Posted On: February 28, 2011

Court Outlines Responsibilities of Dockowner in Employee Injury

A gangway is a pathway that connects the ship to the dock at which it has stopped. It is the means by which the crew and cargo of a ship are moved onto and off of the ship. Usually ships have detachable gangways that the ship crew put on the side of the ship when the ship is docked. Other times, docks have policies that require the ships to use gangways that are provided by the dock owner. As in any other legal field, the use of gangways are subject to rules of negligence and duties of care. The question in a recent case, Landers v. Bollinger Amelia Repair, was whether a dock owner was liable for a gangway provided to a ship under the stated policy of the dock owner that all ships must use gangways provided by the dock.

On June 12, 2006, the M/V Roseanna docked on the Bollinger Amelia Repair (BAR) dock. The reason for docking there was that the Roseanna's hull had been breached, and it needed repair. The Roseanna had a gangway on its ship, but it was full of cargo and could not be used to access the dock. In any case, BAR had a policy of requiring all docked ships to use a BAR provided gangway. Thus, Landers, an employee of the Roseanna, and another Roseanna employee got a gangway from BAR and installed it.

The gangway was inspected by a Roseanna employee and was found to be in good condition. The gangway was used many times that day. The crew of the Roseanna discovered that the hull of the ship could be fixed without the aid of BAR and proceeded to do so. At the end of its use, the gangway was removed by Landers and another member of the Roseanna crew. Upon removal, the gangway sprung up hitting Landers in the back and causing injury. Subsequently, Landers brought suit against BAR arguing that due to BAR's stated policy of requiring the use of BAR gangways, BAR was liable for the injury caused to him under general Maritime negligence law.

Landers' argument was essentially that due to BAR's policy, BAR stepped into the vessel owner's shoes and thus assumed a maritime duty to provide a gangway free from hidden defects. The issue with Lander's case was that there was no case law that backed his claim. There were two ways in which Landers could have brought his claim. The first way was under general state negligence law. The problem with this approach was that the statute of limitations to bring this suit had already run. The other means was under general maritime negligence law. As stated above, there was no precedent upon which Landers rested his case. He essentially was asking the Court to expand the law with his claim. Although there was no case exactly on point, it is a well established that the gangway of a ship comes under general maritime law. Further, it is well established that the vessel owner has a fundamental duty to provide its crew members with a reasonably safe means of boarding and departing from a vessel. Furthermore, this duty of the vessel owner, that the vessel owner provide a seaworthy ship, is absolute and nondelegable. Thus, under general maritime law, if the dock owner is held liable for the gangway, the dock owner would also have to be the ship's owner. General maritime law is a law which relates to the vessel. Thus, it would be illogical to extend the protection of the crew members, which belongs to the vessel owner, to a dock owner unaffiliated with the ship or its crew. Thus, the Court held that there was no relationship between Landers and BAR to create liability under maritime law. Landers could bring suit under a state law theory, but Landers was out of luck on that claim because the statute of limitations had already run.

There may be many theories under which a case can be brought. Further, there may be different areas under which cases may fall. In Landers' case, he could have brought a state law and maritime law claim. However, because he waited too long to seek legal counsel, his state law claim expired and he was left with only a maritime law claim, which ultimately failed. Filing under both areas of law would have increased his chances of success. If you have been injured on the job, it is important that you seek legal counsel.

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Posted On: February 27, 2011

Court Discusses Prescriptive Period in Medical Malpractice Case

Regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware that the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act requires that all "claims against healthcare providers be reviewed or 'filtered' through a medical review panel before proceeding to any other court." Also, medical malpractice suits are subject to a period of prescription -- that is, the action must be filed within a certain period of time following the incident. La. R.S. 9:5628 establishes that this time period is one year from the negligent act or the date of its discovery, with the added limitation that the discovery extension is inapplicable after three years. State statute also specifically addresses how the medical review panel's review of the case affects the prescriptive period. According to La. R.S. 40:1299.47(B), the running of the prescriptive period is suspended by the medical review panel's proceedings until the panel's decision is communicated to the plaintiff. In effect, the time required by the panel to review the case and issue a finding does not "count against" the plaintiff when determining the latest point at which the law permits him or her to file suit.

The plaintiff in the recent case of Blake v. Maley saw the dismissal of her suit due to her failure to file the action before the prescription period expired. Beverly Blake filed a request for a medical review panel on June 2, 2004. The request alleged medical malpractice against Dr. Warren Maley and the Willis Knighton Medical Center in Dr. Maley's misdiagnosis of a fatal drug reaction suffered by her husband, Barry, who died on January 31, 2004. The medical review panel rendered a unanimous decision in favor of the defendants on May 15, 2007 and mailed the decision letter to Blake on May 25, 2007. Blake filed suit on November 3, 2009. In response to Dr. Maley's subsequently filing an exception of prescription due to the delay, Blake responded that she was mentally incapable of filing the claim in a timely manner because she was severely depressed during the month of July, 2009. The trial court granted Dr. Maley’s exception and dismissed Blake's suit. On appeal, the Second Circuit noted that Blake "concede[d] that the date of the alleged malpractice occurred on June 22, 2003, when Barry Blake received the drug" that caused the fatal reaction. Thus, Blake's request for medical review by the panel was timely, and her "cause of action was suspended by the medical review panel proceedings until the mailing of the opinion on May 27, 2007." After that date, the court calculated, Blake had 90 days plus the additional 20 days left on her original one-year period to file her suit. Yet, Blake filed her suit on November 3, 2009, "nearly two years after the prescriptive period for filing suit had tolled and more than six years after Blake’s stated date of the act of malpractice." Blake's argument for additional tolling due to her mental condition did not move the court. Observing that Civil Code Article 3468 provides that "[p]rescription runs against absent persons and incompetents, including minors and interdicts, unless exception is established by legislation," the court determined that no statutory exception was available and that, accordingly, Blake's "claims have clearly prescribed."

The Blake case demonstrates the courts' strict adherence to the timing requirements contained in Louisiana's prescription statutes. While a widow's state of depression following the death of her spouse is entirely understandable, it is critical to remember that the law demands swift action on the part of plaintiffs to initiate a lawsuit in medical malpractice cases.

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Posted On: February 26, 2011

Court Dissects Nursing Home Wrongful Death Case

Many families in America have had to move their loved ones into a nursing home. Whether the reason is that they don't have the room to care for the elder, they don't have the time or money to provide adequate care, or their elder wishes to be in the nursing home, the decision to send them to a nursing home is a difficult one. Families may be concerned about the level and amount of care their elders receive at the nursing home. Continuous stories of abuse at nursing homes may also be a cause of concern for families. Nursing homes are given a high level of trust in the care of their patrons. When this level of trust is broken, the results can be horrific and unacceptable. The law provides for levels of care that nursing homes and medical practitioners have to live by. Once these levels of care are ignored, the law steps in to provide relief for families.

In Braud v. Woodland Village, LLC, the issue was whether the trial court instructed the jury to view the case under the right legal standard. Mr. Braud was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and Pick's dementia. This combination of diseases left Mr. Braud with many issues including an eating disorder and a higher chance of heart attack. Mr. Braud was moved to Woodland Village nursing home (Woodland). After his arrival at Woodland, Mr. Braud began showing signs of aggression towards staff. He was prescribed anti-psychotic medication as part of his treatment. After some time, Mrs. Braud reported to her husband's physician that Mr. Braud seemed very zombie-like. The physician instructed the Woodland staff that they were to check on Mr. Braud every 15 minutes for signs of distress. This was carried on for some time. The method used to check on Mr. Braud was to look through the window into his room to observe whether he was under any distress. The Woodland staff were never instructed to enter the room to check close-up. On September 2, 2004, after a 45 minute period of no Woodland staff checking on Mr. Braud, he was found to be unresponsive. Woodland staff called paramedics who arrived to the scene to find that Mr. Braud was likely dead for at least an hour before their arrival from a heart attack. At no point did any member of the Woodland staff attempt CPR on Mr. Braud. Mr. Braud's family (collectively "plaintiff") filed suit against Woodland for wrongful death and were awarded an amount of $1,650,000. After trial, defendants argued that (1) there was no harm from alleged medication errors (2) there was no evidence that Mr. Braud could be resuscitated (3) the award of $1,650,000 was far above the $500,000 statutory amount (4) there was no evidence that Woodland caused the heart attack and (5) evidence presented proved, at most, that there was a loss of chance of life, not that there was wrongful death. Woodland lost on all of these claims except that the amount of damages was reduced to $500,000. Woodland appealed the decision stating that the trial court's refusal to include jury instructions for the "loss of a chance of survival" claim was a grounds to reverse the jury decision. The plaintiff appealed the decision to reduce the damages to $500,000.

