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Douglas v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

August 10, 2000


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, Terry, Associate Judge, and King, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge)

Argued March 16, 1999

This negligence action arises from a collision between two buses owned and operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA"). Appellant Dorothy Douglas, a passenger on one of the buses, claimed that the accident caused her to develop cervical disc syndrome in her neck,*fn1 which eventually required surgery. She filed suit against WMATA in the Superior Court, seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages for medical expenses and pain and suffering, plus costs and interest. The jury found in her favor, but awarded her only $1,461.57 in damages. On appeal, Ms. Douglas challenges the trial court's denial of her pre-trial motion in limine, which sought to exclude evidence of prior injuries, and her post-trial motion for a new trial on damages. Finding no error, we affirm.


A. Factual Background

On June 5, 1992, a WMATA bus in which Ms. Douglas was a passenger was making a left turn out of a parking lot on Minnesota Avenue, N.E., when it was hit from behind by another WMATA bus. The impact caused Ms. Douglas to be jerked forward and backward and threw her three-year-old son completely out of his seat. Ms. Douglas testified that it got "black all of a sudden" and that immediately after the accident she felt pain "shooting all up [her] neck . . . ."*fn2

Ms. Douglas was placed in a neck brace and taken by ambulance to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. After an initial examination, she was diagnosed with an acute cervical strain and an acute right shoulder strain. Ms. Douglas was subsequently treated by Dr. Christopher Magee, an orthopedic surgeon, who in turn referred her to Dr. Herbert Joseph for further treatment, including physical therapy. In September 1992 Dr. Magee released Ms. Douglas from his care. Although she was still complaining of pain and stiffness in her neck*fn3 and tingling and numbness in her hand, Dr. Magee concluded that Ms. Douglas "appear[ed] to have reached maximum medical improvement with regard to her neck injury."

But the pain and stiffness in Ms. Douglas' neck did not go away. By February 1993 it had become so severe that she was having difficulty sleeping. In search of relief, she went to see Dr. Rida Azer, another orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Azer detected tenderness over the fifth, sixth, and seventh vertebrae in Ms. Douglas' neck, noted that she had a limited range of motion in her neck, and observed that she was experiencing muscle spasms. He diagnosed her condition as cervical disc syndrome with associated shoulder pain. After a second course of physical therapy failed to bring any improvement, Dr. Azer referred Ms. Douglas to a neurosurgeon, Dr. Earl Mills, who recommended that Ms. Douglas undergo a discectomy to remove two of the discs in her neck.*fn4

On December 8, 1994, Dr. Mills operated on Ms. Douglas' neck, while Dr. Azer removed pieces of bone from her hip and used them to replace the now-missing discs. Ms. Douglas remained under sedation for three to four days following the surgery and could not leave the hospital until a few days before Christmas. After her release, she was confined to bed at home for more than four months, had to wear a metal brace around her neck until the bones knit, and was unable to bathe herself or perform basic housekeeping and child-rearing tasks. From late December 1994 through April 1995 she had to hire a private care service for assistance in her home. She underwent extensive physical therapy and even had to relearn how to walk. Dr. Azer testified that Ms. Douglas would be permanently restricted from engaging in certain activities because three of her vertebrae had been fused together during the surgery.

B. The Motion in Limine

Before trial, Ms. Douglas filed a motion in limine asking the trial court to bar the admission of evidence "concerning all prior claims of injury unrelated to [her] cervical spine or neck," as well as any prior disability or workers' compensation claims. She argued that evidence of prior injuries to other parts of her body was irrelevant to the issue of whether the injuries to her neck and cervical spine were proximately caused by the bus accident, and that evidence of prior claims should not be used to impeach her credibility unless WMATA could show that the prior claims were fraudulent. In response, WMATA argued that evidence of prior injuries to Ms. Douglas' neck would be relevant to the issue of whether, and to what extent, the injuries for which she received medical treatment after September 1992, including the surgery, were proximately caused by the bus accident. The court denied Ms. Douglas' motion, but indicated that it would be willing to fashion a cautionary instruction to make sure that any evidence of Ms. Douglas' prior injuries would not be used by the jury for an improper purpose.

C. Evidence of Prior Injuries

During the trial, counsel for WMATA inquired about several prior injuries to Ms. Douglas' neck. First, Ms. Douglas said she was involved in an automobile accident on March 10, 1972, but could not remember whether it caused whiplash and a neck injury. Then, on July 15, 1975, Ms. Douglas injured her neck and right shoulder when a heavy wooden chair fell on her at work. That injury prevented her from working for approximately three months following the accident, and again from early April to mid-December of 1976. Over objection, counsel for WMATA asked Ms. Douglas whether she testified at a workers' compensation hearing in 1980 that this same neck injury was also responsible for her absence from work between June 8 and October 18, 1978. Ms. Douglas said she did not recall the hearing, but records from a medical examination conducted on June 24, 1981, revealed that she was still complaining of lingering wrist, lower back, and neck pain traceable to the 1975 accident.

WMATA's attorney next asked Ms. Douglas whether she remembered receiving treatment for back and neck injuries after being hit by a falling shoe rack on May 28, 1979. Ms. Douglas again stated that she did not recall the incident, but Dr. Azer testified that on July 26, 1979, he diagnosed Ms. Douglas with a ...

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