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Woodberry v. United States

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

July 16, 2015

ELIZABETH WOODBERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID C. NORTON, District Judge.

This matter is before the court following a bench trial held on April 28, 29, and 30, 2014. Based on the evidence presented and heard on those dates, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

1. Plaintiff Elizabeth Woodberry ("Woodberry") was 62 years old at the time of the trial and resides in Hemingway, SC. Tr. 86-87. She is divorced with two children, Tiffany and Harold. Id.

A. Motor Vehicle Accident

2. On August 10, 2009, Woodberry and her nine-year-old granddaughter were traveling on Highway 261 from Georgetown, SC to Hemingway, SC. Tr. 18, 97. Woodberry was going to her place of work, Prince George Health Care Center, to sign insurance documents. Tr. 97. It was daytime around 1:00 p.m. and the weather was clear when the accident occurred. Tr. 18, 37. At the relevant time, Woodberry was driving the speed limit, which is 55 miles per hour. Tr. 20, 102. Woodberry was driving an Acura. Tr. 98, 103.

3. Leslie Richardson ("Richardson"), a United States Postal Service employee, was driving in the opposite direction from Woodberry delivering mail. Tr. 19. Witness Lisa Klettke ("Klettke"), who does not know either Woodberry or Richardson, was behind Richardson driving in the same direction. Tr. 19. When Klettke first saw Richardson's car, Richardson was stopped at a mailbox and was halfway on and halfway off the road. Tr. 19. The mailbox was between two car lengths and 100 feet down Highway 261 from its intersection with Frank Cribb Road. Tr. 40, 46. Both Klettke and Woodberry saw Richardson, were aware that she was a mail carrier, and acknowledged the need to be cautious around mail vehicles. Tr. 28, 147, 152.

4. Klettke noticed Richardson looking at her lap, presumably at the mail she was delivering, and looking back up as she pulled back onto the road. Tr. 19, 28. When she pulled out into the road, Richardson was approximately one and a half car lengths ahead of Klettke, who was travelling 55 miles per hour. Tr. 23-24. Richardson then proceeded to attempt a left turn onto Frank Cribb Road without stopping or applying her brakes. Tr. 20, 23. Klettke does not recall seeing Richardson's turn signal, and no evidence was introduced that Richardson had her turn signal on. Tr. 24. While making the turn, Richardson's car struck Woodberry's car, which was passing the intersection traveling in the opposite direction. Tr. 20, 100. Woodberry did not have enough time or distance to stop or slow down in order avoid the collision. Tr. 20, 99-100, 151. There was no evidence of skid marks or gouge marks on the road. Tr. 47.

B. Medical History

5. Klettke indicated that Woodberry was "disoriented" and in a lot of pain following the collision. Tr. 24-25.

6. Woodberry was transported by ambulance to Georgetown Memorial Hospital. Tr. 104-05. When she arrived at Georgetown Memorial, Woodberry was still "in shock" and had pain in her right leg. Tr. 105. Additionally, Woodberry testified that she was hurting "[a]ll over" and that her "whole body was aching." Tr. 106. Woodberry had bruises on her side and lower back. Tr. 106.

7. The same day, Woodberry was transferred from Georgetown Memorial to the Medical University of South Carolina ("MUSC") by ambulance. Hartsock Dep. 9; Tr. 105-07. On arrival at MUSC, Woodberry was "out of it." Tr. 106. She was not able to rest and was on a lot of pain medication. Tr. 108.

8. At MUSC, Dr. Langdon Hartsock ("Dr. Hartsock"), a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, treated Woodberry. Hartsock Dep. 6-9. Dr. Hartsock diagnosed Woodberry with a tibial plateau fracture, which is a fracture of the upper part of the shin bone where it meets the knee joint. Hartsock Dep. 9. On August 13, 2009, Dr. Hartsock performed an open reduction and internal fixation of Woodberry's right tibial pleateau fracture. Tr. 9-10. He considered the surgery to be successful. Tr. 10. Woodberry was given oral analgesic medications for pain at discharge. Tr. 10.