In Louisiana, pursuant to LA.Rev. Stat. Section 9:2794(A), to find medical malpractice, the plaintiff must establish the standard of care applicable to the charged physician, a violation by the physician of that standard of care, and a causal connection between the physician's alleged negligence and the plaintiff's injuries resulting therefrom. The standard attributed to the physician is the standard used in Louisiana, based on the type of field, locale, and community in which the physician or medical practitioner practices. Further, in order for an appellate court to overturn a fact-finder's decision, a two-prong test is used to analyze the result. First, the appellate court must find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding in the trial court. Second, the court must further determine that the record established that the finding is manifestly erroneous.

The Appellate Court found that the record did not contain evidence sufficient enough to find a reasonable basis for it. Throughout the testimony, every expert refuted the idea that any action taken on the part of the Woodland caused Mr. Braud's heart attack. Even the expert for plaintiff determined that no medication administered, or medication withheld led to Mr. Braud's heart attack. Another expert stated that the heart attack was likely the result of the Pick's dementia. Pick's dementia leaves the victim with an eating disorder, which at Mr. Braud's age could lead to significant damage to the body. Further, there was no action taken by any Woodland employee that caused Mr. Braud to have the heart attack. At most, not following the physician's order of checking on Mr. Braud every 15 minutes, in addition to not performing CPR after calling the paramedics was negligence that allows for a claim of loss of a chance of survival. The issue was, as argued by Woodland, that the trial court did not instruct the jury as to the "loss of a chance of survival" claim. The burden of proof of both the wrongful death claim and the loss of a chance of survival claim are the same. The plaintiff must prove that there was a chance of survival and that this chance was lost due to defendant's negligence. Since the trial court did not instruct the jury as to this claim, this impacted the determination of the jury, which amounted to legal error. For these reasons, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court at which time the jury should be instructed on the loss of a chance of survival claim.

It may be a harsh decision to reverse a win for a family that lost a loved one. It is clear that there is a chance that Woodland was liable to plaintiff. The Court's decision reminds us that there was more than one claim upon which plaintiff could have based its legal theory. The Court won a battle on behalf of the legal system by emphasizing that even if a defendant is liable, the defendant will not be liable for a claim for which it is not responsible. The correct legal standards should be applied to defendants to ensure the proper determination of justice. If you or a loved one have been injured due to the negligence of a physician or medical practitioner, it is essential that you seek immediate legal advice. As Braud v. Woodland Village, LLC. demonstrates, there are many legal theories upon which your rights are protected.

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Posted On: February 25, 2011

First Circuit of Louisiana Allows Lost Chance of Survival Tort Case to Go Forward and Specifies Burden of Proof

In June 2010, the First Circuit of the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case of Lena Hebert et al. v. Plaquemine Caring, L.L.C. due to a legal error committed by the Eighteenth Judicial District Court for Iberville Parish. This legal error proved to be a compelling element to the case and demonstrates why a competent attorney is highly important, especially in the case of a loss of a family member or other personal injury element.

The plaintiffs in this case are the survivors of the deceased, Mr. Morgan Hebert. He suffered a fractured hip from falling, but had a heart attack before he was able to undergo surgery. Upon leaving the hospital, Mr. Hebert was discharged to a long-term skilled nursing facility owned by the defendants, Plaquemine Caring, L.L.C. At the time Mr. Hebert was admitted to the nursing facility, he had been diagnosed with several serious conditions, which required him to be dependent upon a ventilator. On October 19, 2001, his family members found him cold and nonresponsive. They notified the staff at once and Mr. Hebert was pronounced dead from respiratory failure, cerebrovascular accident, and cervical neuropathy.

Mr. Hebert’s surviving spouse and children alleged that the defendants’ fault and negligence caused Mr. Hebert’s loss of a chance of survival. After a bench trial, the judge granted the defendant’s oral motion for involuntary dismissal, finding that plaintiffs had not established that a breach of the standard of care was a cause of Mr. Hebert’s death. The First Circuit Court of Appeal reversed and remanded because the trial court used the incorrect legal standard in granting defendant’s motion.

In a lost chance of survival case, the plaintiff does not have to prove that the patient would have lived had proper treatment been given. Rather, the plaintiff has to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that 1) a chance of survival existed in the first place and 2) the defendant’s negligent conduct denied the patient a chance of survival that he or she had before the defendant’s conduct. The defendant’s conduct does not need to be the only cause of death, but the conduct must have increased the risk of harm. The plaintiff can recover even when it is more likely than not that the patient would have died due to a pre-existing condition. In addition, the plaintiff does not have to show that the defendant’s actions led to Mr. Hebert’s death to a “medical degree of certainty.”

At trial, a plaintiffs’ expert testified that Mr. Hebert’s vital signs indicated that he was in distress in the hours leading up to his death. There had been inconsistencies in Mr. Hebert’s chart that were corroborated by sworn testimony by the nursing staff as well as a lack of proper recordkeeping, which meant that no problematic patterns were recorded that might have alerted staff. Another doctor, who was not qualified as an expert witness, testified that Mr. Hebert was in frail health at the time of admission to the nursing facility and that patients with Mr. Hebert’s symptoms commonly experience “sudden death episodes.”

The First Circuit acknowledged that the evidence was not strong, but because an involuntary dismissal in a bench trial is like a directed verdict in a jury trial, the plaintiff must have offered no evidence to support its claims and the facts presented so strongly supported the defendant’s position that no reasonable person could have reached a contrary verdict. Because that was not the case here, the First Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Posted On: February 24, 2011

Recovery Caps Can Hinder Financial Awards in Wake of Accidents

Audrey Thompson was injured in an automobile accident that occurred when a vehicle driven by Chad Harp rear-ended a vehicle driven by Susan Young. This triggered a chain of events where three other vehicles, including the Thompson vehicle, were rear-ended as a result of Harp’s conduct. The Thompsons filed a lawsuit and named Harp, the driver allegedly at fault, and his insurer, State Farm, as defendants.

Because of the number of potential personal injury claimants and the belief the $300,000 per accident coverage limit of State Farm’s policy was "inadequate to cover the amount of damages suffered," the Thompsons also named her uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) insurance carrier, Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO), as a defendant. The plaintiffs also sought recovery for loss of consortium, damages for medical expenses and “loss of the wife’s income” on behalf of the marital community. Moreover, they explicitly focused their damages to the "jurisdictional maximum" of the Alexandria City Court in addition to legal interest thereon from date of judicial demand, until paid in full as well as court costs.

In compliance with its jurisdictional limit, the Alexandria City Court entered judgment, awarding Audrey $50,000 in general damages and awarding Charles,on his own behalf, $20,000 for loss of consortium, and $30,000 for past and future medical expenses on behalf of the couple’s community. State Farm filed an exception claiming that the amount in dispute exceeded $50,000. Examination of the State Farm policy revealed a $100,000 limit per person and a $300,000 limit per accident, which exceeded the city court’s jurisdictional limits. According to the court of appeal, the trial court was required to transfer the action to a court with the appropriate subject matter jurisdiction, upon finding that the claims exceeded the jurisdictional limit. However, the court of appeal erred in its reading of plaintiffs’ petitions and our Code of Civil Procedure provisions governing the subject matter jurisdiction of city courts.

