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Rodriguez v. Spenner

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 21, 2018

SUSANA RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CYNTHIA MARIE SPENNER, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Duane E. Hoffmeyer, Judge.

         Susana Rodriguez appeals from an adverse judgment in her personal-injury suit against Cynthia Spenner. AFFIRMED.

          Robert D. Tiefenthaler of Tiefenthaler Law Office, PC, Sioux City, for appellant.

          Patrick L. Sealey and Jacob V. Kline of Heidman Law Firm, PLLC, Sioux City, for appellee.

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Vogel and Tabor, JJ.


         Susana Rodriguez's vehicle was struck from behind by Cynthia Spenner's vehicle at an intersection. Rodriguez filed this personal-injury action claiming Spenner was negligent and caused Rodriguez injuries. Rodriguez appeals from an adverse judgment, claiming the district court erred in instructing the jury and in denying her motion for new trial.

         We review challenges to jury instructions for the correction of errors at law. Sleeth v. Louvar, 659 N.W.2d 210, 213 (Iowa 2003). Our review of a district court's ruling on a motion for new trial depends upon the grounds raised in the motion. Bryant v. Parr, 872 N.W.2d 366, 375 (Iowa 2015). If the motion for new trial was based upon a discretionary ground, we review the court's ruling for an abuse of discretion. Clinton Physical Therapy Servs., P.C. v. John Deere Health Care, Inc., 714 N.W.2d 603, 609 (Iowa 2006).

         Jury Instructions. Rodriguez objected to the trial court giving a proposed jury instruction on pre-existing conditions.[1] In the alternative, Rodriguez proposed this modified instruction:

If you find Plaintiff [Rodriguez] had a pre-existing condition before this collision and this condition was aggravated or made active by this collision causing further suffering and/or disability then she is entitled to recover damages caused by the aggravation. She is not entitled to recover for any physical ailment or disability which existed before this incident or for any injuries or damages which she now has which were not caused by the defendant's actions.

         However, if you determine that any pre-existing condition was asymptomatic before the collision, then you should refer to [proposed] Instruction No. 18 [Previous Infirm Condition Instruction].

         The trial court overruled Rodriguez's objection to Instruction No. 25 and denied the request for the modified instruction.

         We must address whether there is sufficient evidence of a preexisting condition to warrant the instruction. "When we weigh the sufficiency of the evidence to support a requested instruction, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the party seeking the instruction." Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Thermogas Co., 620 N.W.2d 819, 824 (Iowa 2000).

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Spenner, who sought the instruction, the jury could have found the following. On May 22, 2013, Rodriguez (in front) and Spenner (behind Rodriguez) were stopped at a traffic light. The two vehicles began to move forward, Rodriguez stopped her vehicle, and Spenner's right front bumper came in contact with Rodriguez's left rear bumper. At the time the vehicles came in contact, Spenner had not applied the gas pedal and was traveling less than five miles per hour. Rodriguez was wearing her seatbelt, airbags did not deploy, and no part of her body came into contact with any part of her car. Neither vehicle showed visible damage, and neither vehicle was repaired after the incident. Rodriguez alleged the incident caused damage to her neck and left shoulder and ultimately resulted in the necessity for two surgeries.

         Rodriguez's medical records, however, indicate she suffered migraines dating back to 1986, neck pain dating back to 1987, shoulder pain dating back to 1998, and hand pain and numbness dating back to 2002. Spenner's counsel elicited testimony that while Rodriguez did not seek regular medical treatment for these conditions from 2009 to 2013, she did have multiple musculoskeletal problems which required visits to a doctor, including an issue with tingling and numbness in her hand. There was also evidence that Rodriguez avoided medical treatment due to financial concerns. Rodriguez's medical records include two magnetic resonance imagings (MRIs) read by different radiologists. The radiologist from the 2009 MRI described the findings as indicating "moderate bilateral neuroforaminal stenosis" ("the narrowing of the holes where the nerves come out"). The radiologist from the 2013 MRI described "the disk protrusion causes moderate to severe left foraminal stenosis." Dr. Johnson stated the only difference between the two MRI studies "might be if you really ...

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