Pennsylvania: Personal Injury—Defense Verdict in Philadelphia County

02/02/16

Bernice Byrd, et al. v. Martin Felix Cabrera, et al., Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, PA, August Term, 2014, No. 01366

Suzanne Curran Murphy, a member of the General Casualty Practice Group in the Philadelphia office of Rawle & Henderson LLP, obtained a defense verdict for the firm from a Philadelphia jury on December 8, 2015, in a personal injury case.  Plaintiffs Bernice Byrd and Barbara Jackson alleged that they were injured while occupying a parked car that was struck by a vehicle operated by an employee of Chestnut Wash and Lube, Inc.  Plaintiffs filed suit against Chestnut Wash and Lube, Inc. and its employee, Martin Felix Cabrera. Defendants’ primary defense in the case was that the plaintiffs were not inside the parked vehicle at the time of the collision.

Plaintiffs arrived at the car wash on Sunday morning after church services to report an alleged theft of an iPad on those premises the previous day.  After argument on defendants’ Motion in Limine, it was agreed that reference to the theft would be precluded as prejudicial, but that reference to a “prior unrelated issue” would be permitted.

Plaintiffs asserted that they parked their vehicle on Chestnut Street in front of the car wash.  They claimed that defendant Cabrera struck the parked vehicle while moving a customer’s car the wrong way down Chestnut Street toward the car wash bay.  Contending that they were inside the vehicle at the time of the collision, plaintiffs testified that they were violently thrown from side to side by the impact.

Although defendant Cabrera was outside the country at the time of trial, another attendant at the car wash testified that he heard the accident while he was nearby drying off a washed vehicle.  He testified that after hearing the collision, he observed that plaintiffs were walking on the sidewalk.  The cashier at the car wash testified that plaintiffs were inside speaking with her shortly before the collision and that in a conversation she had with them shortly after the collision, plaintiffs did not say that they were inside the parked vehicle when the impact occurred.

A police officer, who had been called to the scene regarding a “prior unrelated issue,” arrived just after the collision and proceeded to investigate the accident.  He testified that plaintiffs never told him that they were in the vehicle at the time of the collision.  Because he was not present at the time of the collision, however, he could not state with certainty whether plaintiffs were in the vehicle when it was struck. 

Negligence in striking the parked vehicle was stipulated to by defendants before trial.  However, liability for the plaintiffs’ claimed injuries was denied.  Plaintiff Byrd claimed soft tissue issues to her neck, back and arms.  Plaintiff Jackson, who treated at the emergency room on the date of the accident, claimed significant injury to her right hand and wrist requiring surgery, as well as soft tissue injuries to her neck and back.

Notably, plaintiffs attempted to advance their case at trial by impeaching defendants’ expert physician, using a prior deposition from another case to imply that the expert rendered opinions solely for compensation.  Although this tactic was allowed by the court, the defense expert’s passionate defense of his own reputation appears to have prevailed.

At trial, Murphy argued foremost that plaintiffs were not in the vehicle at the time of the collision.  Lacking eyewitnesses to the collision itself, she called the attendant who heard the accident, the cashier who had spoken to the plaintiffs both prior to and after the collision, and the investigating police officer.

Based upon the direct examinations of the defense witnesses, the jury determined that the negligence of the defendants was not a factual cause of the injuries alleged, thus extinguishing all claims.

Suzanne Curran Murphy, of our Philadelphia office, concentrates her practice in the areas of premises liability, construction litigation and school bus/commercial motor vehicle litigation.  Suzanne received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Loyola College and Juris Doctorate from Widener University School of Law.  She served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Frank X. O’Brien, Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, PA.  She is admitted to practice in the state courts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  She has argued successfully before the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  Suzanne is an active participant in the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quaker Classic Mock Trial Tournament.