Mark Roman | May 20, 2015 | news
Highly publicized cases of injury or death have a way of bringing attention to unsavory defense tactics. In 2014, this blog commented on the fact that Walmart was blaming Tracy Morgan and his friends for being hit by a Walmart tractor trailer. According to Walmart, Morgan and the other passengers worsened their injuries by failing to wear seat belts as they rode in a limo.
The recent death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department exposed another defense: the preexisting injury argument. This happened because some irresponsible media outlets claimed Gray’s spinal cord was damaged by a preexisting spine injury instead of police mistreatment.
The so-called evidence for this defense was a lawsuit filed by Gray and members of his family. Citing sources neither named nor described, the media outlets claimed Gray’s lawsuit arose from an injury to his spine suffered in a car accident. Some outlets suggested, with no supporting evidence, that Gray may have had spine surgery as recently as two weeks before he died.
Baltimore’s newspaper,The Baltimore Sun, quickly debunked the story about a spine injury. It explained that Gray’s lawsuit had been about poisoning caused by exposure to old lead paint. The lawsuit was filed many years ago and was settled in 2010. Nevertheless, some media outlets ran with the spine injury claim anyway.
Whatever one’s views might be about the Freddie Gray case overall, it seems bonkers for anyone to suggest Gray had a preexisting injury based on this “evidence.” Yet, this tactic is regularly employed by insurance companies defending personal injury cases. For example, medical experts hired by the insurance industry often testify that medical conditions are caused by preexisting conditions, rather than trauma suffered in car accidents. Defense experts routinely say this even if the injured person was healthy and free of symptoms before their accident.
These types of experts aren’t even bothered by the fact that accident victims have an onset of symptoms immediately after a car accident. They will claim that the onset of symptoms so soon after the accident was a mere coincidence. They will, in other words, reject every possible explanation for pain and injury except the one which favors the defense.
This brings us back to Freddie Gray. The particular circumstances are different, but the application of defense logic is the same. That logic goes something like this: even though Gray was healthy enough to run from the police right before he was arrested, his spine was really a ticking time bomb. That ticking time bomb just happened to explode as soon as he was in police custody. Getting roughed up didn’t cause Gray’s death; instead, the fact that he died so soon after being in police custody was just an unfortunate coincidence. And that means, conveniently, that no one is responsible for his death. It is just an unfortunate random event, like being struck by lightning.
People in Baltimore and around the country rightly rejected this pseudo-medical spin on the Freddie Gray story. They should do the same when they hear similar claims from the insurance industry in courtrooms.
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