Typically, a plaintiff in a personal injury case is introducing his medical bills into evidence, not trying to keep them out. But the South Carolina Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial judge’s ruling in the more unusual situation where the judge overruled a plaintiff’s objection to letting the defendant show his medical bills to the jury.
Gary Nestler was injured in a car wreck caused by Joseph Fields. Fields admitted to fault, and at a damages-only trial, Nestler’s trial strategy focused on his pain and suffering. He objected to Fields entering his medical bills, which totaled only $7,117.50, into evidence, arguing that they were irrelevant because they bore no relation to the magnitude of his damages. Nestler feared that showing the jury his expenses would lead them to believe that his pain and suffering couldn’t be extensive.
Those fears proved well founded, apparently. Charleston County Circuit Court Judge Roger Young overruled Nestler’s objection to the evidence, and to a jury instruction on mitigation of damages, and the jury returned a verdict in the amount of the medical bills, to the penny.
South Carolina’s appellate courts had never considered whether a plaintiff could prevent a defendant from introducing his medical bills into evidence, but in a unanimous Jan. 30 opinion, the Court of Appeals said it found no error in the admission of Nestler’s medical bills.
Judge D. Garrison Hill, writing for the court, said that the panel was confident in the jurors’ ability to appropriately weigh the evidence.
“We see no reason they should be kept ignorant of the cost of Nestler’s medical treatment in determining the facts,” Hill wrote. “What they did with that evidence was largely up to them; as the trial court noted, part of the advocate’s art is persuading jurors how such evidence should be interpreted.”
The opinion left open the possibility that a plaintiff might be able exclude evidence of his medical bills if the specific facts of the case warranted it, or special verdict forms or limiting instructions might be required in some circumstances.
The panel also disagreed that Young had erred by charging the jury that Nestler had a duty to mitigate his damages or denying Nestler’s motion for a new trial, finding that the jury had heard evidence that, if believed, undercut Nestler’s credibility.
Hill noted that Nestler claimed to have a semi-photographic memory, but on cross-examination could not recall a prior lawsuit he had brought alleging permanent injuries to his neck and back arising from a different car wreck, and that he had failed to disclose in discovery. He also noted that Nestler’s doctor, who was also his good friend, significantly increased his assessment of Nestler’s permanency rating—an estimate of what percentage of the use of a body part has been lost—after Nestler asked him to revisit it in an effort to resolve the case.
“The jurors’ reaction to this inconsistency may have been like hearing the thirteenth stroke of a clock ‘which not only is itself discredited but casts a shade of doubt over all previous assertions,’” Hill wrote.
Alan Belcher and Paul Trainor of Hall Booth Smith in Mount Pleasant and Atlanta, respectively, represented Fields.
Andrew McCumber of Slotchiver & Slotchiver in Mount Pleasant represented Nestler on appeal.
The five-page decision is Nestler v. Fields (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-016-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan