband to testify regarding the contents of the UD-10, doing so was harmless error. The defendants’ argued that Cyars-Williams’s husband inflamed the jury and unfairly prejudiced the jury against them by testifying about the contents of the UD-10—and by implying, in doing so, that the police attempted to cover up the facts of a crash caused by one of their own. The Court of Appeals found no evidence, however, to substantiate the defendants’ argument, and noted that the jury could have been inflamed by numerous other things: for instance, the fact that the defendants never conceded negligence despite clear video of Skender rear-ending Cyars-Williams while looking at his phone, or body camera footage showing Skender accusing Cyars-Williams of faking injury after the crash and admitting that he only called medics to the scene to “cover his a**.”
“As a whole, notwithstanding that the body-cam video depicts a plain violation of the law, defendants never conceded negligence and argued against it to the very end. Had they conceded negligence and the UD-10 came in as described above, it would be easier to conclude that the report played a role in the jury’s verdict. But the implication from defendants’ argument is that the jury rendered a verdict finding negligence and gross negligence as well as afar higher-than-reasonable damages award because they were inflamed by the admission of the UD-10 report assigning fault to Cyars-Williams. Yet it is just as easy to conclude that, if the jury was inflamed at all, it was because they were incensed—outraged even—at defendants’ refusal to accept responsibility for the collision. This was true irrespective of any mention of the UD-10. Accordingly, we cannot accept the argument that the improper admitting of the UD-10 requires the reversal of the verdict.”
The Court of Appeals held, second, that the trial court did not err in denying the defendants’ motion for a directed verdict on the issue of serious impairment of body function. As for whether Cyars-Williams’s injuries were objectively manifested, the Court held that her neurologist’s testimony regarding his initial diagnosis of a concussion and Cyars-Williams’s decreased sensation in her left arm and face, as well as her neuropsychologist’s testimony regarding Cyars-Williams’s cognitive functioning being below its expected level, were sufficient to create a question of fact on that issue. As for whether Cyars-Williams’s suffered an impairment of an “important body function,” the Court of Appeals noted that under Michigan caselaw, the brain is deemed to be an “important body function.” And as for whether Cyars-Williams’s mild traumatic brain injury affected her general ability to lead her normal life, the Court of Appeals held that her family and co-workers’ testimony about significant changes they observed in Cyars-Williams’s cognition and ability to regulate her emotions following the crash were sufficient to create a question of fact on that issue.
“Here, Dr. Kojan testified that, although the majority of Cyars-Williams’s examination results were normal, she was diagnosed with concussion syndrome and showed decreased sensation in her left arm and the left side of her face. In turn, Dr. Peterson testified, based on objective testing measures, Cyars-Williams’s cognitive functioning fell below her expected level of functioning, specifically in terms of her memory, attention, sequencing, problem solving, balance, and gross motor coordination. Consequently, even though Cyars-Williams was not significantly impaired based on her examination results, Cyars-Williams’s doctors were able to objectively observe and measure her reported neurological symptoms and conditions. As a result, Cyars-Williams showed that there was a material question of fact as to whether she satisfied the requirement in MCL 500.3135(5)(a).
Next, the brain is undeniably an important body function for any plaintiff. See Allen v Bloomfield Hills Sch Dist, 281 Mich App 49, 57; 760 NW2d 811 (2008) (‘Although the brain is the organ responsible for our thoughts and emotions, it is also the organ that controls all our physical functions.’). Here, Cyars-Williams suffered an injury to her brain that resulted in headaches, cognitive issues, and motor functioning problems. Because her impairments are related to the function of her brain, she has created, at the very least, a question of material fact whether she reasonably met MCL 500.3135(5)(b).
Finally, Cyars-Williams also showed that there was a material question of fact as to whether the impairment affected her general ability to lead her normal life. Cyars-Williams’s husband testified that, after the accident, Cyars-Williams experienced regular headaches, was irritable, tired, listless, and struggled to sit in cars for long periods of time during their family’s regular road trips. Cyars-Williams friend and coworker testified, after the crash, Cyars-Williams’s work suffered because she significantly slowed in her production and was often late in submitting her work. She also stated Cyars-Williams often complained of headaches and withdrew from recreational activities they used to frequently do together. Further, Cyars-Williams testified that she could no longer assist her paraplegic father with his business or be a hands-on mother for her children because of the constant pain from her headaches. Dr. Peterson stated Cyars-Williams struggled with higher order cognitive functions and gross motor coordination. Dr. Peterson also testified that Cyars-Williams reported struggling with work, her family, and having the physical energy to engage in her day-to-day life. Dr. Peterson added that Cyars-Williams is not 100% back to her level of functioning that she was at before the crash. This testimony is sufficient to show that Cyars-Williams’s general ability to lead her normal life has been affected.”