Plaintiffs Ask Jury for $1.3 Million; Recover only $10,000

Attorneys Robert Fuentes and Stefan Casso of the The Fuentes Firm, P.C., along with its south Texas counsel David T. Garcia, successfully defended a cattle-hauling company in a personal injury lawsuit brought in Brooks County, Texas. The Thomas J. Henry Law Firm represented the Husband and wife Plaintiffs. This is the second favorable jury verdict The Fuentes Firm has received in the defense of trucking companies in personal injury cases in the last six months.

Plaintiffs sued a Brooks County-based trucking company for over $1 Million after a rear-end accident that occurred on Interstate 10 in San Antonio, Texas.

Brooks County, Texas is a rural county in South Texas with a population of 7,223. It is considered a Plaintiff-friendly venue and is among the most liberal-leaning counties in Texas.

Defendants’ driver was operating a commercial truck and hauling cattle in a semi livestock trailer. He rear-ended Plaintiffs’ Toyota Tundra in congested traffic, which caused Plaintiffs’ vehicle to strike the vehicle in front of it.

A jury trial on damages took place in Brooks County during the week of April 29, 2019. Because of the size of the county, The Fuentes Firm’s south Texas counsel David Garcia, who has been the Brooks County attorney for the last 30 years, was able to provide crucial details about specific persons in the jury pool.

Despite the low impact and minimal damage to the vehicles, Plaintiffs claimed serious back injuries. Plaintiffs underwent months of physical therapy, multiple cervical and lumbar epidural steroid injections, a shoulder injection , and evaluation of their cervical   and lumbar spines..

It was recommended that the Husband undergo 3 intensive surgeries.  and that the Wife undergo two surgeries.

At trial, attorneys Robert Fuentes and Stefan Casso established lawyer-driven medical care. Plaintiffs met with the Thomas J. Henry Law Firm before visiting a doctor. Plaintiffs’ claim that they “did not know where to go” after the accident was contradicted by evidence that Plaintiff Wife had a primary care physician who she had gone to for over a decade and who employed her stepmother.

Three days after the accident, Plaintiffs reported to ChiroCare Injury Rehab – a repeat player in the Thomas J. Henry physician-referral network. Plaintiffs testified their attorney gave them a list of possible providers. They chose ChiroCare because it was the “closest to home.” On cross-examination, Fuentes got Plaintiffs to admit that many other chiropractic facilities were closer in proximity to Plaintiffs’ residence.

The defense presented the jury with evidence that Plaintiffs sought almost identical medical treatment. They were discharged from chiropractic and pain management care on the same day. Plaintiffs were released from Dr. Leonard’s care on the same day and received surgical recommendations from Dr. Gutzman on the same day.

Orthopedic surgeons Dr. Michael Leonard and Dr. Dennis Gutzman frequently appear in Thomas J. Henry cases. In fact, the defense’s pain management expert testified that he sees Dr. Gutzman in 100% of cases involving the Thomas J. Henry Law Firm. The defense’s orthopedic surgeon testified that in the dozen or so cases he has reviewed involving Dr. Gutzman, Dr. Gutzman recommends surgery to 100% of the Plaintiffs.

The defense conveyed to the jury that Dr. Gutzman’s bias may have contributed to his surgical cost estimates: $123,000 for Wife and $166,000 for Husband. For the Husband’s proposed surgery, Dr. Gutzman testified $49,000 would be the surgeon’s fee alone. Through expert testimony, the defense established that a $49,000 surgeon’s fee for a routine 3-hour procedure is an egregious inflation over the usual and customary cost. Defendants’ orthopedic surgeon testified, that based upon private health insurance’s and Medicare’s rates, a reasonable cost for the procedure would be approximately $2,000 – a fraction of Dr. Gutzman’s estimate.

The introduction of testimony regarding health insurance’s and Medicare’s rates was made possible by the Texas Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in In re North Cypress Medical Center – a case where The Fuentes Firm filed an amicus brief, explaining to the Texas Supreme Court the relevance of insurance’s and Medicare’s rates in establishing the reasonableness of medical charges.

The defense’s experts disagreed with the surgical recommendations and opined the Plaintiffs suffered only minor strains and sprains from the accident. The defense’s orthopedic surgeon disagreed with the radiologist’s findings of herniations but also stated herniations are common in the general public. Many times, a person with a herniation does not experience pain or even know it is there. The defense drove this point home by outlining that while Plaintiffs reportedly have herniations in their cervical spines, they no longer report pain. Herniations therefore do not necessarily require surgery.

During opening and closing, Fuentes showed the jury pictures of Plaintiffs’ post-accident activities, including the Wife balancing on one leg while wearing high heels, the Husband carrying an ice chest, and the Plaintiffs dancing and dipping in their wedding pictures. On cross-examination, the Husband admitted to post-accident hunting and bay fishing in “terrible weather.”

The Husband further testified he had not yet undergone lumbar surgery because the 4-6-month recovery time would prevent him from working and providing for his family. The defense used this opportunity to introduce Plaintiff’s short and long-term disability benefits from his employer. Typically, evidence of “collateral sources,” such as insurance or disability benefits, is inadmissible. However, the defense successfully argued that Plaintiff’s untruthful testimony opened the door for this type of evidence.

The defense also successfully excluded Plaintiffs’ $60,000 in past medical bills, arguing that because Defendants timely controverted Plaintiffs’ bills and Plaintiffs’ experts did not testify as to the reasonableness of those bills, Plaintiff’s past bills were inadmissible.

During closing arguments, Plaintiffs’ counsel asked the jury for $500,000 to $700,000 for Husband and $400,000 to $600,000 for Wife. Fuentes explained the jury why surgeries were not necessary: (1) Plaintiffs had not treated in over two years, (2) are living healthy, active lives, and (3) if they truly needed the surgery, they would have gotten it by now. Fuentes acknowledged the trucking company’s responsibility and that the Plaintiffs did treat for minor sprains and strains. However, Fuentes explained a reasonable verdict would be in the range of $5,000 to $15,000.

The jury’s verdict fell in line exactly with the defense’s recommendation. They awarded each Plaintiff $2,500 for past physical pain/mental anguish and $2,500 for future physical pain/mental anguish. In total, Plaintiffs recovered only $10,000.

The jury verdict highlights the importance stipulating to liability and acknowledging minor injuries when appropriate. Being the reasonable party can result in appropriate verdicts, even in unfavorable venues.