Barkley v. Wallace, Record No. 030744.

Decision Date05 March 2004
Docket NumberRecord No. 030744.
Citation267 Va. 369,595 S.E.2d 271
CourtVirginia Supreme Court
PartiesMargaret BARKLEY v. George E. WALLACE.

Robert J. Haddad, Troy, MI (Elizabeth L. Montagna; Shuttleworth, Ruloff, Giordano & Swain, Virginia Beach, on brief), for appellant.

Joseph M. Young, Braintree, MA (Hall, Fox and Atlee, Hampton, on brief), for appellee.

Present: All the Justices.

KEENAN, Justice.

This is an appeal from a judgment in a personal injury action in which a plaintiff allegedly sustained injuries as a result of a motor vehicle collision. We consider whether the circuit court erred in ruling that evidence of the plaintiffs medical bills and expenses that were discharged in bankruptcy was inadmissible for the limited purpose of proving her pain and suffering caused by the accident.

The following facts are relevant to this appeal. In September 1994, Margaret Barkley was operating a motor vehicle that collided with another vehicle driven by George E. Wallace. Barkley filed a motion for judgment against Wallace alleging that she was injured as the result of Wallace's negligence in making "an unsafe lane change from the center lane into the right-hand lane of travel."1

After filing her motion for judgment, Barkley filed a bankruptcy petition in a United States Bankruptcy Court, and her medical bills were discharged as a result of proceedings in that court. Wallace filed a motion in limine in the circuit court to preclude Barkley from introducing evidence of her medical bills and expenses as proof of her alleged damages. In response, Barkley asked the circuit court to allow her to present evidence that the total amount of her medical bills was $11,365.33, because "jurors oftentimes use the total amount of medical bills to try and determine a fair amount of `pain and suffering.'"

The circuit court granted Wallace's motion, prohibiting Barkley "from presenting at trial any evidence of the medical bills and medical expenses she incurred regarding her medical treatment following the accident." The circuit court based its ruling on the sole ground that those bills and expenses had been discharged in bankruptcy. After this ruling, Wallace admitted liability for the accident, and the case was set for a jury trial on the issue of damages.

At trial, Barkley testified that she received medical treatment, physical therapy, and chiropractic care for her injuries. She stated that she did not obtain any medical treatment after April 1995, because she no longer could afford to pay her medical bills. Barkley explained that she missed some physical therapy appointments because she lacked transportation, had constant pain, was unable to pay for continued treatment, and experienced forgetfulness resulting from certain medications she was taking.

Barkley also testified that she was unable to perform her duties as a financial consultant and insurance agent because of continued pain and an inability to sit or stand for long periods of time. She stated that she still experiences headaches and pain in her neck and shoulders and is limited in her ability to perform ordinary tasks, such as sewing clothes and lifting her grandchildren.

Linda Schneider, M.D., Barkley's treating physician, testified that from September 1994 through April 1995, she treated Barkley for injuries caused by the accident. Dr. Schneider stated that Barkley initially complained of headaches, nausea, difficulty sleeping and focusing her eyes, and pain in her neck, back, and shoulders. Dr. Schneider diagnosed Barkley as suffering from, among other things, spasms in her neck and lower back. Dr. Schneider referred Barkley for physical therapy and chiropractic care to facilitate her recovery and to ease her back pain.

Dr. Schneider further testified that when she last examined Barkley in April 1995, Barkley still was experiencing intermittent stiffness and pain in her neck and lower back, and she could not sit in one position for longer than ten minutes at a time. Dr. Schneider stated that at the time of this last examination, she thought that Barkley's condition would improve within six months.

At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury returned a verdict in Barkley's favor, awarding her damages of $10,000, and the circuit court entered final judgment on the verdict. Barkley appeals.

Barkley argues that the circuit court erred in prohibiting her from presenting to the jury the total amount of the medical bills she incurred after the accident. She asserts that she was entitled to introduce this evidence to demonstrate to the jury the extent of her medical treatment to support her claim of pain and suffering caused by the accident.

