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Collier v. Bronson

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 20, 2017




         A bench trial was held and testimony was taken and other evidence was received in this matter on December 6, 2016. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that Plaintiff should be awarded a total of $50, 000.00 in compensatory damages on her negligence claim, but that judgment should be entered in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff's wantonness claim.


         This action arises from an automobile accident that occurred on May 10, 2014, in Baldwin County, Alabama, on Orange Beach Boulevard at its intersection with Marina Road. It is undisputed that Plaintiff Robin Collier was sitting in her car, stopped in the southbound lane at the Marina Road traffic light when a southbound vehicle driven by Defendant Charelle Bronson collided with the rear of Plaintiff's vehicle. As a result of the accident both vehicles were declared total losses and Plaintiff claims she suffered permanent physical and emotional injuries.

         The Defendant Charelle Bronson testified at trial that she was in Alabama on vacation with friends at the time of the accident. Bronson had driven to Alabama the day before and had been up late the night before the accident. According to Bronson, on the day of the accident she was the designated driver and she did not have anything to drink that day. Bronson and three friends were listening to music in the car and the music selection was coming from Bronson's phone as she was driving down Orange Beach Boulevard. Bronson testified that she did not see Plaintiff's car in front of her until she was three or four car lengths from Plaintiff's car. Bronson reports that the person in the front passenger seat wanted to change the song they were listening to and asked Bronson for her password to unlock her phone and change the music. According to Bronson, she turned her head in the direction of the passenger and told her friend the password and when she turned back toward the road she saw Plaintiff's car, but it was too late to avoid it. Bronson testified at her deposition that she could not have been going much over 45 mph, but at trial she admits that she is not sure how fast she was going and she concedes that she was distracted by her friend asking for the password to unlock her cell phone. Bronson maintains that her friend had Bronson's cell phone at the time of the accident.

         There was evidence presented regarding cell phone records from Bronson's phone on the day of the accident but there was some confusion regarding whether the times stated in the records were accurate due to the records listing the times under the heading “Conn. Time (UTC).” (P. Ex. 25). Counsel had assumed that the times listed were listed as the local, Central Standard times. However, when questioned about the heading on the records, counsel was unsure, and though counsel later stated that he still understood the times to be the same as local time, the Court is not persuaded[1]. Even if counsel was correct that the records showed the local central standard time, the Court finds that the records and Bronson's responses to questions regarding her phone use did not show that she was using the phone at the time of the accident. The most that the records demonstrated (if the times listed were the same as local time) was that calls were made to Bronson's phone around that time. There was no evidence that Bronson had placed a phone call or had answered a phone call or texted anyone around the same time as the accident.

         After the accident, police officers arrived. They talked to Bronson but reportedly did not charge her with having committed any offense and did not test her for alcohol or even ask her if she had been drinking. One of Bronson's friends was passed out in the back seat of Bronson's car.

         Carol Ewing testified that she witnessed the accident. Ewing testified that the day of the accident was a beautiful day and that it was not dark yet when the accident occurred. Ewing was travelling North on Orange Beach Boulevard when she reports she saw Bronson's car traveling very fast - at least 60 mph. According to Ewing, she was “back a ways” from the intersection and heading in the opposite direction when she saw Bronson's car coming over the hill or rise in the distance. When she saw Bronson's car she reports that she immediately knew there was going to be an accident, so she pulled to the side, into the turn lane and stopped her car. Ewing was stopped south of the accident and immediately after the accident she moved her car farther to the north - closer to where Plaintiff' Robin Collier's car ended up after the accident occurred. Collier's car travelled south across the Marina Road intersection when it was hit by Bronson's car. Ewing got out of her car and checked on the people in both cars involved in the accident. According to Ewing, Bronson and her friends were searching for Bronson's phone and Bronson had slurred speech and appeared impaired. Ewing reported that Bronson said the phone flew out of her hand.

         Plaintiff's husband, John Collier, testified at trial. Mr. Collier took a video of the view someone driving south on Orange Beach Boulevard would have as they approached the Marina Road intersection. In the video he estimates he was going about 45 miles per hour and it took approximately 14 seconds to go the distance from the hill or rise to where the collision occurred.

