Sherry Berry v. Allstate Insurance Company
OPINION filed: AFFIRMED, decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 206. Raymond M. Kethledge, Circuit Judge; Jane Branstetter Stranch, (delivered a separate dissent) Circuit Judge and James S. Gwin, (authoring) U.S. District Judge for the Nothern District of OH.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 12a0175n.06
Feb 13, 2012
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
ALLSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY,
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF
Before: KETHLEDGE and STRANCH, Circuit Judges; GWIN, District Judge.*
GWIN, District Judge. Sherry Berry, a Michigan citizen, appeals a district court order
denying her motion for a new trial in a diversity breach of contract action that she filed against her
automobile insurance company. She argues that the district court erred when it allowed the
defendant to offer opinion evidence of a board certified neurologist. That neurologist gave opinion
testimony that Berry’s preexisting hypertension caused cerebral hemorrhage and that Berry’s
automobile collision did not cause her hemorrhage. Berry also argues that the district court erred
during instructions to the jury and erred in allowing live testimony from a witness who defendant
originally said would be presented through a deposition. For the reasons described below, we affirm.
On December 8, 2006, Berry was involved in a motor vehicle accident when her car struck
a car parked on the side of the road. She was taken to the hospital, where she was treated for a cut
lip, a laceration to her hand, and a cerebral hemorrhage. Berry sued her insurance carrier to recover
The Honorable James S. Gwin, United States District Judge for the Northern District of
Ohio, sitting by designation.
-2the medical costs and resultant damages from the cerebral hemorrhage. With her case, she claimed
that her head injury resulted when she struck her head on the windshield of her car during the
accident. Berry made this claim even though her main problem was a thalamus-area bleed in one
of the brain’s deepest structures. In contrast to Berry’s argument that the accident caused the center
brain bleeding, the defendant said that the brain hemorrhage resulted from a preexisting hypertensive
condition and the accident followed–and did not create–this condition.
Berry moved the court to stop defendant from presenting any expert testimony on the issue
of whether she suffered from high blood pressure prior to the accident. The district court denied the
motion. Berry also moved to preclude the use of depositions of the medical experts in lieu of live
testimony. The district court denied the motion, but ruled that the depositions could only be used
if the witnesses were shown to be unavailable. At trial, the defense presented a neurologist who gave
the opinion that Berry suffered a spontaneous intracerebral hemorrhage, and this hemorrhage caused
her to wreck her car. It argued that Berry’s damages did not arise out of the use of her automobile,
and that she could not recover damages under Michigan No-Fault Act. The jury found for the
defendant. Berry’s motion for a new trial was denied, and this appeal followed.
Berry now argues that the district court erred in allowing the defense to present opinion
testimony that she suffered from hypertension before the accident; rejecting her proposed jury
instructions; allowing the defense to depose two witnesses who later testified at trial; and denying
her motion for a new trial where the jury’s verdict was arguably inconsistent and against the weight
of the evidence.
We review a district court’s decision to admit expert testimony for an abuse of discretion.
Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999). Berry argues that the district court failed
to fulfill its function of determining whether the defense experts’ testimony rested on a reliable
foundation and whether their reasoning was scientifically valid. See Kentucky Speedway, LLC v.
Nat’l Ass’n of Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 588 F.3d 908, 915 (6th Cir. 2009). Contrary to Berry’s
-3argument, the expert testimony that she suffered from hypertension prior to the accident was
sufficiently based on evidence. Defendant showed that the expert testimony was sufficiently relevant
and sufficiently reliable. Although Berry had never been diagnosed with or treated for hypertension,
she did have two blood pressure readings, taken by her treating physician, of 146/92 in 2005 and
140/90 in 2006. Also, the defendant offered post-accident evidence showing that Berry exhibited
indications of white matter disease. Testimony supported that white matter disease is most likely
due to chronic hypertension.
Further, Berry admitted that she had a headache prior to the accident and could not explain
why she was on the street where the accident occurred. Therefore, sufficient evidence supported the
experts’ testimony that Berry likely suffered from hypertension before the accident. Although Berry
gave evidence that a collision could cause the bleed to the deep brain thalamus area, other evidence
suggested that “her hemorrhage is not in the classic location for a traumatic type of hemorrhage.”
Berry did not show that the experts’ methodology was in any way unscientific or unreliable.
Therefore, no abuse of discretion in the district court’s evidentiary ruling has been established.
Berry next argues that the district court erred in rejecting her proposed jury instructions.
While we review the rejection of a proposed jury instruction for an abuse of discretion, Hisrich v.
Volvo Cars of N. Am., Inc., 226 F.3d 445, 449 (6th Cir. 2000), we review the correctness of the jury
instructions de novo. Jones v. Federated Fin. Reserve Corp., 144 F.3d 961, 966 (6th Cir. 1998).