Subject-matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear cases of a particular type or cases relating to a specific subject matter. It refers to the nature of the claim or controversy. For example, bankruptcy court has the authority to only hear bankruptcy cases. In addition to the legal issue in dispute, the subject matter jurisdiction of a court may be determined by the monetary value of the dispute—the dollar amount in controversy. According to La. Code Civ. Proc. art. 4841, the subject matter jurisdiction of city courts is limited by the nature of the proceedings and by the amount in dispute, which amount is determined by the amount demanded. However, the amount in dispute does not include interest, court costs, attorney fees, or penalties, whether provided by agreement or by law. Here, the court found that the Alexandria City Court had proper subject matter jurisdiction over the claim filed by the Thompsons. The court indicated that the plaintiffs "never sought to recover damages beyond the jurisdictional limits of the city court, but sought to ensure recovery by proceeding first against the tortfeasor’s insurer, State Farm, and then against their UM insurer only to the extent their damages exceeded the underlying coverage afforded by and available to them under Harp’s State Farm policy." In their pleadings, both plaintiffs limited their demands to "an amount less than the jurisdictional maximum of .... yet within the jurisdictional limits of [the Alexandria city] court." Therefore, contrary to the appellate court’s conclusion, subject matter jurisdiction always properly rested in the Alexandria City Court. However, the issue of the calculation of damages as to each plaintiff, individually, has not been addressed by the court of appeal.

Failure to bring a claim in a court with the proper subject matter jurisdiction can have devastating effects on a legal suit. Since the lack of subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be waived, any judgment from a court lacking subject-matter jurisdiction is a nullity. Moreover, if a court has to transfer a case due to improper subject matter jurisdiction, it will delay a lawsuit. It is important to consult an experienced attorney, such as those at the Berniard Law Firm, to ensure that cases are properly filed in the appropriate court.

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Posted On: February 23, 2011

Disastrous Results for Plaintiffs that Wait Too Long to File Suit

In Louisiana, there are certain steps that need to be taken in order to file a case for medical malpractice. In order to get a case to trial, a plaintiff must first submit a malpractice petition to a medical review board. The board reviews the facts surrounding a case and compares health care providers with a basic standard of care required for those practitioners in the locale in which they practice. If the board decides in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff can take the case to a judicial proceeding. A civil case in Louisiana must be filed or settled within a year.

This is the basic fall-back provision of how long a case can remain in effect. The legislature has the authority to add to this period for certain causes of action, in certain circumstances. For example, a medical malpractice claim must usually be filed within one year from the negligent treatment. However, if the plaintiff did not know that the medical malpractice occurred, the plaintiff can file within one year of discovering the malpractice. In any case, no claim can be filed more than three years after the alleged negligent treatment. Thus, even if the negligent treatment is not discoverable until four years have gone by, the plaintiff will be out of luck and the time for filing the suit will have expired.

The medical review board takes a great deal of time to make a decision. Thus, while the review board is making a determination, the one year prescription period is stopped to allow the board to make its decision without taking away the plaintiff's time to bring a case. However, once the review board has made a decision, the plaintiff only has 90 days plus any additional time left over from the one year prescription period to file a claim.

In Beverley Blake v. Dr. Warren Maley, a Louisiana court discussed how these different time frames interlock. Mrs. Blake brought a suit on her behalf and on behalf of her two children due to alleged malpractice by Dr. Maley, when the doctor was treating her husband. As a result of alleged mismanagement of medical treatment, Mr. Blake suffered amputated fingers, feet, and hands. Mrs. Blake brought the matter before the board on June 2, 2004. The alleged malpractice occurred on June 22, 2003. At this point, Mrs. Blake brought the matter before the review board in a timely matter. The board made its decision on March 15, 2007, unanimously ruling in favor of all defendants. On November 3, 2009, Mrs. Blake filed suit against Dr. Maley in court. She stated that the review panel did not make an informed decision and that she was still entitled to file her case before court. She claimed that after her husband died, and after the board made its determination, she fell into an extreme depression and was unable to make determinations. She argued that she had three total years to file her suit. However, in Louisiana, in order to get three years to file a medical malpractice claim, a party must not know, and should not be able to know, that malpractice occurred until a later date than when the malpractice occurred. Mrs. Blake never alleged that she was unaware that malpractice occurred. In fact, her taking the case to the medical board showed that she believed that there had been negligence. Therefore, this argument did not work.

She further argued that since she was in a state of depression she had no idea what was going on. She argued that the one year time period should be stalled during the period when she had fallen into a state of depression. Louisiana law states,"Prescription runs against absent persons and incompetents, including minors and interdicts, unless exception is established by legislation." There is no law in Louisiana that excuses a violation of the prescriptive period due to depression. The period continues to run regardless of the plaintiff's mindset.

Mrs. Blake was unfortunate because she lost her legal representation right before she fell into a state of depression. She failed to hire new legal counsel and had thus let the prescriptive period expire without a fight. Acquiring legal counsel gives a party an objective non-emotional partner in a law suit. Even if the party is depressed, sad, or angry, competent legal counsel will remain objective and committed to finding a solution to a problem.

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Posted On: February 22, 2011

Understanding Medical Malpractice and Legal Caps to Awards

The Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit, recently held the Medical Malpractice Act’s (MMA) award limitation unconstitutional when applied in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 1974 Louisiana State Constitution. In Oliver v. Magnolia Clinic, a minor child was treated by a nurse practitioner who failed to identify tell-tale signs of neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer originating in the nerve tissue, and failed to refer the child for more specialized care in a timely manner. The matter was originally tried before a jury, which returned a verdict against the nurse practitioner in favor of the child's family, for $6,000,000.00 in general damages. The MMA's $500,000.00 award cap would have severely limited this verdict, to one-twelfth of the jury’s award. Plaintiffs filed a Petition for Declaratory Relief asserting the MMA is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs made a number of claims that the MMA cap violates the Louisiana State Constitution, including an argument based on the equal protection guarantee of La.Const. art. I, § 3. Because the court found the “equal protection” argument had merit, it did not address the other constitutional challenges raised by the plaintiffs.

The Louisiana Supreme Court made clear in Everett v. Goldman that unless a fundamental right is impacted or a separate or suspect classification is created, the legislature is constitutionally free to limit damage recoveries or to grant immunities from suit so long as it articulates a rational basis for the discriminatory treatment reasonably related to the governmental interest sought to be advanced. The Supreme Court has also held that the right of malpractice victims to sue for damages caused them by medical professionals does not involve a fundamental constitutional right, and requires only rational basis review. However, because the MMA, on its face, discriminates between classes of people based on physical attributes, the Louisiana Supreme Court held in Sibley II that the State must articulate more than a “rational basis” for the cap in cases involving severely or catastrophically injured victims of malpractice to avoid Article 1, §3’s constitutional bar to its enforcement.

In this case, the minor child is a severely injured victim of malpractice. She was injured as a baby and she will endure a lifetime of devastating and debilitating effects on her capacity to perform even basic human functions. The State failed to present evidence to the contrary. Thus, on appeal, the Court decided that “there simply is no rational reason why the most severely injured malpractice victims should be singled out to pay for special relief for a nurse practitioner who operated in derogation of her statutorily mandated duties.” The Court also concluded that “the cap, to the extent it includes nurse practitioners within its ambit, violates the equal protection guarantees of the Louisiana Constitution and La.R.S. 40:1299.41(A)(1), and, thus, is unconstitutional.” The Court reinstated the jury's award of damages to the plaintiffs.

The legislative purpose underlying enactment of the MMA’s all-inclusive monetary and non-monetary $500,000 award cap in Louisiana was to assure available and affordable malpractice insurance for healthcare providers. The state of Louisiana has a relatively high rate of medical malpractice reports. Louisiana is responsible for 1.3% of all medical malpractice payment reports made against physicians in the United States, a rate higher than over half of the states in the country. This high rate of malpractice indicates that patients should be particularly concerned that they receive the best medical care from their doctors.

A patient is owed the same standard of care regardless of whether the doctor or nurse practitioner has medical malpractice insurance. To have a viable claim for medical malpractice a patient must demonstrate the applicable standard of care, often determined by expert testimony, and that the doctor breached that standard of care as to the patient. The standard of care is a legal term meaning the degree of knowledge or skill possessed or ordinarily exercised by physicians licensed to practice in the state of Louisiana, and practicing in a similar community under similar circumstances. After the standard of care is established the patient must show the care giver failed to provide that level of care. If the doctor's failure to provide adequate care was the cause of the patient's injury, it is likely to be malpractice.