In response, Wallace argues that the circuit court properly excluded from evidence the total amount of Barkley's medical expenses because, at the time of trial, Barkley was no longer responsible for the payment of her medical bills. Wallace contends that the total amount of Barkley's medical expenses would not have assisted the jury in understanding the extent of Barkley's medical treatment. He further observes that Barkley "had every opportunity at trial to present testimony outlining the extent of her medical care."

In resolving this issue, we first emphasize the limited nature of the question presented. Barkley did not seek to have the amounts she was charged for medical services admitted into evidence to obtain recovery of those amounts as an element of compensatory damages. Thus, we are not presented with and do not decide the question whether evidence of medical bills is admissible to recover the amount charged for such treatment when a plaintiff has obtained a discharge of those medical bills in bankruptcy proceedings2 We decide only the issue whether the excluded evidence was admissible to prove the extent of Barkley's medical treatment to support non-monetary elements of her compensatory damages claim.

Generally, a litigant is entitled to introduce all competent, material, and relevant evidence that tends to prove or disprove any material issue in the case, unless that evidence violates a specific rule of admissibility. Tarmac Mid-Atlantic, Inc. v. Smiley Block Co., 250 Va. 161, 166, 458 S.E.2d 462, 465 (1995); Barnette v. Dickens, 205 Va. 12, 15, 135 S.E.2d 109, 112 (1964). Every fact that tends to establish the probability or improbability of a fact at issue is relevant. Velocity Express Mid-Atlantic, Inc. v. Hugen, 266 Va. 188, 205, 585 S.E.2d 557, 566-67 (2003); Virginia Elec. & Power Co. v. Dungee, 258 Va. 235, 260, 520 S.E.2d 164, 179 (1999); Wood v. Bass Pro Shops, Inc., 250 Va. 297, 303, 462 S.E.2d 101, 104 (1995). Therefore, evidence is relevant if "it tends to establish a party's claim or defense or adds force and strength to other evidence bearing upon an issue in the case." Breeden v. Roberts, 258 Va. 411, 416, 518 S.E.2d 834, 837 (1999); accord McNeir v. Greer-Hale Chinchilla Ranch, 194 Va. 623, 628, 74 S.E.2d 165, 169 (1953)

.

We have not previously addressed the exclusion of medical bills offered only to prove non-monetary elements of a compensatory damages claim, such as pain and suffering, when those bills have been discharged in bankruptcy. However, in a different context not involving a bankruptcy discharge, we considered the admissibility of medical bills offered for the limited purpose of establishing pain and suffering as an element of damages.

In that decision, Parker v. Elco Elevator Corporation, 250 Va. 278, 462 S.E.2d 98 (1995), a plaintiff failed to comply with an agreed discovery deadline requiring him to specify all monetary damages he claimed from an injury allegedly sustained as a result of the defendant's negligence. Because of this discovery violation, the circuit court prohibited admission of the plaintiff's medical bills despite his request that they be received for the limited purposes of showing that he received medical treatment for his injuries and to support his claim of pain and suffering. We held that the circuit court erred in excluding evidence of the medical bills for those limited purposes. Id. at 280, 462 S.E.2d at 100.

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  • Thomas v. Com.
    • United States
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    • January 25, 2005
    ...it must have a `logical tendency, however slight, to prove a fact at issue in the case.'" (citation omitted)); Barkley v. Wallace, 267 Va. 369, 373, 595 S.E.2d 271, 273 (2004) ("Every fact that tends to establish the probability or improbability of a fact at issue is relevant."); Velocity E......
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    ...257, 546 S.E.2d 728, 730 (2001)); accord Hodges v. Commonwealth, 272 Va. 418, 436, 634 S.E.2d 680, 690 (2006); Barkley v. Wallace, 267 Va. 369, 373, 595 S.E.2d 271, 273 (2004); Velocity Express Mid-Atlantic v. Hugen, 266 Va. 188, 205, 585 S.E.2d 557, 566-67 We have held that: "Evidence whic......
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    ...error when the record fails to show plainly that the excluded evidence could not have affected the verdict." Barkley v. Wallace , 267 Va. 369, 374, 595 S.E.2d 271, 274 (2004). "Thus, we consider the potential effect of the excluded evidence in light of all the evidence that was presented to......
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