Berry relies on Scott v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 751 N.W.2d 51, 56 (Mich. App.
2008), for the proposition that she was not required to exclude other possible causes of her damages
in order to recover. In Scott, the plaintiff presented testimony showing how the accident contributed
to her medical problems. Id. Here, plaintiff's expert was unable to explain how—if the jury believed
that the hemorrhage preceded the accident—the accident could have worsened Berry's hemorrhage.
Berry, whose case rested on the theory that she did not have a preexisting condition, failed to
“present substantial evidence from which [the] jury” could conclude that the accident merely
-4contributed to, rather than caused, her injury. Meemic Ins. Co. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 717 F.Supp
2d 752, 769 (E.D. Mich. 2010) (applying Michigan state-law) (emphasis in original). Berry’s expert
did, at one point, comment that “[the hemorrhage] could also certainly be made significantly worse,”
by the accident. But to “rely on alternative theories of causation,” a plaintiff “must support each
theory with admissible evidence, and may not rely on conjecture or speculation.” Walk v. Baker
Coll. of Auburn Hills, No. 299925, 2011 WL 5555828, at *5 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2011) (citing
Skinner v. Square D. Co., 516 N.W.2d 475, 480 (Mich. 1994)). Thus, while Berry was not required
to exclude all other possible causes, she did not present sufficient evidence to support an alternative
Furthermore, in Nowyorkas v. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., No. 168726, 1996 WL 33681826
(Mich. App. May 24, 1996), the Michigan appellate court held that injuries that cannot be attributed
to a single identifiable event are excluded from coverage under the Michigan No Fault Act. Berry’s
remaining challenges to the jury instructions involve the instructions as to the amount of damages.
But given the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant, any issue with the damage instructions does
not matter. Therefore, we find no abuse of discretion in the district court’s rulings.
Berry also argues that the district court should not have allowed the defendant to depose two
of its expert witnesses before trial for possible use at trial. These defense expert witnesses ultimately
did testify at trial. Berry offers the novel argument that the depositions unfairly allowed the
witnesses to better prepare for cross-examination and precluded the jury from observing the
unprepared cross-examination at the depositions. She cites Allgeier v. United States, 909 F.2d 869
(6th Cir. 1990), for the proposition that the proponent of a deposition must establish that the witness
is unavailable. However, Berry earlier asked to stop the use of depositions in lieu of live testimony.
But after these expert witnesses did testify at trial, Berry now complains that the earlier depositions
allowed the experts to better prepare. She cites no authority for the argument that the depositions
should have been prohibited to prevent the witnesses from learning her trial strategy.
-5Finally, citing Anchor v. O’Toole, 94 F.3d 1014, 1021 (6th Cir. 1996), Berry argues that she
was entitled to a new trial because the jury’s decision to award no damages was not one it could have
reasonably reached. We review the denial of a motion for a new trial for an abuse of discretion.
Nolan v. Memphis City Sch., 589 F.3d 257, 264 (6th Cir. 2009). Here, Berry’s argument is
contradicted by her attorney’s concession that the jury could have concluded that only her lip and
hand injuries were caused by the accident, and that damages for those injuries were not at issue.
Because the verdict reached in this case was reasonable, the district court did not abuse its discretion
in denying Berry’s motion for a new trial. See J.C. Wyckoff & Assoc. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 936
F.2d 1474, 1487 (6th Cir. 1991).
For all of the above reasons, the district court’s judgment is affirmed.
-6JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge, dissenting. I respectfully dissent because I believe
the district court erred in rejecting two of Berry’s proposed jury instructions. One of these
instructions came directly from a recent Michigan Supreme Court case while the other accurately
reflects Michigan law and was crucial to Berry’s alternative argument that her brain injury was
exacerbated by the accident. Accordingly, I would hold Berry is entitled to a new trial at which
these instructions should be given.
The Michigan No-Fault Act requires insurers to pay benefits to the insured “for accidental
bodily injury arising out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a
motor vehicle.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 500.3105(1). The term “arising out of” is not defined in the
statute. Consistent with the statute, the trial court instructed the jury that the plaintiff had the burden
of proof to show that her “injuries arose out of the operation of a motor vehicle.” Berry requested
the following as part of the causation instruction:
In order to recover no-fault benefits from her insurance company, Plaintiff is not
required to establish direct or proximate causation. Almost any causal connection
will do. Plaintiff is not required to exclude other possible causes of her problems in
order to recover against Defendant.
She also requested the following instruction on apportionment of damages for preexisting injuries,
which is a modified version of Mich. Model Civ. Jury Instr. 50.11:
If an injury suffered by Ms. Berry is a combined product of both a preexisting
condition and the effects of the automobile accident, it is your duty to determine and
award damages caused by the accident alone. You must separate the damages caused
by the accident from the condition which was preexisting if it is possible to do so.