9. After being discharged from MUSC, Woodberry was taken to Carolinas Hospital in Florence, SC for inpatient rehabilitation, where she remained for approximately three weeks. Tr. 108, 224. Following her discharge from Carolinas, Woodberry took narcotic pain medication. Tr. 113. However, she was still having problems sleeping at night due to pain. Tr. 113.

10. Soon after being discharged from Carolinas, Woodberry began going to physical therapy at Three Rivers Therapy Associates in Hemingway as prescribed by Dr. Hartsock. Tr. 113; Hartsock Dep. 12, 48. Woodberry was treated at Three Rivers by Dr. Stacy Lawrimore Howell ("Dr. Howell"), a physical therapist and co-owner of Three Rivers. Tr. 221-23. Dr. Howell first treated Woodberry on October 12, 2009. Tr. 224. At her first visit, Woodberry complained of intermittent pain in her right knee and rated the pain 10 out of 10. Tr. 225. Woodberry also experienced decreased range of motion with right knee flexion, decreased strength, and increased girth in her right knee. Tr. 225. Dr. Howell thought that Woodberry was being sincere with her efforts, Tr. 228, and indicated that Woodberry was compliant with treatment and came to all or most of her appointments. Tr. 227. During this initial course of treatment, Dr. Howell saw Woodberry 65 times. Tr. 227. When Woodberry was discharged on July 7, 2010, her range of motion was within normal limits for right knee extension, but not knee flexion, her pain rating was 5 out of 10, and she had increased strength in her knee. Tr. 227-30. Woodberry indicated that physical therapy helped. Tr. 114.

11. Following her initial visit to MUSC, Woodberry had several outpatient visits with Dr. Hartsock. Tr. 114. At these appointments Woodberry would often see a nurse practitioner, but Dr. Hartsock reviewed the notes and saw her at least briefly at each appointment. Hartsock Dep. 46. In the early visits, Dr. Hartsock noted that Woodberry's fracture was healing, she was recovering normally, and her strength was getting better, although she continued to complain of pain at the fracture site. Hartsock Dep. 12-15, 52, 55. In the fall of 2010, Woodberry could not stand on her right leg because she was having very sharp pain. Tr. 115. During an August 12, 2010 visit, Woodberry and Dr. Hartsock decided to remove the hardware from her initial surgery because of the continued pain. Hartsock Dep. 24. On October 18, 2010, Dr. Hartsock surgically removed the hardware from her knee. Hartsock Dep. 25. Dr. Hartsock indicated that the procedure went well and that there were no complications. Hartsock Dep. 26, 63-64. Woodberry testified that removing the hardware helped relieve her pain. Tr. 115.

12. Following the removal of the hardware, Dr. Hartsock diagnosed Woodberry with posttraumatic osteoarthritis of the knee. Hartsock Dep. 27. Dr. Hartsock indicated that posttraumatic arthritis is painful and causes stiffness, a limp, and a decreased ability to function. Hartsock Dep. 65. Dr. Hartsock also noted some irregularity of the joint surface and a very mild varus alignment, meaning that Woodberry was slightly bowlegged. Hartsock Dep. 27. When Woodberry's knee continued giving her problems, Dr. Hartsock informed her that she could consider an injection or knee replacement surgery. Hartsock Dep. 28-29. On May 8, 2012, Woodberry continued to have pain in her knee. Hartsock Dep. 30. Dr. Hartsock diagnosed patellofemoral crepitation-grinding between the kneecap and thighbone-and posttraumatic arthritis. Hartsock Dep. 30-31. At that visit, Dr. Hartsock administered a cortisone injection. Hartsock Dep. 31, 71. Woodberry testified that the injection "helped a little" and provided between three and four weeks of relief. Tr. 119. Woodberry last saw Dr. Hartsock in May 2012. Hartsock Dep. 31-32.

13. Since the accident, Woodberry has continued to see her primary care physician, Dr. Kenneth M. Faile ("Dr. Faile"). Tr. 109. Dr. Faile has treated Woodberry for anxiety, inflammation, pain, and not being able to sleep. Tr. 109-10. Woodberry indicated (and medical records show) that Dr. Faile started giving Woodberry prescriptions for pain as early as September 2009. Tr. 194; Def.'s Ex. 28.

