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Spruill v. Garcia

Supreme Court of Virginia

November 7, 2019

Yashana Spruill, Appellant,
Brendon Garcia, et al., Appellees.

          Upon an appeal from a judgment rendered by the Circuit Court No. CL17-2531-00 of the City of Norfolk.

         Present: All the Justices

         This appeal arises from a judgment entered in a personal-injury action by Yashana Spruill against Brendon Garcia and Angela Tyler. The jury awarded a verdict in favor of Spruill against Tyler only on liability but did not award any damages. On appeal, Spruill contends that the trial court erred in admitting certain medical records without proper authentication and in violation of the rule against hearsay evidence. Finding the error asserted to be harmless, we affirm.


         On December 5, 2016, Spruill was a passenger in Tyler's vehicle when it was involved in an accident with a vehicle driven by Garcia. As Tyler drove straight through an intersection, Garcia made a left-hand turn in front of Tyler's vehicle, and the two cars collided. Tyler claimed that she had seen a green light as she entered the intersection while Garcia claimed that he had seen a green turn arrow when he started his left turn. Spruill sued both Tyler and Garcia, seeking $50, 000 for personal injuries allegedly resulting from the accident.

         At trial, the police officer who had responded to the scene testified that he did not remember this particular accident, but he knew that he had asked everyone involved in the accident whether they were injured and that no one had reported any injuries. The officer confirmed that if anyone had reported injuries to him at the scene, he would have had notes about those reported injuries, but his available notes did not contain such details. Based upon his notes from the accident, the officer described the damage to both vehicles as "minimal." 1 J.A. at 210.

         Photographs of both vehicles confirmed the officer's description of the damage. Garcia's vehicle had a bent front license plate and some scratches and cracks on the front bumper, see R. at 1028-33, and Tyler's vehicle had a few scratches and small dents on the driver's side of the vehicle from the corner of the front bumper to the front wheel, see id. at 1034-38. The testimony at trial also confirmed that the accident was minor. Garcia testified that he had slowed down to 10 miles per hour before making the left turn. See 1 J.A. at 273, 284. Approximately "[o]ne to two seconds" before impact, he saw Tyler's vehicle coming through the intersection, id. at 246, and he "immediately hit [his] brakes and came to a complete stop" before the impact, id. at 274. He described the impact as "more of a bump," and he stated that he "wasn't thrown around in [his] car" and had not "experienced whiplash." Id. Tyler testified that she had been going approximately 30 miles per hour but had applied her brakes before impact. See id. at 292, 296, 307. Tyler also confirmed that the impact "was not that significant" and that she had also not been "thrown around or knocked around inside of the vehicle." Id. at 307. Spruill testified that she had been "jarred around a little bit," that her "knee hit the dashboard," and that her "head hit . . . . [t]he back of the seat." 2 id. at 432. After the officer had arrived at the scene, both Garcia and Tyler were able to drive their vehicles to a nearby gas station and park. Although Tyler told the officer at the scene that both she and Spruill had "tension," both Tyler and Spruill refused an ambulance. 1 id. at 317-19. They also both returned to work immediately following the accident, which had occurred around 2:30 in the afternoon. Later that evening after work, Tyler and Spruill went to an emergency room "not because [they] were feeling tingling or an injury at that time" but "to make sure [they] were okay," id. at 319.

         Spruill admitted at trial that she had begun to have back problems and numbness in her feet while she was in the military and that she had had an MRI of her back in 1998 just prior to her discharge from the military. Spruill also received physical therapy and epidural steroid injections while she was in the military. Spruill received a ten percent disability rating upon her discharge due to her back problems, and she had annual physicals at the VA Medical Center to confirm her disability rating. Spruill testified that she had had "flare ups" in 2011 and 2013, during which her lower back would hurt with "tingling down the backs of [her] legs," making it "hard to walk." 2 id. at 426-27. Spruill admitted to having had an MRI of her back in 2013 but did not recall having had an MRI of her back in 2011. Despite being given medical records from a 2011 visit with Dr. Martin Ton at Consultants in Pain Medicine, Inc. to refresh her recollection during cross-examination, Spruill again did not recall having had an MRI in 2011 and did not recall having seen Dr. Ton for her back pain, having gone to physical therapy, or having been treated at Consultants in Pain Medicine, Inc. Spruill did confirm, however, that she had gone to a neurologist in 2013 and had reported at the time that she had experienced "chronic lower back pain for more than ten years." Id. at 470. Spruill also confirmed that her primary-care physician had prescribed pain medicine and medicine for back spasms due to her chronic lower-back pain and that she took the medicine "as needed." Id. at 476.