If a patient thinks they may have been the victim of medical malpractice, they have one year to file a claim. A medical malpractice action for injury or death must be filed within one year from the date of the alleged act, omission, or neglect, or within one year from the date of discovery of the alleged act, omission, or neglect. If the claim is not filed within one year of the discovery of the injury, it is barred by the statute of limitations, and may not be filed. It is of paramount importance to file a claim within the statutory period in order to seek relief for death or injury from medical malpractice.

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Posted On: February 21, 2011

Transferable Rights and How They Pertain to a Lost Pregnancy

Certain legal rights are transferable. If you owe a debt to some entity, upon your death, there is a chance that the entity will have some rights to your estate in order to satisfy your debt. Another example of a transferable right is a right of survival. If the victim in any circumstance has this right, upon the victim's death, the right would be transferable to the victim's family. The concept is relatively easy to understand but the situation gets complicated when the potential rights belong to an unborn fetus.

Throughout the country, different states have different interpretations of when a fetus becomes a person, and this has a big impact on what rights attach to protect the fetus. In Louisiana, the legislature has decided that an unborn fetus can in fact have rights against other persons or entities. However, Louisiana Civil Code article 26, which discusses a fetus' rights, has some important limitations:

An unborn child shall be considered as a natural person for whatever relates to its interests from the moment of conception. If the child is born dead, it shall be considered never to have existed as a person, except for actions resulting from its wrongful death.
Thus, the Louisiana legislature has codified what rights a fetus has. These rights extend to the moment of conception. However, if the fetus is born dead, all rights that attach to the fetus, except rights that find their origin in the cause of death, are extinguished.

The Louisiana Supreme Court discussed if survival rights attach to an unborn fetus, stating that fetuses can gain rights. However, for most circumstances, the rights attach only if the fetus is born alive. The Court stated that survival action attaches to someone's life. However, under Louisiana law a fetus that is born dead, is considered to never have existed at all. Even though the fetus gained the right to a survival action, because a stillborn fetus is considered to never have existed at all, the survival action, which attaches to a life, is extinguished.

In a recent case, Cari Long v. North Oaks Medical Center, the issue of survival action came up again. Ms. Long was involved in a car accident. She was pinned as a result of the accident. After emergency services arrived, she was taken to North Oaks Medical Center. The ER doctor and nurse contacted her obstetrician because she was pregnant. At the hospital, the heartrate of the baby was recorded at 120 beats per minute. After being taken out of ER, the doctor found that the fetus did not have a heart rate. Subsequently, the fetus was delivered as a stillborn. Ms. Long filed suit and as one of her causes of action, she claimed a survival action on behalf of the baby. All defendants filed exception claiming that there was no survival cause of action on behalf of the baby that was transferred to the parents. Based on Louisiana Civil Code article 26 and the Supreme Court ruling discussed above, there was no basis for the survival action. Under the current law there is no recourse in this type of circumstance. Only by legislative action can a survival action attach for a stillborn fetus.

While this matter is undoubtedly unfortunate and all parties involve wish that things did not go the way they did. However, the case also illustrates how complex the law can be and the ever-changing nature of some claims. Codified law can be extremely important and having an attorney that understands rights as provided by the state is significant in any matter.

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Posted On: February 20, 2011

Increased Awards for Victims of Medical Malpractice

Taylor Oliver was born on September 5, 2000. Shortly after birth, Taylor began experiencing health problems and was brought to the Magnolia Clinic, where she was treated exclusively by Susan Duhon on thirty-two occasions. Since Nurse Practitioners are required to collaborate with a physician, Duhon agreed to collaborate with Dr. Jennette Bergstedt, M.D., when providing primary care from the Magnolia Clinic. Taylor was in the clinic several times per month with various complaints, including repeat infections, persistent abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and anemia. Despite her statutory duty to consult with a physician when needed, Ms. Duhon did not collaborate with Dr. Bergstedt concerning Taylor’s condition. Instead, she verbally reassured Taylor’s mother and prescribed over thirty medications to treat the child’s multiple complaints and observable symptoms. Additionally, Duhon stated that Taylor only needed to see Dr. Bergstedt in connection with admission to a hospital.

After no progress in her condition, Taylor’s mother eventually brought her to Women & Children’s Hospital in Lake Charles, where she was treated for the first time by Dr. Bergstedt. Taylor was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer originating in the nerve tissue. The records maintained by the Magnolia Clinic revealed at approximately six months, Taylor developed severe bruising around the eyes – one of the signs of childhood neuroblastoma. If neuroblastoma is diagnosed within the first year of life, a child has a ninety percent chance of an event-free survival. Fortunately, Taylor survived the cancer, but the quality of her life has been severely diminished. The tumor advanced into her long bone, face, eyes, ears, skull and spine leading to a variety of physical defects and vision difficulties. What's more, her bones have become weakened and brittle and she struggles each day to overcome learning disabilities.

As a result, the Olivers pursued medical malpractice claims and a jury returned a verdict against Duhon in favor of the Olivers, on Taylor’s behalf, for $6,000,000.00 in general damages, $629,728.24 in past medical expenses, and $3,358,828.00 in future medical expenses. The jury awarded Mr. Oliver $33,000.00 for loss of consortium and Ms. Oliver $200,000.00. Unfortunately, the MMA malpractice insurance coverage limited recoverable damages to $500,000.00 and the Olivers petitioned the court to have the MMA declared unconstitutional. A trial court found that the MMA was constitutional and subsequently reduced the jury’s award to conform to the limitation on general damage recovery and other restrictions of the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act. The Olivers appealed the trial court’s decision and the appellate court found that the cap on general damage awards unconstitutionally disadvantages and discriminates against Taylor and her parents because of the severity of Taylor’s physical condition when compared to other malpractice victims who receive full recovery for their injuries.

In the opinion, the court examined whether the MMA violated the equal protection clause of the Louisiana Constitution which provides, in part: "No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws. No law shall discriminate against a person because of race or religious ideas, beliefs, or affiliations. No law shall arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably discriminate against a person because of birth, age, sex, culture, physical condition, or political ideas or affiliations." In fact, the legislature is constitutionally free to limit damage recoveries or to grant immunities from suit as long as there is a rational basis for the discriminatory treatment that is reasonably related to the governmental interest. While the state insisted that the legislative purpose of the MMA cap was to assure available and affordable malpractice insurance for healthcare providers, the Court did not agree. The court noted that when the state chooses to provide an adequate remedy to provide an "adequate remedy" to some members of a class of victims and denies it to other members of the same class because of their physical condition, it creates a separate classification. Essentially, limiting the recovery of victims whose injuries exceed $500,000 creates two classes of victims and, as a result, "classifies individuals because of their physical condition." Victims with minor injuries are allowed to fully recover while those harmed the most recover minimal damages in comparison.

This opinion modifies the statutory scheme that limits damages recoverable by victims of medical malpractice. As the court noted, "[a] statute may be constitutionally valid when enacted but may become constitutionally invalid because of changes in the conditions to which the statute applies. A past crisis does not forever render a law valid." As such, victims of medical malpractice should consult experienced attorneys to assist them in recovering damages from medical malpractice as well as understanding medical malpractice statutes.

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Posted On: February 19, 2011

Medical Malpractice Case Shows Importance of Laws, Standard of Care Governing Civil Suits

Medical malpractice cases often turn on whether the plaintiff can establish that the health care provider breached the standard of care. Louisiana's Medical Malpractice Act governs the conduct of health care professionals and mandates that the standard of care owed is that of the average member of the profession under similar circumstances. For the Act to apply, the defendant must be a qualified health care provider. Determining if this is a provider, and if the plaintiff has rights, are two of the most important factors that hiring a competent attorney can help guarantee when filing a case.