14. On April 15, 2013, Woodberry began another round of physical therapy at Three Rivers, which Dr. Faile prescribed. Tr. 230-31. Woodberry still could not put much pressure on her right leg. Tr. 231. Woodberry rated her right knee pain as 9 out of 10 and had decreased active range of motion with right knee flexion. Tr. 233. Dr. Howell saw Woodberry twice a week for four weeks, during which time Woodberry was again compliant and put forth sincere effort. Tr. 233-34. Woodberry was discharged from the second round of physical therapy on May 22, 2013. Tr. 235. On discharge, she had decreased pain in her right knee (6 out of 10), decreased swelling, and no significant change in range of motion. Tr. 235. Dr. Howell believed both the first and second rounds of physical therapy to be medically necessary. Tr. 230, 235. Woodberry indicated that the second round of physical therapy also helped. Tr. 125.

15. Woodberry testified to having a variety of medical conditions prior to the accident, including heartburn/gastritis, high blood pressure, issues with stress, chest pain, and sinusitis. Tr. 174-76, 180; see also Def.'s Ex. 28. When she was busy at work she would occasionally get light-headed and dizzy and nurses would sit down and check her blood pressure. Tr. 177.

C. Activities of Daily Living

16. By all accounts, Woodberry worked and had an active lifestyle before the accident. Tr. 62. She is now unable to do many things she used to be able to do. Tr. 73.

17. Woodberry has an extensive work history, including her most recent job as a certified nursing assistant ("CNA") at Prince George beginning in 2006. Tr. 90. As a CNA, Woodberry helped bathe, clean, and change the clothes of sick and elderly people, among other things. Tr. 91. It was physically demanding work, and included lifting patients and helping them walk. Tr. 91. Woodberry "loved" being a CNA and would often work overtime. Tr. 91-92. Woodberry's testimony was somewhat unclear, but it appears that she generally worked between 46 and 56 hours per week. Tr. 170-71. Woodberry was financially independent during the time she worked at Prince George. Tr. 92. Woodberry indicated that her intention was to work as a CNA until she was 70 years old, although she admitted that she did not know if she could handle working that long. Tr. 96, 167. Since the accident, Woodberry has not been able to return to work as a CNA. Tr. 280. She cannot pay her own bills and has had to get money from her daughter and son. Tr. 123.

18. Woodberry has been limited in other ways since the accident. Woodberry and her older sister Ivanell Sumpter ("Sumpter") would go to dinner and movies, go on walks, and take long trips prior to the accident. Tr. 60-61, 92. Since the accident, they no longer take trips together, go to movies, or go on walks. Tr. 77. Woodberry also enjoyed planting a garden with a friend prior to the accident, but can no longer do so. Tr. 93, 120. While Woodberry used to wear dresses, skirts, and high heels, she no longer does because of the scar on her leg. Tr. 93, 120, 126; see Pl.'s Ex. 10.

19. Sumpter testified that following the accident, Woodberry was unable to do housework that she could do before the accident. Tr. 68. Sumpter would come many mornings to help Woodberry do things she could not do and other family members would also come help. Tr. 66, 69. However, Sumpter noted that she has not been to Woodberry's house to provide assistance "for a while." Tr. 74. Following the accident, Woodberry was not able to drive because of the pain in her legs and Sumpter or other family members would provide transportation, including to her physical therapy appointments. Tr. 71-72, 75-76. Woodberry had to walk with a cane after the accident and still does at times, depending on how she feels. Tr. 126.

20. Woodberry is able to do more now than she could immediately following the accident. Tr. 127. She can cook, wash dishes, do laundry, and clean her house, except for chores that require her to get on her knees. Tr. 83, 127-28. However, while doing her chores, Woodberry sometimes has to take a break if her leg starts bothering her. Tr. 128. Woodberry also took care of her granddaughers who lived with her at some point after the accident. Tr. 208. Woodberry can now drive herself, at least some of the time. Tr. 79.

II. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

A. Liability

1. The United States is the proper defendant in this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 1346(b) and the Federal Tort Claims Act ...


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