COA upholds admission of medical bills in $0 pain-and-suffering verdict

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Evidentiary rulings that led to a $0 jury verdict for a man who was injured in a car crash were upheld Wednesday by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The case of Daniel S. Gladstone v. West Bend Mutual Insurance Company, 20A-CT-1499, dates back to Dec. 17, 2016, when Christina Carli was driving east, swerved into Daniel Gladstone’s westbound lane and struck the front of his vehicle in Calumet. Gladstone suffered multiple injuries including a fracture to his right wrist, forcing him to wear a cast and attend physical therapy until March 2017.

Then in October 2018, Gladstone sued Carli for negligence, later amending his complaint to name his insurer, West Bend Mutual Insurance Company. Carli tendered her insurance policy’s limit of $50,000 and was dismissed, so Gladstone proceeded against West Bend.

In June 2020, Gladstone moved to exclude evidence of his medical bills because he was not seeking medical expenses; rather, he sought damages only for pain and suffering. The Lake Superior Court denied his motion, and the bills were admitted into evidence, showing he was billed $14,000 and paid just below $2,000 with insurance payments and discounts.

The maximum Gladstone could have recovered from West Bend was $200,000, but the jury returned a $0 verdict. He appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed Wednesday.

Gladstone’s first argument on appeal was a challenge to the admission of his medical bills. In upholding the trial court’s decision to allow that evidence, Chief Judge Cale Bradford declined to adopt Gladstone’s proposed bright-line rule that medical bills are never relevant to the question of pain and suffering.

“Common sense and experience dictate that a more serious injury generally brings with it greater medical expenses as well as greater pain and suffering,” Bradford wrote, referencing similar holdings in other states.

“Having declined Gladstone’s invitation to adopt a bright-line rule, we conclude that West Bend has cleared the low bar for establishing the relevance of Gladstone’s medical bills in this case,” the chief judge wrote. “If the bills are low, as Gladstone apparently considers them to be, then they tend to establish that he has not experienced pain and suffering from his injuries, and that is all that Evidence Rule 401 requires. … If, in the estimation of one of the parties, the amount of the medical bills does not accurately reflect the amount of pain and suffering, that party is free to counter it with other evidence and argument, as Gladstone did in this case.”

Also, the COA held, the probative value of the medical bills in this case was not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. Gladstone’s trial strategy — convincing the jury that his bills were not an accurate reflection of his pain and suffering — was fully developed, but the jury did not credit his evidence, the panel held.

“While it is, of course, possible to imagine a case in which we might conclude that a trial court’s admission of medical expenses was an abuse of discretion,” Bradford wrote, “this is not one of those cases.”

In a footnote, the panel added that “because Gladstone cannot establish that the jury concluded that he was entitled to no recovery for his pain and suffering, any error the trial court might have committed in this regard can only be considered harmless. … The jury heard evidence that Gladstone had already received $50,000.00 from Carli, so it is entirely possible that the jury did, in fact, conclude that Gladstone was entitled to recover for his pain and suffering but that he had already been fully compensated for it.”

Gladstone raised two other evidentiary arguments on appeal, claiming he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erroneously admitted evidence regarding settlement negotiations, and because the admission of his medical bills improperly contained insurance payments in violation of Indiana’s collateral source statute. The appellate court, however, determined both arguments were waived.

As for the evidence of settlement negotiations, “At no point did Gladstone request either an admonition or a mistrial, instead suggesting the remedy of being able to treat (Steven) Hines as a hostile witness going forward, which remedy was approved by the trial court.” Hines was the West Bend claims specialist who discussed the settlement negotiations at trial.

And as for the evidence of insurance payments in his medical bills, “Gladstone only objected to this evidence on relevance grounds and did not mention the collateral source statute.”

The case received interest from both the plaintiff and defense bar. The Indiana Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief in support of Gladstone while Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana filed an amicus brief in support of West Bend.

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