         Dr. Jay Berkowitz, a chiropractor who had treated Spruill after the accident, also testified on Spruill's behalf. Dr. Berkowitz testified that Spruill had first visited him approximately two weeks after the accident and had complained of neck, arm, and left-shoulder pain as well as back pain that had radiated into her left leg. Dr. Berkowitz diagnosed Spruill "with a cervical sprain/strain, cervical radiculitis, . . . . a thoracic sprain/strain, a lumbar sprain/strain," as well as "lumbar radiculitis," 1 id. at 347, which he believed were all directly related to the accident based upon Spruill's representation that her pain had not begun until after the accident, see id. at 348, 370. On her intake form, Spruill checked that she had a herniated disc. Spruill testified that she had reported a herniated disc because it "was the closest thing" to explaining her previous back problems. 2 id. at 440. As the result of a subsequent conversation with Dr. Berkowitz about this reporting of a herniated disc, Spruill brought him some of her medical records, including a report from a 2013 MRI. Dr. Berkowitz testified that he had read that report and confirmed that the report had compared the 2013 MRI to a 2011 MRI. See 1 id. at 371, 375. The 2013 MRI report revealed that Spruill had disc tears at two levels but "nothing [was] leaking out" of the discs. Id. at 375. After looking through Spruill's medical records, Dr. Berkowitz determined that Spruill did not have herniated discs but rather that she had disc protrusions or disc bulges. Dr. Berkowitz testified that he was aware that Spruill had received epidural injections before the accident to treat the disc bulges, see id. at 354, and he also confirmed that Spruill had been taking medicine "to help with disc protrusions" just two months prior to the accident, id. at 380-81. On re-direct examination, Dr. Berkowitz was questioned about a July 2011 medical record from Spruill's primary-care physician. This record noted that Spruill had "[s]uspected lumbar strain rather than a disc herniation" and contained an instruction that she was to schedule an MRI if her symptoms did not improve. The record, however, did not indicate whether Spruill ever obtained an MRI.

         At the conclusion of all of the evidence, Tyler and Garcia sought to introduce copies of the 2011 medical records from Dr. Ton regarding his treatment of Spruill. In lieu of testimony, Tyler and Garcia presented copies of the medical records with a statement of their authenticity signed by the records custodian for Consultants in Pain Medicine, Inc. The statement was not sworn to under oath or made under penalty of perjury but was merely "acknowledged" as being "true and correct" before a notary public. 2 id. at 538. The first four pages of the medical records contain an intake or registration form filled out by Spruill with her identifying information, pain symptoms, medical history, and an authorization for release of medical records. See id. at 539-42. The fifth page contains Dr. Ton's impressions of Spruill's reported pain symptoms, see id. at 543, and the sixth page provides a summary of Spruill's self-reported history of her back pain as well as Dr. Ton's recommendations of proceeding with "medical management, repeat[ing] the interventional therapy," and continuing exercises and therapy at home with a follow-up in a month, id. at 544. The seventh page documents the results of an August 13, 2011 MRI that revealed "degenerative dis[c] disease," "dis[c] bulges," and "mild facet arthropathy" at two levels of Spruill's spine. Id. at 545. The eighth page contains Dr. Ton's order for an "epidural steroid injection" and lists Spruill's "[c]urrent outpatient prescriptions ordered prior to encounter" (an anti-inflammatory and a pain medicine). Id. at 546. The ninth page summarizes the procedure followed for the epidural steroid injection, and the tenth page is a consent form for the injection. See id. at 547-48.

         Spruill objected to the authentication of the 2011 medical records because the statement by the records custodian was not sworn to under oath or under penalty of perjury pursuant to Code §§ 8.01-391(D) and 8.01-4.3. Spruill also objected to the admission of the records because they had not been identified on the defendants' list of exhibits prior to trial and because they were hearsay and did not fall under the business-records exception since no witness with personal knowledge of the statements in the records had testified. Over these objections, the trial court admitted the records into evidence, finding them admissible pursuant to Code § 8.01-391(D) and Va. R. Evid. 2:1005(d). See 2 J.A. at 517. The trial court further found that Garcia and Tyler were using the records solely for impeachment, and thus, they were not required to identify the records on their exhibit lists prior to trial. See id. at 516. Prior to closing arguments, however, the trial court ruled that counsel for Garcia could use the records "for any purpose" in his closing argument, not merely for impeachment. Id. at 534. Although Spruill had argued that the records should not be admitted for evidence rather than for impeachment, the trial court did not make any express finding as to the admissibility of the records under the business-records exception to the hearsay rule. The jury reached a verdict in favor of Spruill against Tyler only on liability and awarded $0 in damages. The trial court later denied Spruill's motion to set aside the verdict, and Spruill timely appealed.



         Spruill contends on appeal that the 2011 medical records were improperly admitted into evidence because they had not been properly authenticated and were inadmissible hearsay. For two reasons, we agree that the medical records should not ...

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