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On The Front Lines Of The Legal Battle

Automobile collisions, especially those involving semitrucks, are scary.  I know how scary they can be because I’ve been in one.

I was driving eastbound on I-40 past Greensboro on my way back from my son’s hockey tournament with him and one of his teammates.  We were in the right lane, and a semitruck was in the lane to our left.

The truck driver could have slowed down as he approached the car in front of him.  Or he could have passed that car on the left.  But he didn’t.  Instead, the truck driver tried to pass on the right, hitting us and running our car off the road in the process.  Then he drove away.

The damage to our car was obvious.  The driver-side mirror was dangling by a cord.  Both doors were scraped up, dented, and wouldn’t close.  Thankfully, even though you wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at our car, all three of us were fine.

Not everyone is as lucky as we were.  We hear from clients all the time who are involved in automobile collisions.  They’ll suffer serious injuries, yet their vehicles come away with no visible damage at all.

For these clients, there’s one question they can’t get out of their mind: “Can I still win a personal-injury lawsuit if my car looked fine?”  The answer to that question is yes.

Is there a correlation between vehicle damage and physical injuries in automobile collisions?

No.  As a Massachusetts court put it in a case called Laccetti v. Ellis, it is “undeniable … that it is possible for an automobile accident that results in minor vehicle damage nevertheless to cause serious physical injury[.]”

Because this fact is “undeniable,” you usually need an expert witness to prove otherwise.  Only an expert knows if a correlation between vehicle damage and physical injuries exists.  Otherwise, folks like you and me would have to guess which physical injuries come from which vehicle damage.  That’s crazy.

Unfortunately, not every court sees it this way.  In fact, according to a court in New Jersey in a case called Brenman v. Demello, “everyday knowledge” tells us that there is a “certainty of proportion” between vehicle damage and personal injuries.

It doesn’t actually matter where courts land on this issue though.  We know what scientific studies objectively show.  They show that “property damage is neither a valid predictor of acute injury risk nor of system duration.”

Can a defense attorney use photographs to argue that a correlation between vehicle damage and physical injuries exists?


Courts often refuse to allow defense attorneys to use photographs showing little or no vehicle damage in lawsuits. Undeterred, defense attorneys may try to use photographs to make a deceptive cause-and-effect argument.

If there isn’t serious damage to the vehicle, they claim, there wasn’t serious damage to the people inside.  We know, of course, that this isn’t always true.

Some courts dont let defense attorneys use photographs to argue that a correlation between vehicle damage and personal injuries exists.

Many courts prohibit defense attorneys from using photographs to make these arguments.  The Supreme Court of Delaware’s decision in Davis v. Maute is a high-profile example.

In Davis v. Maute, the Supreme Court of Delaware “h[e]ld that, in general, counsel may not argue that there is a correlation between the extent of the damage to the automobiles in an accident and the extent of the occupants’ personal injuries caused by the accident in the absence of expert testimony on the issue.”  It “also conclude[d] that it was error to admit the photographs of the plaintiff’s car without a specific instruction limiting the jury’s use of the photographs.”

Many courts agree with the Davis v. Maute decision.  In Sager v. Mena, for example, a Washington court excluded from evidence photographs of vehicle damage, “reasoning that no party planned to offer biomechanical expert witness testimony that would explain to the jury how the damage to the vehicles showed the force of the impact of the various collisions on [the plaintiff].”

Likewise, in Silva v. Diaz, a court in Texas “excluded the photographs due to its belief that without a biomechanical or an accident reconstruction expert to tie the visible physical damage to the vehicle to the force created on impact, the photographs would provide little guidance and might confuse or mislead the jury.”

Other courts admit the photographs into evidence but instruct the jury that no correlation between vehicle damage and personal injuries exists.

Other courts like the Massachusetts court in Laccetti v. Ellis and the New Jersey court in Brenman v. Demello have done the opposite.  Those courts have ruled that such photographs are admissible and that juries can consider them with other evidence.

But even in these cases, the courts are careful to instruct the jury on how they may use the photographs.  In Brenman v. Demello, for example, the New Jersey court instructed the jury as follows: “In … accidents where there is no or little apparent vehicle damage, the occupants may suffer serious injuries.”

In Laccetti v. Ellis, the Massachusetts court’s instruction was even clearer: “[T]he Court is instructing that you are not to make any inference regarding any correlation between property damage to the vehicles and the personal injury damages claimed by the plaintiffs.”

So, what does this mean for me?

If you’ve been injured in an automobile collision, especially one with a semitruck, you’re entitled to be made whole.  You might be worried that it’s not possible, especially if you leave the scene with serious personal injuries but vehicle damage.

You’re not alone in feeling this way.  But you don’t have to go through this process alone.  Like me, the attorneys at O’Malley Tunstall, PC, know exactly what you’re going through—sometimes because we’ve been through it ourselves.

If you’ve been injured in an automobile collision with a semi-truck, call O’Malley Tunstall, PC, at (919) 277-0150.  You can speak with one of our experienced personal injury attorneys today.