         Plaintiff Robin Collier testified that she was nauseated and had a bruise on her forehead but she did not see a doctor or go to the hospital the day of the accident. The next morning she had a headache and was sore. That day while she was driving with her daughter, Plaintiff started experiencing problems and her daughter insisted she go to the hospital. Plaintiff started repeating things she had said just moments before, had trouble with numbers and seemed to be having mental issues of some kind. Plaintiff complained of stiffness in her neck and said she had a headache. At the hospital they performed a CT scan but they did not find anything wrong and told her to see an orthopedic physician if she kept hurting. She went to go see her general practitioner, Dr. Ross Bishop, to get a referral to a physical therapist. She also went to see an orthopedist, Dr. Harcourt, on May 23rdand again on June 4 because of her neck pain and pain down her arm. On August 8, 2014 Dr. Harcourt told Plaintiff that her MRI showed that the accident had aggravated her underlying degenerative cervical spine. Plaintiff's spine had not bothered her before and she did not know until then that she had a degenerative cervical spine. Plaintiff saw Dr. Harcourt a total of 4 times, but did not go back to him after that because she did not think he was going to be able to do anything to help her condition. Plaintiff went to see Dr. Ross Bishop on August 19, 2014 to get a referral to try acupuncture. She continued to be treated with acupuncture and also started getting massages regularly. She still gets a massage every two weeks. Plaintiff went to see a neurologist, Dr. Kasmia in October 2014. Dr. Kasmia's notes indicate that Plaintiff was working full time without any difficulties and that she had developed headaches after the accident, but that they have improved almost back to base line. Plaintiff never went back to Dr. Kasmia.

         Plaintiff works as a hairdresser and has her own shop. She is 55 years old as of January 2017 and has worked for 20 years to build her clientele to about 125 customers. She usually works four or five days a week. She has not missed any days of work, but after the accident she would be tired and sore at the end of the day and especially at the end of the week. As a hairdresser she has to hold her arms up all the time. She puts ice on her shoulders every night. When she sleeps on her side she experiences pain and her fingers go to sleep, but she has learned to adjust her arm to alleviate the problem. She has also learned to do stretches that relieve the pain and tension. Plaintiff testified that the memory of the wreck still affects her. She remembers the blood-curdling scream of her daughter, Molly Harbison, right after the impact. However she never pursued any kind of treatment for emotional problems and did not go to a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or other mental health specialist. She occasionally took Tramadol for pain, but that made her feel disoriented or lightheaded and she stopped using it. Now she takes Mobic in the mornings and sometimes substitutes with ibuprofen because that is not as hard on her stomach. Plaintiff also takes the muscle relaxer Flexeril three or four times a week. Plaintiff sees Dr. Ross Bishop every three months to get her prescriptions for Flexeril and Mobic.

         Plaintiff's husband testified that after the accident, Plaintiff was sometimes very emotional and would have flashbacks of the accident. He said Plaintiff would often repeat statements she made a few days or a couple hours earlier. He reported that she was in physical pain from her neck and her back and took medications for pain and also used heating pads and ice packs. He said they have tried to exercise or go hiking together, but she always had to stop. As a result they were not as active as they used to be.

         Plaintiff's daughter, Molly Harbison, testified that Plaintiff is still easily upset and sometimes “almost a little bit confused.” Harbison reported that Plaintiff is exhausted and in pain after a workday from holding her arms up to cut and blow dry hair and standing on her feet all day. Before she could do that and now it is very difficult. Harbison testified that she used to exercise with her mother when she would come home - they would run circuits - and they do not do that anymore. Harbison said her mother is generally not as lively or robust as she used to be.

         Plaintiff testified that the pain she experiences does not prevent her from doing anything she used to do. She has resumed all the activities she used to do and is even trying to start back jogging. She still does the same activities, just not as frequently and she experiences pain and soreness depending on her workload and activities. She now has someone come to her ...

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