Personal injury cases are mostly fact-driven. They rarely rely on nuanced legal interpretation, but rather on a common sense analysis of the facts. And the facts usually play out over a very brief period of time. It only takes a second or two for an accident to begin and end, and it is in this moment that someone may or may not be at fault for an injury. It is often the presentation of simple facts that can make the difference at trial.
I recently tried a case that I believed we were likely to lose. My two clients were the passengers in a large SUV that was stopped at a left turn signal. When their vehicle turned left, it was struck in the intersection by oncoming traffic. My clients testified at their deposition that they were at a complete stop in the turn lane, and that there were two cars stopped ahead of them. When the light turned to a green arrow, their SUV proceeded into the intersection and was struck immediately on the passenger side door by the other driver’s SUV. There was no question about the injuries, as my clients had to be cut out of their vehicle by EMS.
But the other driver testified to a very different set of facts. He testified that he was on his way to work, that he saw my clients’ vehicle stopped at the intersection, and then, without warning, their SUV turned left in front of him. He further testified that as my clients’ vehicle was turning, he saw a look of surprise and shock on the passenger’s face as she grabbed for the driver.
Based on the facts that all the parties testified to at deposition, I was quite concerned that we would not be able to prevail. The two sides’ versions of events were completely different and there were no independent witnesses to corroborate any of the claims. If the judge could not determine who was at fault, it was likely that my client would not be able to recover anything for their injuries.
At the trial, all parties testified to the same basic facts as they had in deposition. But when the Defendant was on the stand I focused on the details of his version of events. He specifically testified that he was travelling at 32 miles per hour. He testified that my clients began their turn after he entered the intersection, and that he had no opportunity to apply his brakes and did not do so.
In closing argument, the Judge was struggling with the question of ‘who was at fault?’. He asked me what I thought had happened. I argued that the Defendant’s story did not match up with the facts of the accident. The impact occurred when the Defendant’s vehicle struck my clients’ vehicle on its passenger side. That means that my clients’ SUV had to have travelled into the intersection and significantly begun its left hand turn, to expose its broadside to oncoming traffic.
However, the Defendant testified that my clients’ vehicle had not begun its turn until after the Defendant had entered the intersection. The Defendant was, by his own specific recollection, travelling at 32 miles per hour. He said he never touched his brakes. Therefore, I argued to the Judge that he was travelling too fast for my clients to have moved as far as they did before the impact. My clients must have begun their turn well before the other vehicle even entered the intersection for the accident to happen the way it did. Further, the Defendant testified to observing the passenger’s reaction as he entered the intersection, but said he did not even have the opportunity to apply his brakes. These facts seemed inconsistent, I argued, because if he had time to observe the passenger’s reaction, then he should have had time to begin braking.
After considering the matter, the Judge agreed with my assessment of the accident, and awarded judgment in favor of my clients. It was a good win, especially considering my reasonable fear that we might lose this case outright. In the end, it was a careful review of the facts, and a common sense presentation of them, that carried the day.