At issue in Ruby "Nell" Coleman vs. La Terre Physical Therapy, Inc., D/B/A Terrebonne Physical Therapy Clinic and Donald P. Kinnard, P.T., was the standard of care owed to patients of physical therapists. The plaintiff, Ruby Coleman, attended physical therapy with the defendants following a total knee replacement. Mrs. Coleman sustained injuries to her left knee during physical therapy exercises on a Continuous Passive Range of Motion machine. After it was discovered that Mrs. Coleman sustained a fracture to her knee, she underwent surgery. Afterwards, Coleman filed suit against the defendants, alleging that her injuries were caused by physical therapist Mr. Kinnard's failure to obtain a complete medical history, which would have revealed she suffered from severe osteoporosis. In her suit, Coleman claimed that if Kinnard had done so, he would have administered a safer method of physical therapy. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Coleman did not show the treatment fell below the applicable standard of care.

The trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that expert witness testimony supported the conclusion that the applicable standard of care was not breached. The plaintiff appealed, but the Louisiana Court of Appeal, First Circuit, affirmed the decision of the lower court. The Court cited Boudreaux v. Panger, in which the Louisiana Supreme Court held that a chiropractor, although not subject to the Medical Malpractice Act, is judged by the standard of his or her profession and, therefore, general negligence is not available as a basis of recovery. Therefore, Mrs. Coleman could not prove the elements of general negligence (i.e., duty, breach, causation, and damages) but was required to show that Mr. Kinnard failed to act in accordance with the standard of care practiced by his peers in the same locality under similar circumstances.

Mrs. Coleman's expert witness testified that if Kinnard utilized a safer method of physical therapy, such as the passive manual stretch, sustaining a fracture to her femur was still possible. Since Coleman was unable to show that failing to obtain a complete medical history caused her harm, the appellate court concluded that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

This case demonstrates the importance of consulting an attorney who is knowledgeable of the appropriate standard of care in medical malpractice cases. Since plaintiffs have the burden of proving a breach occurred, filing a lawsuit without knowing your chances of prevailing might cost you considerable time and resources. Our experienced attorneys will be able to recommend the best course of action to take in a given case.

Posted On: February 18, 2011

Lafayette Car Wreck Leads Court to Explore the Role of Plaintiff's Pre-Existing Condition in Assessing Damages

It is well settled in Louisiana law that "a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him and when a defendant’s tortious conduct aggravates a pre-existing condition, the defendant must compensate the victim for the full extent of the aggravation." Lasha v. Olin Corp. In other words, when a person injures another, that person is responsible for all damages he caused the victim, even if the victim's own unusual susceptibility contributed to the extent of the damages. This does not mean, however, that the injured plaintiff is relieved from the standard requirement of tying the damages he suffered to the defendant's negligent action.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently explored this concept in the case of Downing v. Miller. On October 15, 2007, Carolann Downing was involved in a car accident with John Miller in Lafayette. The incident occurred when Miller pulled out of a restaurant parking lot onto Congress Street and crashed into Downing's vehicle. Downing did not suffer any physical injuries, but the experience aggravated her pre-existing bi-polar anxiety and obsessive-compulsive mental disorders. At trial, the parties stipulated Miller's liability for the accident; the only issue in dispute was the amount of damages. Downing testified that she experienced mania followed by depression after the accident. Her symptoms included loss of sleep, loss of appetite, racing thoughts, nervousness, agitation, and anger. Thereafter, she became depressed and was unable to care for herself: she did not leave the house but instead stayed in bed and slept most of the time. However, on cross examination, Downing acknowledged that during her life she commonly experienced “periods of ups and downs” and that the episode following the accident with Miller was consistent with other "down" periods she had suffered in the past. Downing offered the testimony of Dr. Bob Winston, her treating physician, who confirmed that the accident exacerbated her mental issues. Dr. Winston further offered a summary of the behaviors Downing exhibited in the five-month period following the wreck, which he attributed to the stress she experienced in the event. Essentially, however, Dr. Winston's summary showed that Downing steadily improved over time. The trial court awarded Downing $7,500 in damages. Dowling appealed, arguing that the trial court's award was so low as to be "clearly wrong."

As we have covered previously on this blog, the trial court enjoys "great discretion" in setting damages awards, and an appellate court may disturb a trial court's award only on the showing of a clear abuse of discretion. Wainwright v. Fontenot. Although Dowling argued that the trial court abused its discretion in not fully taking into account the accident's role in exacerbating her mental disorders, the Third Circuit found sufficient evidence that the trial court's decision was well-grounded on the evidence presented at trial. For example, the court noted that Dr. Winston observed an increase in symptoms when Dowling's aunt passed away and also on an occasion when she was nervous about an upcoming visit with her son. The trial court determined that Dowling's response to the accident was similar to other aggravations triggered by ordinary events in her life; therefore, the accident did not cause an unusual result for Dowling for which she was entitled to a higher amount of compensation. The Third Circuit agreed with this reasoning in light of the evidence of Dowling's mental health history and affirmed the award.

The lesson from the Dowling case is that, although a negligent defendant is responsible for all damages he causes the plainitiff -- even those damages that arise out of a unique condition -- the defendant must demonstrate that any compensible consequence is directly linked the the defendant's conduct. In this case, Dowling did obtain some level of damages for her mental suffering following the accident, but the evidence she presented did not demonstrate that the trial court erroneously arrived at the amount. By hiring a skilled attorney who can help work at presenting proper evidence, contact one of our expert attorneys today.

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Posted On: February 16, 2011

Court Turns Away Plaintiffs' Mental Distress Claims After Chemical Release in St. Gabriel

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as we have previously explored, occurs when the defendant purposefully engages in extreme or outrageous conduct with the goal of seriously upsetting the plaintiff. A different case is the scenario involving the plaintiff's mental distress that results from the defendant's negligent conduct. Commonly, a plaintiff can successfully recover for a claim of negligent infliction of mental distress when the distress arises out of a physical injury that is related to the defendant's negligence. Without physical injury, however, a plaintiff is far less likely to recover. The case of Taylor v. Novartis Crop Protection, Inc. provides an example.

On the evening of July 18, 1999, Novartis Crop Protection Corporation's facility in St. Gabriel released industrial ammonia into the air for approximately 15 minutes. Following the release, several hundred individuals who were present in or owned property around the St. Gabriel area filed a suit for damages against Novartis. The complaint alleged that as a result of the chemical release, the plaintiffs suffered "burning eyes, itching, burning skin, breathing difficulties, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, anxiety, and fear for their physical well being." The complaint also stated that the incident caused considerable fear, anguish, discomfort, and inconvenience to the people in the communities" surrounding the Novartis facility. Novartis filed a motion for dismissal for those plaintiffs who were located outside of the "zone of danger" agreed upon by experts from both sides and who therefore could not have been exposed to the ammonia. The affected plaintiffs responded that their claim was not for physical exposure but for "mental anguish, emotional distress, inconvenience, and fear and fright." The trial court entered a judgment dismissing all plaintiffs who were outside of the "zone of danger," and those plainitiffs appealed.

In its analysis, the First Circuit Court of Appeal reaffirmed that under Louisiana law "a defendant will not be held liable for [damages] where its conduct was merely negligent and caused only mental or emotional disturbance unaccompanied by physical injury." The narrow exception to this rule is where the plaintiff can demonstrate "special circumstances," which must be "more than minimal inconvenience worry." The court noted that the only special circumstances cited by the plaintiffs was a prior release of ammonia that occurred in 1999 and which required the evacuation of a school. But the court concluded that the prior incident did not rise to the level of "special circumstances" as required by Louisiana jurisprudence. (Examples of sufficient circumstances from case law include the negligent transmission of an erroneous message about a loved one's death; the mishandling of corpses; and damaging property while being observed by the plaintiff. See Moresi v. State for further discussion.) Further, the court noted that the plaintiffs failed to offer any evidence to show they had "suffered from genuine and serious mental distress." Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court's judgment dismissing the plaintiffs whose claims included only mental distress.

This case further reinforces the fact that courts generally look unfavorably upon claims for mental or emotional distress when there is no physical manifestation of the injury. This may be due to the fact that mental harm is difficult to measure, as well as the potential for false claims.

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Posted On: February 14, 2011

Legal Remedy for People With Mesothelioma Due to Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos-related illnesses have impacted many families throughout the nation. The impact of asbestos exposure can lead to serious terminal illnesses. Partly as a response to such illnesses, the federal government created the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act (LHWCA). The act provides injury and occupational-disease protection for those who work on the navigable waters of the United States.

