General Damage Awards: Court of Appeals Case of Injured Hineston Man

In May 2005 the Third Circuit of the Louisiana Court of Appeals upheld a significant general damages award rendered in favor of Clyde Rayburn of Hineston. Mr. Rayburn, an 83 year old widower, was injured in 2003 when he was stopped in his pickup truck at an intersection and was struck from the rear by a school bus. He sustained injuries to his right shoulder, neck, and lower back and the defendants stipulated to liability at a 2004 trial. While Mr. Rayburn’s neck and lower back complaints were resolved, at the time of trial he continued to have difficulty with his right shoulder.

According to the testimony of his physician Dr. Drury, Mr. Rayburn has a chronic complete tear to his rotator cuff. A chronic tear means that the tear initially occurred six months or more before examination (and the accident) and completely tore during the accident. Mr. Rayburn had no complaints of pain before the accident and was quite active. After the accident, however, he had difficulty lifting his arm over his head or reaching out to pick up anything, even something as light as a gallon of milk from his refrigerator. Dr. Drury also testified regarding the prognosis of the injury and indicated that Mr. Rayburn was not a candidate for surgery and, although he would have good months and bad months, his condition was permanent.

The trial court believed Mr. Rayburn’s testimony that the preexisting rotator cuff tear did not hinder his lifestyle which was affected for the worse by the accident. As such, the court awarded Mr. Rayburn $85,000 in general damages and $3,450.15 in medical expenses. The general damage award was appealed as excessive to the court of appeals.

The court upheld the damages award and indicated that a “trial court’s factual findings will not be disturbed absent manifest error.” Trial courts are typically granted vast discretion in their factual findings. Only if the award for injuries and their effects is a clear abuse of the discretion should they be disturbed. Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 623 So.2d 1257 (La.1993), cert. denied. Even a finding that lesser damages were awarded in prior cases with similar medical injuries should not be used to find an abuse of discretion. Prior awards may be looked at by a reviewing court, but only after a finding of abuse of discretion by the trial court has been made, and only to determine an appropriate damages range.

Abuse of discretion is a high legal standard. It entails a failure (by the trial court in this case) to take the facts and law related to the particular matter into proper consideration. An abuse of discretion amounts to an unreasonable departure from legal precedent and settled judicial custom. When a trial court decides a question it must not do so in a way that is clearly against logic and evidence. If that occurs, findings may be reversed on appeal.