Louisiana Court of Appeals Ruling in Multi Vehicle Jefferson Parish Accident: Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

In a 2000 case, the Court of Appeals made several rulings both reversing and affirming Judgments Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOVs) that were granted after the trial of a very serious Jefferson Parish accident.

In October 1995 Michael Mashburn was driving east on 1-10 on the downslope of Bonnabel Boulevard, Jefferson Parish, when he lost control of his vehicle and struck the guardrail. He came to a stop blocking the left lane. Minutes later another car came over the overpass and struck Mashburn’s car. The second car was knocked across three lanes of traffic, struck the right guardrail, and came to rest blocking the right lane. The state police came to the scene. Within a couple of minutes of their arrival a motorcycle driven by Sean Schneider slid into another car stopped in the accident traffic. Schneider was thrown off and killed. About 100 feet back, another motorcyclist, Mendoza, was also involved in an accident and was seriously injured (requiring a partial leg amputation).

At trial, the jury granted judgment in favor of plaintiffs Mendoza and Schneider, (via his parents) and against Mashburn and his insurance company. Mashburn and the plaintiffs moved for JNOVs which were granted by the trial court. The JNOVs found the police officers liable for the motorcycle accidents for failing to properly secure the scene and warn drivers of potential danger and altered the damage awards to both Mendoza and Schneider. Upon appeal, the 5th Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed the JNOV with respect to police officer liability, affirmed with respect to damages awarded to Mendoza, and reduced damages awarded to Sean Schneider’s parents.

JNOVs are a legal device that can be used to alter jury awards. This can be positive or negative for plaintiffs. For example, at trial, plaintiff Mendoza was awarded $150,000 for physical pain and suffering; $10,000 for emotional distress; $10,000 for loss of enjoyment of life; and nothing for disability. He was also awarded special damages of $94,710 for past medical expenses; $1,500,000 for future medical expenses; $12,000 for past lost wages; and $140,000 for future lost wages. After all three parties moved for a JNOV the trial court:

found there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s award of future medical expenses and that the jury erred in its awards for emotional distress as well as disability and loss of enjoyment of life. The trial court then awarded $150,000 for physical pain and suffering; $150,000 for past, present and future emotional distress; $100,000 past, present, and future disability; $100,000 for loss of enjoyment of life; and $250,000 future medical expenses. The jury awards for past and future lost wages, and past medical expenses were confirmed

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In their decision, the Court of Appeals provides a useful discussion of JNOVs and when they are properly granted.

A JNOV is proper only if “the facts and inferences are so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party,” that, according to the judge, no reasonable person could have arrived at a different verdict. The job of a trial court in considering a motion for JNOV is not to weigh the reliability of the evidence, or reconsider factual findings or the credibility of witnesses. The court considesr all of the evidence and give the non moving party the benefit of every reasonable inference that can be drawn from their evidence. If a JNOV is challenged the appeals court must make the same determination and asks whether the facts points so strongly in favor of the party who moved for the JNOV that reasonable men could not come to an opposite conclusion.

As such, here the Court found that impartial reasonable men could not differ in concluding that Mendoza suffered a disability in the loss of his leg. In addition, given the impact of the injuries, the awards for physical and emotional suffering and loss of employment were abusively low. After they granted Mendoza’s JNOV, the court conducted their own independent assessment of damages and that is where they decreased the special damages awarded because they found that Mendoza did not prove that it was more likely than not (preponderance of the evidence standard) that his future medical expenses would be incurred.

This tragic set of circumstances provides a brief introduction to the realities that exist with civil litigation and the complexities that must be navigated in a successful claim.