Bridge Accident Case Shows Value of Litigation Discovery for Plaintiff

The issue of whether a defendant breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiff in a negligence case is settled by examining the events that occurred in connection with the accident. Unfortunately for many plaintiffs, specific details about the defendant’s conduct may not be readily available and, absent some legally enforceable demand, a defendant is unlikely to volunteer any self-incriminating information that may help the plaintiff build his negligence case.

Louisiana civil procedure provides an avenue for a plaintiff to obtain needed information about the defendant’s conduct through “discovery” in litigation. Discovery is the phase of a law suit during which the parties can request information from each other, usually in the form of interrogatories (written questions) and requests for documents. The parties can also schedule depositions where witnesses are interviewed. Although there are some exceptions to the types of materials that must be exchanged through discovery, the intent is to level the playing field with respect to information about the case so that the parties can adequately prepare for trial.

The case of Simoneaux v. State of Louisiana Department of Highways, 106 So. 2d 742 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1958), illustrates the essential role that evidence obtained through discovery can play for the plaintiff in a negligence case. On the evening of August 25, 1955, Clement J. Simoneaux was driving in his car with his wife and her friend on La. Hwy. 1 in Plaquemine, Iberville Parish. At the point where Hwy. 1 crosses the Bayou Plaquemine, there was a lift span bridge–a drawbridge in which the center section would lift vertically, as one piece, to permit boats to pass below. On the evening in question, the lift span, after being raised for a passing boat, was returned to its original position. However, at the south end of the opening, the span did not seat itself fully. Instead, the end of the span stopped some distance above the level of the roadway.

Simoneaux had stopped his car south of the bridge, awaiting the opening of the gates and barricade to allow forward movement of vehicles driving north across the bridge. When the gates and barricades were raised by the bridge operator, Simoneaux proceeded onto the bridge and drove into the protruding span. The collision with the bridge damaged Simoneaux’s car and injured him and his passengers.

The Court of Appeal evaluated Simoneaux’s claim of negligence on the part of the bridge operator by focusing on “a variation of operating procedures pursued by the two operators of this bridge” (106 So. 2d at 745). During the lowering of the bridge, the operator did not descend to the roadway of the bridge to check that it was level after lowering the span, even though he knew that on some previous occasions the bridge had not completely seated itself when he operated it and could not view the span from his position. Instead, the operator simply relied on the bridge’s automatic signaling device that indicated the span was seated. Furthermore, the chief operator of the bridge, who was not working that evening, testified at trial that it was his standard practice to descend to the rodaway of the bridge and check the levels of both approaches before removing the barriers and giving the go-ahead for the passage of vehicles over the bridge.

Accordingly, the court concluded that,

Inasmuch as the bridge failed to seat itself properly on previous occasions and for the reasons that the chief operator of the bridge testified that it was impossible to check the level of the bridge at the south end from the operator’s elevated position, we believe that the defendant was on notice that the automatic signaling devices of the bridge could not be relied upon entirely and it was their duty to do more than merely rely on the signaling devices of the bridge” (106 So. 2d at 745).

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As a result, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s award of damages to Simoneaux and his passengers.

The evidence of the bridge operator’s conduct, the history of seating problems with the bridge, and the differing approach taken by the chief operator were all facts not readily available to Simoneaux through simple observation. Presumably, the bridge operator and chief bridge operator would not have cooperated in sharing their stories with Simoneaux without being compelled to do so though discovery. Because discovery is only available to a plaintiff following the filing of an initial complaint, it is essential for a plaintiff to retain competent counsel who can evaluate a claim and employ the most effective strategies in discovery for obtaining the information required to prevail in court.

If you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help.