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Eckert v. Rumsey Park Associates

September 25, 1996

CYNTHIA ECKERT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RUMSEY PARK ASSOCIATES, AND AFFILIATED MANAGEMENT, INC., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

Approved for Publication September 26, 1996.

Before Judges Shebell, Baime and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, P.j.a.d..

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shebell

The opinion of the court was delivered by

SHEBELL, P.J.A.D.

In this appeal, from what plaintiff contends is an inadequate jury verdict, the critical issue is whether the trial Judge committed reversible error by not allowing the jury to have, either on plaintiff's direct case or in rebuttal to defense psychiatric testimony, the de bene esse deposition of a licensed psychologist who treated plaintiff. Plaintiff claims that, contrary to the trial court's ruling, the psychologist did state within the required degree of reliability that plaintiff's psychological disorders were caused by her falls. We agree and reverse and remand.

Plaintiff's action sought damages for injuries she suffered from two falls on the steps of defendant's apartment complex. A five day trial was held before a jury at the Conclusion of which the jury found in favor of plaintiff, but awarded her only $7000 in damages. Plaintiff moved for a new trial, or in the alternative, additur. Her motion was denied and she filed this appeal.

Suffice it to say that following the two falls plaintiff had extensive osteopathic and orthopedic care, including physical therapy, without substantial relief from the injuries suffered to her left side, neck and arm. Plaintiff then began seeing a psychologist, Dr. Inge Stafford, and was prescribed anti-depressants. Two weeks prior to trial, plaintiff was admitted to the mental health unit of Mountainside Hospital because of anxiety attacks and depression. At the time of trial, plaintiff had been classified as permanently disabled and was receiving Social Security disability benefits.

Plaintiff's medical experts described her disability as permanent. However, the defense experts described plaintiff's prognosis as excellent because they found no objective evidence of injury. The defense contended that plaintiff was employable, and was suffering only from a low-grade form of rheumatoid arthritis entirely unrelated to the falls.

A defense psychiatrist testified plaintiff was suffering from three conditions: somatoform disorder, the presentation of physical symptoms which are not supported by diagnostic testing; histrionic personality disorder, where the individual presents symptoms in a highly theatrical manner; and chronic depression. He opined that plaintiff was able to move both arms and that her physical complaints were not supported by the medical records.

In her video-taped deposition, Dr. Stafford testified that plaintiff was suffering from panic disorder with agoraphobia and also from a major clinical depression. With respect to the depression, Stafford concluded that it was the result of a "single episode." She also testified that three "stressors"--significant points of pressure or trauma --contributed to plaintiff's emotional state. These were: the falls, which resulted in the chronic pain; plaintiff's inability to work; and her financial hardship.

Plaintiff's counsel then undertook the following questioning of Dr. Stafford:

As a psychologist, would you be able to state definitively what caused Miss Eckert's ...


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