A two-car collision on Highway 117 in Natchitoches Parish led to a lawsuit and an appeal regarding the amount of damages awarded, among other things. On the morning of October 25, 2002, Edward Raymond was travelling north on Highway 117, returning from work. He was a firefighter at Fort Polk. That same morning Stephen Taylor was traveling south on the same highway. Taylor was on his way to New Orleans to get a sea card to work on tugboats. He was detouring to his girlfriend’s mother’s house in Leesville to pick up his birth certificate. It was raining that morning and during Taylor’s maneuver to pass a loaded log truck, he saw the headlights of Raymond’s vehicle. Taylor attempted to drive onto the shoulder to avoid a collision, but Raymond also tried to avoid a wreck by driving onto the shoulder; the cars crashed head-on and Raymond died as a result of the accident. The site of the crash was in a no-passing zone. The jury determined that Taylor was 75% at fault and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) was 25% at fault (mostly for failing to place a no-passing pennant sign at the start of the no-passing zone where the accident occurred).
The jury awarded the following damages
(1) $5,421.20 for funeral expenses; (2) $1,904.00 for medical expenses; (3) $1,514,747.79 for loss of past earnings, future earnings, and earning capacity; (4) $50,000.00 for the conscious pain and suffering and anguish of Mr. Raymond; (5) $1,500,000.00 for the damages suffered by Barbara Raymond for the loss of her husband; and (6) $750,000.00 to each of [Raymond’s] four children for the loss of their father.
These include two types of damage awards: general and special damages. Special damages are those which have a “ready market value.” They can usually be determined with relative certainty and include costs such as medical expenses and lost wages. These are “out of pocket” costs and usually have some concrete evidence to determine an appropriate amount. When there is an appeal regarding the amount of special damages the appellate court must review the record as a whole and satisfy a two-step process in order to disturb the findings at the trial level. First, there must be no reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s conclusions. Second, the finding must be clearly wrong.
General damages refer to most other damages, typically subjective loss and suffering, that cannot be fixed to a monetary amount with certainty. There are no receipts or bills to indicate how much a person should be compensated with regard to general damages, though that does not mean damages for suffering are not justified. When an appellate court reviews general damages the charge of the appellate court is not to decide what it considers to be the appropriate reward. The appellate court should only review the exercise of discretion that is allowed to the trial court. Just because an appellate court would have set the damage award at a different amount does not mean the award should be disturbed. Even when review of the record supports that the lower court abused its discretion, the appellate court may only change the award to the extent of lowering it to the highest point which is reasonable or raising it to the lowest point which is reasonable within the discretion the lower court is allowed (basically, the appellate court may bring the award to just within a range reasonable to the record).
A judge or jury at the trial level is given a great deal of discretion to assess the amount of damages to be awarded. The trial level decision makers have the benefit of live witnesses and experiencing the trial. The appellate court sees only the “cold” record. Plus, the function of the trial level judge and jury is to determine questions of fact and the appellate court should be careful not to make its own fact findings. Thus it is important for potential plaintiffs not only to present a claim well at the trial level, but also to afford a convincing line of evidence so that any challenge to the amount of damages at the trial level will be well supported for review at the appellate level. Plaintiffs should seek a skilled attorney to ensure that the damages sought are supported with hard evidence (like receipts and bills when possible) and other convincing evidence when there are no market equivalents to determine losses or other costs.