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Easterling v. Brantley

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

September 25, 2013

TAMMIE EASTERLING, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Argued May 21, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-2668-10.

Richard A. Greifinger argued the cause for appellant.

Edward J. Nesselquist argued the cause for respondents.

Before Judges Hayden and Hoffman.


On June 16, 2009, plaintiff, Tammie Easterling, was a passenger on a public bus that was rear-ended by a bus leased by defendant Bus One Company and operated by defendant Jeannette Brantley. As a result, plaintiff sued, among others, Brantley and Bus One, claiming severe injury resulting in permanent disability and pain and suffering. At the trial, defendants[1]stipulated to their liability, and the sole issue was damages, not including lost wages and medical treatment. The jury returned a unanimous verdict of "zero" damages. Plaintiff moved for a new trial and the judge denied the motion. This appeal followed. We affirm.

The evidence showed that when the bus driven by Brantley hit the bus in which plaintiff was riding, plaintiff was thrown forward and jostled from side to side. An ambulance transported plaintiff to the hospital, where she complained of pain to her abdomen, right side of her pelvis, and her back. She missed one and one-half weeks from her employment as a home health aide.

Plaintiff first sought treatment from her primary care physician, who prescribed medicine for pain and muscle spasms. Next, she received chiropractic treatments for about three months, due to her complaints of back pain, muscle spasms, and numbness in her right leg. In March 2010, she commenced treatment with Dr. Anil K. Sharma, board certified in both anesthesiology and pain management, who testified at the trial. He found that plaintiff had right-sided low back and hip pain with spasms in her groin, buttocks, and right hip, and numbness into her right leg. The radiologist who read plaintiff's MRI film found a bulging disc at L5-S1; Dr. Sharma interpreted the MRI film as showing a herniated disc. Dr. Sharma also found degenerative changes in plaintiff's lumbar facet joints as well as stenosis, which indicated arthritis. Dr. Sharma treated plaintiff with a series of epidural injections, lumbar nerve blocks, and radio frequency ablations.

As of November 24, 2010, Dr. Sharma concluded that plaintiff had reached the maximum benefit for treatment of her low back condition. In 2011, he continued to treat her for neck and upper extremity problems, which the doctor opined were unrelated to the accident. Dr. Sharma's final diagnosis was a herniated disc with lumbar radiculitis, which, in his opinion, was causally related to the June 16, 2009 accident.

Dr. David Wolkstein, an orthopedic surgeon who evaluated plaintiff in June 2011 on the recommendation of Dr. Sharma, also testified for plaintiff. Plaintiff's chief complaints to the doctor related to her upper extremities, but she did complain about pain radiating into her low back as well as headaches. He recommended acupuncture and suggested that plaintiff consider surgery for the herniated disc in her thoracic spine.

Defense expert, David J. Greifinger, an orthopedic surgeon, evaluated plaintiff in January 2011. He testified that plaintiff complained of intermittent pain in her lower back with pain, numbness, and tingling radiating from the thigh to the top of the foot. In Dr. Greifinger's opinion, plaintiff might have sustained a temporary injury in the accident, but her orthopedic complaints were not related to the accident. He found stenosis, arthritic changes, and bulging discs, all related to the aging process or "wear and tear." He pointed out that the x-rays taken the day of the accident showed arthritic bone spurs, which take years to develop, at both the thoracic and lumbar level.

Plaintiff testified that she had ongoing complaints of severe back pain and muscle spasms as well as the diminished ability to shop, clean, sit, walk fast, or bend her right leg. She reported that she stopped working three months before the trial because she was unable to walk due to her lower back problems. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that she also stopped working due to problems with her neck, shoulder, and arm, which Dr. Sharma testified were not related to the accident. She also admitted that she had applied for unemployment and certified that she was able to work, which she testified was false. She denied that prior to the accident she had been treated for neck, shoulder, and upper back problems despite being shown the ...

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