In the past, the Louisana shoreline was home to many companies that were involved with the direct use of asbestos. Those individuals who were impacted by the use of asbestos in such areas are potentially protected by the LHWCA. The act provides for a set of procedures that must be fulfilled prior to any case reaching a court of law. At first, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) reviews the facts of the case and decides whether the LHWCA provides relief for any party. If this decision is appealed, it will go to the Benefits Review Board (BRB), which will have to conclude whether the ALJ's order was supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and is in accordance with the law. After this stage, if the decision of the BRB is challenged, the case will find its way into court.

In a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, in Louisana Insurance Guaranty Association Baton Rouge Marine Contractors Inc. vs. Director Office of Worker Compensation, the process through which claims under the LHWCA proceed is clearly outlined. Plaintiff in the case worked on the Lousiana shoreline from 1965 to 1977. During the 60's he worked directly with asbestos by unloading bags of asbestos. From 1970 to 1977 plaintiff worked on cranes for the same company. This position did not require direct contact with asbestos. However, he worked in and had to continuously walk through warehouses where asbestos was dealt with and stored. During the plaintiff's employment, the company that he worked for was insured by Employers' National. It provided insurance coverage from 1972 until 1982. However, it was declared insolvent and placed in receivership in 1994. Louisiana Insurance Guarantee Association (LIGA) appeared in its place as a substitute party in this proceeding.

Based on the facts provided, the ALJ granted relief under LHWCA. The BRB, then found the ALJ's decision to be supported by substantial evidence. The insurance company appealed the decision to the fifth circuit. The case is broken down into factual questions and legal questions. The fifth circuits only job was to correct errors of law and make sure that the BRB did not substitute its interpretation of the factual issues for those of the ALJ. The first factual issue in the case was whether LIGA was subject to the LHWCA's last employer rule. LIGA argued that plaintiff could not have been injured by asbestos exposure after 1970 when he moved from working directly with asbestos, to working on the cranes. The Court held that the ALJ had sufficient evidence to determine that plaintiff was indeed exposed to asbestos due to the storage of asbestos in warehouses in which he worked in and walked through. Second, defendants argued that plaintiff was not forced to retire because of any asbestos related injury. Plaintiff testified that he had trouble walking up and down stairs and that the asbestos injuries and sickness are at least in part the cause of his retirement. The Court stated,"the ALJ as sole factfinder is entitled to consider all credibility inferences and [his selection] among inferences is conclusive if supported by evidence and the law." The BRB explained in its review that,"if the claimant's work related injury played a role in causing his retirement, the retirement is involuntary." The Court decided that since both determinations were made within the bounds of law and the evidence provided, the decision made by the ALJ, that plaintiff was involuntarily forced to retire due to asbestos exposure, should stand. Third, plaintiff was granted the status of total disability. Under the LHWCA, to establish a prima facie case claimant must show that he is unable to return to his regular or usual employment. Thus, the question posed is not whether any claimant can work anywhere else or do anything else, the question is whether the claimant can continue to do the same or similar things as he or she did prior to the disease or injury. Since the plaintiff testified that he had a hard time walking up and down stairs, there was sufficient evidence that plaintiff had total disability as defined under the act.

The legal issue in the case was whether LIGA should be held liable for the insurance that was provided by Employers' National, which was declared insolvent. The "last responsible employer" rule was a policy decision on the part of the acts administrators. Eventually, it was judicially adopted by courts. Under the act, insurance liability would fall onto the shoulders of Employers' National. Employers' National insured plaintiff's employer during the last years of his employment. Under Louisiana law, the law responsible employer rule would also subject the last insurer. The rule applies to Employers' National, and in turn to LIGA, as a substitute party in this case. Thus, under the law, and Federal law as applied in Louisiana, LIGA is liable to plaintiff for his injuries and medical expenses.

Although, nothing can take away the pain and anguish associated with a debilitating disease or the loss of a loved one, there are law that were created to protect those who have been impacted by disease associated with asbestos. It is essential that if you or a loved one have been injured due to asbestos exposure, you should contact an attorney who may be able to help. Laws like the LHWCA have been enacted to help people in such difficult and trying time.

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Posted On: February 11, 2011

Louisiana Court Sets Out Requirements for Summary Judgment

During the course of litigation, one of the tools used by lawyers and the legal system to weed out weak cases is to file for summary judgment. The basic premise of summary judgment is to call the other side to provide solid evidence of their claim. The moving party, the party filing the summary judgment, tells the adverse side that they need to demonstrate to the judge that they can actually prove all the elements required to win the case. This does not mean that they need to show that they can win the case, it just means that they need to show that all the evidence they have acquired at least allows them to bring forth a feasible case on all necessary elements of their claim or defense. If the adverse party is unable to factually prove the elements of their claim, the Court grants smmary judgment by stating that their is "no genuine issue as to material fact."

In Christine Comeaux vs Debbie Lemmons, the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, worked its way through the law of summary judgment to decide whether summary judgment was properly granted at the trial court level. The plaintiff was an employee of Giddy-Up-N-GO Lounge (Lounge) in Rayne, LA. After her shift, she remained at her place of work as a patron. During the course of the time she was there, another patron fell into plaintiff causing her to fall and break her leg. She sued the Lounge stating that the Lounge (1) Failed to monitor the consumption of its patrons (2) allowed patrons to dance in inappropriate conditions (3) encouraged reckless behavior (4) allowed the number of patrons to exceed maximum capacity and (5) failed to do and see all things necessary to ensure her saftey during her time as a patron.

During her deposition, plaintiff clearly stated that she was unsure and unaware of whether the patron who fell into her was intoxicated. Further, she admitted that she did not know whether the Lounge was beyond full capacity during the incident that broke her leg. Furthermore, she stated that although there were times when people receieved DWIs after leaving the Lounge, she had no facts to support her proposition that the Lounge was acting irresponsibly on the day of the accident. Her claim, that the Lounge was responsible for the actions of its drunk patrons, falls under the civil law of "dram shop liability." States that adhere to this type of liabilty state different conditions in which those who provide alcohol, either at parties, or for sale, can be held liable for the actions of those who become drunk from the alcohol. In Louisiana, the statute La.Rs.9:2800.1 speaks to the legislatures view on dram shop liability. The statute states that liability for actions that cause damage or injury will be on those who do the drinking, not on those that provide alcohol, if the person receiving the alcohol is of legal age to consume it.

Summary judgment is granted if pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affadavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact, and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Further, 966(C)(2) states that the burden remains on the moving party. However, if the moving party is not responsible for the burden of proof at trial, all the movant has to do is show that there is factual support lacking for one or more of the adverse party's essential elements. If after this is shown, the adverse party fails to bring forth evidence that provides the needed factual support, there is no genuine issue as to material fact, and summary judgment should be granted. In this case, during her deposition, plaintiff negated her own pleadings. She stated that she did not know whether the patron who fell into her was actually drunk, that she did not know whether the number of patrons were beyond maximum capacity, and that she did not know whether any person was allowed to go home by driving drunk. In either case, the law as it stands concerning dram shop liability exposes on the person who does the drinking to liability. After defendant brought forth the motion for summary judgment, plaintiff was unable to fulfill her burden on providing facts to show that all elements could at least be proven. Therefore, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the trial court.

It is essential that if you have a claim, or your think you have a claim, you should seek the advice of legal counsel as soon as possible so that time does not run out on your ability to take any kind of action on your claim.

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Posted On: February 9, 2011

Court Reaffirms: No Passenger Responsibility in Car Crash Caused by Drunk Driver

Louisiana courts have consistently held that a guest passenger is not responsible for a driver’s negligence. “This jurisprudential rule recognizes the fact that an automobile passenger is generally incapable of influencing the driver’s behavior: it is unrealistic to hold ... that the occupant of a motor vehicle has factually any control or right of control over the driving of the operator.” See Adams v. Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford, 543 So.2d 480, 485 (La. 1989). Despite this well-settled rule, the plaintiff in the case of Delcambre v. Jones attempted, unsuccessfully, to impute the defendant driver's negligence to his passenger. On September 24, 2006, Stephen Delcambre was stopped at a red light on U.S. Highway 90 in St. Martin Parish when his car was struck from behind. The errant car, which had been rented by Jeffrey Schommer, was being driven at the time by Thaddeus Jones while Schommer was a passenger. Jones was drunk at the time of the accident and later pled guilty to DWI. Delcambre filed suit against Jones and Schommer, and eventually settled with Jones. During a trial in the continuing action against Schommer, Schommer's counsel moved for dismissal after the close of Decambre's evidence. The trial court granted this motion. Delcambre appealed, claiming as the sole assignment of error that the trial court erred in failing to find that Schommer was bound in solido (both together) in liability with Jones.

