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Liberty v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2016

JAMES LIBERTY, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         James Liberty was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Because he selected the “limited tort” option on his insurance, he can recover noneconomic damages only if his injuries are considered “serious” under Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law. Defendant State Farm has moved for summary judgment, contending that Liberty's persistent neck injury is not serious as that term is defined in the statute. Because reasonable minds could differ on this question, the Court denies State Farm's motion.

         I.

         James Liberty, a plumber's apprentice, was driving to work on May 30, 2014 when another car struck his car from behind.[1] (Pl.'s Ex. E, at 30:11-13, 14:18, ECF No. 13-5, hereafter “Liberty Dep.”) His car was totaled. (Id. at 36:13-14.) Liberty did not lose consciousness, sustain any cuts or abrasions, or experience any bruising as a result of the collision. (Id. 31:10-18.)

         Although he did not need medical attention at the accident scene, Liberty went to Holy Redeemer Hospital a few hours later because his eyes were unusually dilated. (Id. 36:1-5, 41:1- 24.) The hospital released Liberty the same day, attributing his dilated eyes to whiplash and adrenaline, and diagnosed him with contusions and sprains. (Id. at 42:3-7; Pl.'s Ex. A, ECF No. 13-1.) The next day, Liberty had pain in his neck, lower back, right knee and right ankle. (Liberty Dep. at 40:10-14.)

         Liberty sought treatment from Dr. Gruzin at Temple Medical Associates. (Id. at 50- 51:15.) Liberty received physical therapy and chiropractic treatments two to three times a week between June 5 and November 3, 2014. (Id. 52:14-23; 54:8-12.) The treatments healed his ankle, knee and back, but he continued to have problems with his neck. (Id. 55:17-56:12.) Liberty had an MRI that revealed bulging discs at ¶ 5-6 and C6-7, which Dr. Gruzin attributed to the accident. (Id. at 58:22-59:5; Pl's Ex. C, at 1.)[2]

         After his treatment with Dr. Gruzin, Liberty began seeing Dr. Susan Moses, a chiropractor, on an as needed basis. (Id. at 60:8-19; 61:21-62:2.) Liberty explained that his neck becomes very tight, to the point at which he cannot move it. (Id. at 62:19-21.) When this occurs, treatment from Dr. Moses provides temporary relief. As of Liberty's deposition on July 25, 2016, he continued to experience pain in his neck. When his neck is in a spasm, his pain level is a 10 on a 0 to 10 point scale. (Id. at 64:23.) When not in a spasm, his neck is “annoying” and “throbbing nonstop, ” (id. at 64:7-8.), and his pain level is a 7 on the same scale. (Id. at 64:20.)

         Liberty's life activities have changed since his injury. He is limited in his ability to help his wife care for their newborn child. (Id. at 71:9-13.) Liberty is also unable to crawl on the floor and play with his children like he used to before the accident. (Id. at 69:17-19; 72:7-11.) While he is able to work, (id. at 70:18-19), his boss is aware of his injury and assigns him smaller work “rather than the heavier stuff, ” (id. at 16:8-10). When driving, Liberty is unable to turn his head and must instead turn his whole body. (Id. at 71:3-5.) Finally, Liberty can no longer do what he calls “extreme workouts, ” like P90X and Insanity. (Id. at 67:20-22.)

         Liberty sued State Farm on May 10, 2016 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. State Farm removed the case to this Court on May 17, 2016 and filed an answer three days later. See (ECF Nos. 1 & 2.) On November 3, 2016 State Farm filed its motion for summary judgment, (ECF No. 12), and Liberty responded to the motion on November 23, 2016, (ECF No. 13).

         II.

         Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Smathers v. Multi-Tool, Inc./Multi-Plastics, Inc. Emp. Health & Welfare Plan, 298 F.3d 191, 194 (3d Cir. 2002); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A genuine issue of material fact exists when “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A mere scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party will not suffice; there must be evidence by which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Id. at 252. Summary judgment is appropriate where “the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         In reviewing the record, a court “must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor.” Prowel v. Wise Bus. Forms, 579 F.3d 285, 286 (3d Cir. 2009). The court may not, however, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence in considering motions for summary judgment. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); see also Goodman v. Pa. Tpk. Comm'n, 293 F.3d 655, 665 (3d Cir. 2002).

         III.

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