However, if after careful consideration, you are unable to separate the damages
caused by the accident from those which were preexisting, then the entire amount of
plaintiff's damages must be assessed against the defendant.
-7Both instructions were denied. Berry argues that these denials were erroneous and prejudicial
because they (1) allowed the insurance company to impose a higher standard of causation (that of
a single, sole cause) and (2) prevented the jury from finding that, even if she had a brain hemorrhage
just before the accident, the accident exacerbated this preexisting injury. Instead, the jury had to
make an “all or nothing” decision that the crash either caused the hemorrhage or it did not.
The majority opinion first rejects Berry’s citation to Scott v. State Farm Mutual Automotive
Insurance Co., 751 N.W.2d 51 (Mich. Ct. App. 2008), vacated in part, 758 N.W.2d 249 (Mich.
2008), aff’d on reh’g, 766 N.W.2d 273 (Mich. 2009):
In Scott, the plaintiff presented testimony showing how the accident contributed to
her medical problems. Id. Here, plaintiff’s expert was unable to explain how—if the
jury believed that the hemorrhage preceded the accident—the accident could have
worsened Berry’s hemorrhage.
This is at odds with the record. Berry’s expert testified:
[The hemorrhage] could certainly occur with the type of force that was delivered. It
could also certainly be made significantly worse with the significant jostling of the
brain due to the force delivered, as well as the concurrent rise in blood pressure due
to the accident and her emotional reaction to it.
The expert further testified that a subsequent head injury can have an effect that is
“synergistic rather than just additive,” using as an example the fact that an NFL quarterback had been
held out of a game after sustaining a head injury in an earlier game. During closing arguments,
Berry’s attorney reminded the jury that her expert testified, “the accident caused the intracranial
bleed. If it didn’t, it made it worse.” Although it is clear from the record that Berry’s argument and
her expert’s testimony was primarily based on the theory that the accident completely caused her
injury, it is equally clear that evidence of the alternative theory of exacerbation was also presented
-8to the jury. See Robelin v. Spectrum Health Hosp., 791 N.W.2d 466, 469 (Mich. 2010) (stating that
“evidence” includes “expert testimony”); Walk v. Baker Coll. of Auburn Hills, No. 299925, 2011 WL
5555828, at *5 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 15, 2011) (citing Skinner v. Square D Co, 516 N.W.2d 475
(Mich. 1994)) (permitting “alternative theories of causation” if supported by evidence).
The majority opinion cites only one case which actually purports to support its conclusion
on this issue, Nowyorkas v. Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., No. 168726, 1996 WL 33681826
(Mich. Ct. App. May 24, 1996). Nowyorkas, which is unpublished and has never been cited by a
Michigan state court, itself cites only one case as support for its holding that “an injury which could
not be attributed to a single identifiable event was excluded from coverage under the no-fault act.”
Id. at *1 (citing Williams v. Detroit Auto. Inter-Ins. Exch., 425 N.W.2d 534 (Mich. Ct. App. 1988)).
Taking another step back to the decision cited in Williams for this proposition, we learn that the term
“single identifiable event” is intended to distinguish an injury resulting from an accident from
injuries arising “from a series of events spanning many years”—in that case a chronic back injury
sustained by nineteen years of truck driving— and does so primarily because the No Fault Act
frequently uses the term “accident.” Wheeler v. Tucker Freight Lines Co., Inc., 336 N.W.2d 14, 16
(Mich. Ct. App. 1983). Williams did not turn on this distinction because, although there was a car
accident, the plaintiff’s own doctor attributed the claimed injury to an earlier work injury rather than
the accident. 425 N.W.2d at 536. Here, as Berry observes, there is a single identifiable event to
which the injury (or at least its exacerbation) could be attributed, the car accident, to which Berry’s
doctor attributed all or part of the injury.
-9In their briefs, both parties cited several more recent and relevant cases, including decisions
by the Michigan Supreme Court which address these issues. Most beneficially for Berry, the
Michigan Supreme Court used language very similar to that of the first proposed jury instruction
quoted above when discussing “the causal nexus required in a no-fault case involving injury”:
[E]vidence establishing almost any causal connection will suffice when it is more
than merely fortuitous, incidental, or but for. But it need not be much more; almost
any causal connection or relationship will do.
Scott v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 766 N.W.2d 273, 275 (Mich. 2009) (Kelly, C.J., concurring).
This decision vacated the court’s earlier reversal of Scott.1 It upheld the determination of the
Michigan Court of Appeals that there was a question of fact as to whether a plaintiff could recover
no-fault insurance coverage for her cholesterol medication under the “somewhat attenuated” theory
that a previous car accident a decade earlier caused her high-cholesterol problem by preventing her
from exercising and eating properly. Scott, 751 N.W.2d at 56. The court reached this conclusion
despite the fact that “a genetic predisposition to [the condition] is apparently present” because “there
is no authority that, for purposes of personal protection insurance, a plaintiff must exclude other
possible causes.” Id.; see also In re Estate of Favazza, No. 294705, 2011 WL 566830, at *3 (Mich.