Delcambre urged that Schommer should be held liable with Jones in solido under Louisiana Civil Code Article 2324(A), which states:

“He who conspires with another person to commit an intentional or willful act is answerable, in solido, with that person, for the damage caused by such act.”
The Third Circuit, however, in reviewing the trial record, pronounced it "completely devoid of any evidence whatsoever that Mr. Schommer conspired with Mr. Jones to commit any act, intentional or otherwise." The court observed that the only evidence Delcambre offered about Schommer was that "he was so intoxicated that he was blacked out on the side of the road after the accident, unable to speak or even sit up." Agreeing with the trial court's conclusion, the court deemed that Schommer would have been unable to conspire with Jones in his condition. Furthermore, "Schommer’s intoxication alone certainly does not prove the conspiracy" required by the Civil Code to impose in solido liability. Accordingly, the court found no error in the trial court's ruling and affirmed the dismissal of Delcambre's action.

Although one can sympathize with Delcambre's desire to maximize his recovery for the personal injuries and property damage he sustained at the hands of Jones, Louisiana’s long-held rule that a driver’s negligence is not imputed to a guest passenger defeated his attempt to obtain compensation from a passenger. Merely renting a car and surrendering the keys to another driver--even one who is intoxicated--are not enough to invoke in solido liability for the driver's negligence.

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Posted On: February 7, 2011

Plaintiff's Failure to Mitigate Damages in Shreveport Accident Results in Reduction of Damages Award

It is well-settled in Louisiana jurisprudence that an injured party has a duty to mitigate damages. In other words, a victim is required to make reasonable efforts to minimize the extent of injury or damage that results from a tortfeasor's actions, even though the actions may be negligent or wrongful. The idea is that a plaintiff cannot just "sit idly by" while his situation becomes worse if there is something he could do to stop or lessen the damage. A plaintiff, however, is not required to make extraordinary efforts or to do what is unreasonable or impractical to minimize the damages. Instead, the efforts need only pass the test of being consistent with common sense.

For a defendant to invoke the defense of the plaintiff's failure to mitigate damages, the defendant must meet the burden of showing that: (1) the plaintiff's conduct after the injury was unreasonable; and (2) that the plaintiff's unreasonable conduct resulted in the aggravation the his harm. In light of the standard of reasonableness on the part of the plaintiff's duty to mitigate, this is not a simple burden for a defendant to carry. The recent case of Britt v. City of Shreveport offers a look at the Second Circuit Court of Appeal's treatment of this issue. On August 5, 2003, Carolyn Britt was driving her Chevy Astro van on Thornhill Street in Shreveport. The street was partially blocked by a crew of City employees that was trimming a roadside tree. One of the employees signaled to Britt to proceed through the area. As she drove through, a tree massive limb fell and landed on top of her vehicle. Britt suffered multiple injuries to her head, neck, shoulders, lower back, and legs, but did not immediately go to the hospital. Instead, she called her daughter to pick her up from the scene.

More than a week later, Britt sought treatment from a chiropractor who saw her over the course of the next six months. Although her condition improved, Britt continued to experience back pain, so the chiropractor referred her for an MRI. Britt refused the MRI but instead over the next year serially consulted four physicians whose recommendations she routinely ignored. After being told by the last physician that she was not a candidate for surgery, Britt visited a neurosurgeon in November of 2004. The neurosurgeon recommended surgery to correct her back problems. Britt then was examined by a physical therapist who suggested a physical therapy rehabilitation program to follow the surgery. Britt never underwent the surgery or enrolled in the therapy program. Instead, she filed a petition against the City of Shreveport to recover damages resulting from personal injuries, including pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, and loss of enjoyment in life. The City did not dispute its fault in the accident, so following a trial on the quantum of damages the court awarded Britt $371,963.96 in general and special damages. This amount included an unspecified reduction based on Britt's failure to seek and follow proper medical treatment following the accident. The City appealed, arguing that the trial court's award did not accuratly reflect that, had Britt submitted to the recommended treatments and physical therapy regimen, she would have substantially increased her chances of not needing surgery at all. In addition, the City argued that the trial court erred in determining that Britt was justified in refusing to undergo surgery because she would have been required to pay for the procedure out of her own pocket.

The court, mindful of the requirement for a plaintiff to mitigate damages, noted that a plaintiff's "recovery will not be limited because of a refusal to undergo medical treatment that holds little promise for successful recovery." Jacobs v. New Orleans Public Service. The court explained, "the expense and inconvenience of treatment are also proper considerations in determining the reasonableness of a person's refusal to submit to treatment." The court noted that the trial court properly considered Britt's lack of financial means to pay for the recommended physical therapy or surgery, the latter totaling an estimated $50,000. Nevertheless, the trial court found that without the surgery, Britt would never recover from her injuries, and so the failure to undertake the surgery was contrary to Britt's duty to make reasonable efforts to mitigate damages. This was reflected in the amount of damages awarded Britt by the trial court. The Second Circuit found no abuse of discretion on the part of the trial court in this decision, and affirmed its award of damages.

The Britt case shows the value of consulting an attorney as soon as possible following an accident. Given the duty for an injured plaintiff to mitigate damages, it is prudent to discuss possible treatment options with a lawyer as part of the process of deciding the best course of action to take. As this case demonstrates, a plaintiff's damages award will be reduced if the court finds this duty has not been met.

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Posted On: February 5, 2011

Passing Poses Problems: Automobile Accident Liability for Passing Vehicles on the Roadways

Accidents are a common occurrence for automobile drivers. In fact, in 2009, there were 73,900 injuries caused by automobile accidents in the state of Louisiana. However, when one is injured in such an accident, liability is often difficult to assign. In other words, it takes a fact-finder to determine who is at fault for the accident and who is liable for damages incurred by any injured party. In a recent Louisiana court case, a passing motorist was found to be 100% liable for injuries sustained by an individual while the other motorist involved in the accident was not liable for payment of any damages.

On August 18, 1999, William Boyd was injured in a motor vehicle accident that occurred on Louisiana Highway 14 in Jefferson Davis Parish. Boyd, who was an inmate assigned to highway clean-up at the time of the accident, was a passenger in the prison van driven by Joseph Deville. A sixteen-foot trailer, used to carry tools and supplies needed for the work detail was attached to the rear of the prison van; also, a dump truck followed the van. The driver of the prison van was in search of a clear spot on Highway 14 to pull over and allow the inmates to eat lunch. Mr. Deville located a clear, shady spot on the left of the Highway and, as the prison van began to exit to the left, a passing car driven by Rosalinda Broussard hit the rear left side of the van. As a result of the accident, Mr. Boyd sustained injuries and brought suit against Mr. Deville, Wackenhut prison facility, Ms. Broussard and the insurance companies for the parties. Before trial, Mr. Boyd settled his claims against Ms. Broussard and her insurer. However, he proceeded with his claims against the three remaining defendants arguing that Mr. Deville began to make his left turn well after Ms. Broussard began her passing maneuver. In the bench trial, the trial judge found Ms. Broussard to be 100% liable for the injuries and dismissed the case against the other defendants. This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

In order to reverse a trial court's findings, "a reasonable factual basis [must] not exist for the finding of the trial court" and "the record establishes that the finding is not clearly wrong." Otherwise, the decision would be reversed. When imposing liability for an automobile accident, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff to exercise reasonable care while driving on the road and that duty was breached by failing to act like the average reasonably motorist. This failure must have proximately caused the plaintiff's damages. While duty and breach are questions of law and determined by the court, causation and damages are questions left for the fact-finder to determine. In Louisiana, courts have found that allocating fault "is not an exact science nor is it a search for a precise ration. Instead, the courts must determine if the "allocated fault falls within a certain range that does not violate the manifest error rule. While finding that Mr. Deville was not at fault for the accident, the court quoted a Louisiana statute, which provides specific instruction for motorists in the left lane attempting to pass other vehicles, entitled "Limitations for passing on the left." Since Ms. Broussard did not comply with this statute and Mr. Deville used his turn signal and began to turn before Ms. Broussard began her passing maneuver, she was found to be solely responsible for the accident.

