Plaintiff's attorneys spent most of Wednesday trying to convince a jury that a woman’s two neck surgeries were a direct result of a fatal crash that happened five years ago, while the defense countered that the surgeries were bound to happen given her condition.
Anna Mitchell, an Aladdin woman, is suing Powder River Transportation for punitive damages for chronic injuries she continues to live with after the crash.
Dr. Demian Yakel, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Casper, said an MRI done on Mitchell 10 months after the crash showed that the tissue around her spinal cord had not completely healed.
Yakel said that during the bus crash, Mitchell suffered a “whiplash injury that compressed her spinal cord.”
“If it would’ve been pinched a little harder, she would have been paralyzed,” Yakel said.
She’s since had two neck fusion surgeries, one in 2015 and another in 2017.
Mitchell showed signs of spondylosis, or degenerative changes in the spine. While this happens as people get older, “an injury can lead to rapid deterioration,” Yakel said, adding that he couldn’t tell whether the degenerative disc had been there before the injury.
Yakel said the injuries he observed in Mitchell, including compression to the spinal cord and swelling in the surrounding tissue, lined up with the mechanism of the injury that he was given. He said he could not tell whether the instability of Mitchell’s spine was caused by the crash or if it just aggravated her condition.
Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic spine surgeon from Jackson who examined Mitchell, believed that a neck fusion surgery was a “natural progression” of Mitchell’s degenerative disease.
In May 2018, a year after the second surgery, Mitchell told Yakel that “her neck feels great.” And defense attorney Pat Murphy read a note from a physical therapist that said Mitchell was “doing quite well prior to calving season, having to drag 80-pound calves into the house.”
Murphy asked if that was something Yakel would have recommended Mitchell do after a surgery. Yakel said he tries to let his patients live their lives and do what they enjoy.
“She’s a hardy woman, that’s the lifestyle she lives. This is who she is,” he said.
Mitchell was in an accident in 2002 where she was rear-ended, Murphy said. Several years later she fell out of a pickup and landed on her back. She also had been bucked off of a horse a few times.
During her ER visit the day of the crash and a visit to the walk-in clinic a week later, she only complained of chest and knee pains. She did not mention anything about neck pain. If the neck pain stemmed from the bus crash, why “wouldn’t she have mentioned it” on the day of the crash, Murphy asked.
Yakel last saw Mitchell in January. While she complained of back pain, she had close to no pain in her neck. Yakel said he did not find anything significant enough to warrant a more in-depth exam.
Murphy pointed out that Mitchell had a long history of back pain before the crash. Between 1995 and April 2014, Mitchell made 113 visits to Dr. John Nelson, a chiropractor in Spearfish, South Dakota. In 82 of those visits, she complained of neck pain or stiffness. She also mentioned spine issues, numbness and tingling in her arms and headaches at some of the visits.
Nelson said he does not know the cause of the neck pain in most cases like Mitchell’s. Nothing about her condition made him think that she would need surgery to fix it, Nelson said.
To require surgery, there needs to be a loss of sensory or motor function, he said, and Mitchell never exhibited any of that.
He most recently saw her May 21, nearly four years after the last visit. Then, Mitchell said she had neck pain, stiffness and headaches had started to reoccur.
Mitchell’s son, Jake Mitchell, said that while he knew his mother would visit a chiropractor, he didn’t know why she made those visits and he never heard her say anything about neck pain.
Rhonda Steel was driving a Coach USA/Powder River Transportation bus at about 7:30 a.m. May 14, 2014, on Highway 59 when she collided with a line of cars that were stopped for construction south of Gillette.
Eight vehicles were involved in the crash and three men were killed.
In August 2015, Steel pleaded guilty to three amended charges of misdemeanor vehicular homicide. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail under a plea agreement.
Mitchell was sitting behind Steel when the crash happened and was thrown back and forth and up and down.
The civil trial continues Thursday.