Ct. App. Feb. 17, 2011) (citing Scott for proposition that “[t]he motor vehicle accident need only be
one of the causes of the injury, as there may be other independent causes.”). Exacerbation of an
existing hemorrhage by hitting one’s head on a windshield is surely less attenuated causation than
the alleged cause of injury in Scott.
Allstate relies heavily on the first, vacated Michigan Supreme Court decision without
accounting for its reversal. This is improper and undercuts Allstate’s analysis as it is the second
supreme court decision, and the reinstated court of appeals opinion, that govern this case.
- 10 Under Michigan law, “[i]f an instruction is applicable to the case, accurately states the law,
and was requested, the trial court must give it.” Whitman v. City of Burton, — N.W.2d —, No.
294703, 2011 WL 2622315 (Mich. Ct. App. July 5, 2011) (citing Lewis v. LeGrow, 670 N.W.2d 675
(Mich. Ct. App. 2003)). I believe the first instruction meets these criteria because causation was a
significant issue in the case, the language came directly from a published decision which had recently
been upheld by the state high court, and it was requested.
As to the second rejected instruction, Mich. Model Civ. Jury Instr. 50.11 allows juries to
apportion damages when “an injury suffered by plaintiff is a combined product of both a preexisting
[disease/injury/state of heath] and the effects of defendant’s negligent conduct.” If a jury is unable
to separate the damages, the entire amount must be assessed against the defendant. A recent
unpublished decision held that this “instruction is a negligence instruction that simply does not apply
in first party, no-fault insurance litigation.” Chalko v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., No. 278215,
2009 WL 2003320, at *3 (Mich. Ct. App. July 9, 2009). However, the court made clear that the
plaintiff had requested only an unmodified version of the instruction and “did not in any way
preserve the notion that this standard instruction should be modified.” Id. This suggests that a
modified instruction to account for the no-fault circumstances, such as Berry’s, might have been
A lengthy dissent in Chalko argued that some type of pre-existing injury instruction was
required because “[i]t is clear that first party no-fault insurance does provide for coverage for
services that result from a combination of conditions so long as one of those conditions is an auto
accident injury.” Id. at *7 (Shapiro, J., dissenting) (citing Morales v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.,
- 11 761 N.W.2d 454 (2008)).2 Judge Shapiro observed that “M Civ JI 50.11 is not in the ‘negligence’
section of the model jury instructions, but instead in the ‘damages’ section and so can be readily
adapted to non-negligence cases.” Id. at *6. He also noted that, like Berry, the plaintiff offered
evidence of a much stronger causal connection than in Scott. Id. at *8. As a result of these concerns,
a mere “arising out of” instruction without an instruction accounting for a “combination” injury
constituted reversible error because “it resulted in a failure to ‘adequately and fairly’ present ‘the
theories of the parties and the applicable law.’” Id. at *7, 9 (quoting Case v. Consumers Power Co.,
651 N.W.2d 17, 19 (Mich. 2000)); see also Kelmendi v. Citizens Ins. Co. of Am., No. 264019, 2007
WL 419786, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2007) (stating that combination injury instruction, such
as Mich. Model Civ. Jury Instr. 50.11, “may have been useful to instruct the jury on how to evaluate
[a] plaintiff's claim alleging aggravation of his pre-existing injuries” in a no-fault case).
Under Michigan law, jury instructions “should not omit material issues, defenses, or theories
if the evidence supports them.” Whitman, — N.W.2d at —, 2011 WL 2622315 (quoting Case, 615
N.W.2d at 19). Without the requested modified 50.11 instruction (or the one discussed above),
Berry’s alternative theory of exacerbation was entirely omitted from the jury instructions, leaving
the jury without any explanation as to what “arising out of” means. Although this instruction may
have related more to damages than causation, it would have nonetheless made clear to the jury that
apportioned damages—and thus exacerbation of injury—was a viable option for its verdict. See
In Morales, the court held that the jury was properly allowed to consider whether the
plaintiff’s preexisting condition became disabling after, or because of, a car accident in a no-fault
insurance action. 761 N.W.2d at 465. The court did not consider the adequacy of the jury
instructions because the plaintiff prevailed and the defendant assented to the instructions given. Id.
- 12 Chalko, 2009 WL 2003320, at *6 (quoting Case, 615 N.W.2d at 19) (noting appellate courts review
instructions “as a whole”).
For the reasons above, I believe the district court committed reversible error in denying
Berry’s proposed jury instructions and I would grant a new trial.
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