When a person files a lawsuit, they generally have the right to be heard on their complaint. However, depending on when the lawsuit is brought, the action may be barred due to the lapse of time between the events leading to the lawsuit and the date the lawsuit is filed. This rule is known as prescription and the problems that can arise for plaintiffs from this rule can be seen in a lawsuit arising out of of Hammond, Louisiana.
The plaintiff, Robert DeVance, brought a lawsuit in April of 2007 alleging that he was falsely arrested and beaten while handcuffed by two Hammond police officers. Later, on March 5, 2009, Mr. DeVance filed an amended complaint naming three new Hammond police officers as defendants. In his amended complaint, Mr. DeVance alleged that he was “hogtied” by the three new defendants while being held at the local jail. This treatment, claims Mr. DeVance, caused him to receive severe injuries due to tightly placed handcuffs on his wrists.
The new defendants filed an exception of prescription, which may release a defendant from responsibility by a lapse of time between the action and the time a lawsuit may legally be brought. These periods are usually laid out in the text of the laws themselves. The rule of prescription has its origins in public policy. This policy is not to deny relief for those who have been harmed, but to provide the liable individual with some assurance that if a lawsuit is not filed against them in a timely manner they do not have to remain constantly worried that they will be sued at anytime in the future.
The new defendants contended that the amended complaint by Mr. DeVance did not “relate back” to the earlier complaint. “Relate back” is a legal term that is the idea that an amended complaint should be treated as part of an earlier complaint. The defendants argued that the amended complaint made to the original complaint two years earlier, did not relate back.
As a result, the amended complaint should be barred by prescription. The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, Article 1153 states that in order for the amended complaint to relate back to the original complaint the amended complaint must be connected to the original cause of action. La. Code Civ. Proc. art. 1153. If the amended complaint does relate back to the original complaint, then the amended complaint is not prevented by prescription. Id.
The trial court granted the defendant’s exception of prescription, that the amended complaint could not proceed because the new defendants had been added after the allowed time period. It further ruled that the incident in question was properly handled by the police officers and not in a negligent manner. Mr. DeVance appealed both rulings.
As for the issue on the police officers accused negligence, the Louisiana First Circuit of Appeal (appellate court) upheld the finding of the trial court that the actions of the police officers were not negligent. The ruling was handed down by the trial court after a two day bench trial (a type of trial where the judge acts as the fact finder instead of a jury). The appellate court reviewed the ruling of the trial court with a standard that gives great weight to the trial court’s interpretation of the facts. This is because the appellate courts have to rely on the records of the trial court and do not view the evidence live at trial as the trial courts do. Therefore, the standard used by the appellate court in reviewing the decision of the trial court was manifest error, a standard that does not ask whether the court was right or wrong, but simply whether the finding of the trial court is a reasonable one based on the evidence. Adams v. Rhodia, Inc., 2007-2110 (La. 5/21/08), 983 So.2d 798, 806; Stobart v. State, Department of Transportation and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993).
In looking at the record of the trial court, the appellate court concluded that the finding of the trial court concerning the lack of negligence on the part of the three defendant police officers was correct. This affirmation was based on the testimony of one of the defendants at trial, who testified that he only restrained Mr. DeVance in handcuffs when Mr. DeVance became agitated and belligerent in his cell by kicking walls and throwing himself against the cell door. The officer claimed that he restrained Mr. DeVance for Mr. DeVance’s own safety. The officer continued to recount that the method he used to place the handcuffs on Mr. DeVance left a two finger space between the handcuffs and Mr. DeVance’s wrists. Mr. DeVance testified that the handcuffs had been placed on too tightly and caused him severe nerve damage in his wrists. Expert medical testimony was also presented which affirmed that tight handcuffs could cause pain in the manner described by Mr. DeVance if his version of the story was accepted as fact. From this evidence, the trial court decided to accept the testimony of the defendant officer over the testimony of Mr. DeVance.
The appellate court, based on the evidence presented in the record, concluded that the trial court’s finding was reasonable based on the evidence presented. From this conclusion, they affirmed the trial court’s ruling that there was no negligence on the part of the three police officer defendants. Concerning the prescription issue the appellate court concluded that the there was no need to rule on that issue considering the case was dispensed by a ruling against any liability on the part of the officers.
Prescription, while seemingly a straightforward concept, can cause serious problems for plaintiffs seeking complete relief for injuries that they have received. In order to understand and prevent the problems that plagued Mr. DeVance’s case from occurring, it is important that a client be straightforward and forthcoming to their attorney in order to make sure all actions are properly brought before prescription prevents the actions from proceeding.
Standards of Review are also important for clients to keep in mind when appealing a judgment made by the trial court. Appellate courts are more likely to side with a trial court’s judgment on questions involving fact using the manifest error standard. Therefore, in order for an appeal to be successful on this ground, the ruling of the trial court must be shown to have been unreasonable based on the evidence presented, which is a tough standard to meet.
Additional Sources: ROBERT DEVANCE VERSUS JAMMIE HAUCK, THOMAS MILLER, AND HAMMOND CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Cameron Coker
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on the “Relate back” concept and Prescription: Statute of Limitation Can Void Ability to Recover for Legitimate Cases