In personal injury suits, it is the responsibility of attorneys to maximize the amount of damages the injured plaintiff may recover or to minimize the liability of the defendant. Thus, it is crucial that an individual involved in such a lawsuit consult a seasoned attorney, such as those from Berniard Law Firm, to assist them with their claims.

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Posted On: February 3, 2011

Lake Charles Bicycle Accident Case Leads Court to Review Role of Lay Witness Testimony

In numerous prior posts, we have explored how critical expert testimony often is in determining the outcome of a negligence trial. Although experts can play a pivotal role in helping a plaintiff build his case, they do present some limitations. Typically, expert witnesses are required to render an opinion based on the information that they or someone else (e.g., a police officer) gathered after the fact; this can mean that not all useful evidence is available, and may call for some level of educated speculation. Also, practically speaking, it can be expensive for a plaintiff to retain the services of an expert, especially when the value of the claim is not particularly substantial. It follows then that often a plaintiff must rely on non-expert, or "lay," witnesses at trial. Commonly, lay witnesses are recruited bystanders who happened to observe the incident which gave rise to the plaintiff's claim. Although lay witnesses are somewhat limited in the types of opinions they can offer in testimony, their input is often extremely valuable for a plaintiff.

In the recent case Mitchell v. Roy, the Louisiana Court of Appeals examined the handling of important lay witness testimony by the trial court. In March of 2008, Darion Mitchell, age 10, was riding his bicycle on 8th Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets in Lake Charles when he veered into the path of a Chevrolet minivan driven by Albert Roy, Jr. Mitchell, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown onto the hood of the van and struck the windshield. He was transported by ambulance to Christus St. Patrick's Hospital where he underwent a series of tests that revealed he suffered some minor soft tissue swelling but no brkoen bones. Mitchell was diagnosed with a head injury and scalp lacerations, and he received stitches before being discharged from the hospital later the same day. Within a few months, Mitchell's mother filed suit against Roy, alleging that Roy had negligently caused the accident by driving in excess of the posted speed limit, by failing to keep a proper lookout, and by failing to take care to avoid the collision. A bench trial was held. One of Mitchell's key witnesses was Angela Dodd, a neighborhood resident who happened to be sitting on her front porch at the time the accident occurred. Dodd offered testimony about the speed of Roy's van: she estimated that Roy was driving between 35 and 40 MPH. This estimate was based on Dodd's prior experience operating her own vehicle "at various speeds" and the fact that Roy's vehicle "kicked up dust" on the street as it approached Mitchell. The trial resulted in a finding that Roy's negligence was the sole cause of the collision, a verdict in Mitchell's favor, and an award of damages. Roy appealed, citing as error, among other things, the trial court's allowing Dodd to offer a lay opinion as to the speed of Roy's vehicle.

The Third Circuit addressed this enumeration of error by first reviewing the standard in Louisiana for assessing the admissibility of a lay witness's opinion testimony. The state Code of Evidence in Article 701 provides that such testimony is limited to opinions which are (1) rationally based on the perception of the witness; and (2) helpful to a clear understanding of her testimony or the determination of a fact in issue. Put another way, a lay witness is permitted to draw reasonable inferences from her personal observations, so long as she also explains what those observations were. As a general rule, when reviewing a trial court's admission of lay opinion testimony, an appellate court must ask whether the testimony was an improper speculative opinion or simply an inference drawn from the witness's observations and, if erroneously admitted, whether the testimony was so prejudicial as to constitute error that should be reversed. The court noted that in overruling Roy's objections to Dodd's testimony, the trial court stated that it would "take into consideration that [Dodd] is not an expert on speed" and that it would consider her opinion "in the context of just a lay impression." After reviewing the record of Dodd's "compelling" testimony about what she observed and how she arrived at her speed estimate, the court determined it was "satisfied that the trial court properly allowed Dodd to testify as to the inferences she drew based upon her personal observations, [and] that the trial court gave the proper weight to Dodd's opinion testimony." Furthermore, the court deemed the opinion, even if admitted in error, insufficiently prejudicial to Roy so as to warrant reversal.

The Mitchell case demonstrates Louisiana's reasonable approach to the admission of lay witness opinions during a trial. It's almost unavoidable that witnesses will include some type of opinion in the testimony they provide--this is simply the nature of the role of a person called to court to explain what she saw. It is up to the trial judge to weigh the potential harm to the other party when allowing a lay witness to offer an opinion, and to ensure that the opinion is based solidly on facts the witness personally observed. Naturally, an experienced trial attorney is invaluable to a plaintiff in identifying appropriate witnesses whose testimony will meet these requirements and help build the case.

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Posted On: February 1, 2011

Court Upholds Exclusion Clause in Hotelier's Insurance Policy Following Rape of Guest

Hotel owners, like other hospitality business operators, have a general duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety and security of their guests. The duty extends to protecting guests from harm caused by other guests and visitors to the premises. This does not mean that hotels are liable for any injury or loss that a guest suffers--generally, the victim must show that the hotel (through the actions of its employees) was negligent before the hotel faces liability. To help protect against this exposure, hotel owners typically buy liability insurance policies to cover the property in the event of a problem. However, these insurance policies frequently include substantial limitations. In particular, many policies exclude coverage for any injuries that arise from the service of alcoholic beverages on the premises. Other exclusions include denying coverage for physical assaults. In Piligra v. America's Best Value Inn, Inc., No. 10-254 (La. App. 3d Cir. 2010), the court examined--and upheld--this very type of coverage exclusion.

Susana Piligra visited the nightclub inside the America's Best Value Inn hotel where she consumed an excessive amount of alcohol and passed out. An employee of the hotel took Piligra up to a room on the second floor and, on the way, they came upon an unknown male who helped get Piligra to the room. The hotel employee left Piligra in the room with the unknown male. When Piligra's friend later went to check on her, the friend opened the door to find the unknown male "climbing off her with his pants down." Piligra went to a local hospital where it was determined that she was apparently raped by the unknown male while she was unconscious. Piligra filed suit against the hotel and its liability insurance carrier, Evanston Insurance Company, alleging that the hotel negligently transported her to a room without her consent and failed to attend to her in a responsible manner given her condition. Evanston filed a motion for summary judgment based on the exclusions contained in the hotel's policy. The trial court granted Evanston's motion, and both Piligra and the hotel appealed.

The Third Circuit reviewed that an "insurance policy is interpreted like any other contract," and that "[i]nsurance companies are permitted to limit coverage through policy exclusions as long as the limitations do not conflict with statutory provisions or public policy." Ledbetter v. Concord Gen. Corp., 665 So.2d 1166 (1996). With those principles in mind, the court examined the policy Evanston issued to the hotel and found a provision that clearly excluded coverage for any claim arising out of "assault and/or battery." The court noted that "Louisiana courts have upheld [limitations] similar to the Evanston policy [limitations] that preclude coverage for assault and battery, including rape." Thus, the court reasoned, "[b]ecause rape is a battery and because the assault and battery exclusion in the Evanston policy is unambiguous, we find that the exclusion is applicable and precludes coverage for Ms. Piligra's injuries." Accordingly, the court affirmed the decision of the trial court to dismiss Evanston Insurance Company from the suit.

This case brings to light one of the major challenges that plaintiffs can face when seeking to recover damages. Even assuming Piligra is successful in establishing the hotel's negligence (a question not addressed in this appeal), without an insurance policy to cover Piligra's award, the hotel may not have sufficient liquid assets available to satisfy the judgment. And although it may be possible for the hotel to sell off assets to raise the funds, that process would add considerable delay to Piligra's ultimate recovery. An experienced trial attorney is an invaluable resource for a plaintiff through every step of the litigation process, including collecting a damages award.

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