In a tort action for a car wreck, the court is authorized to award a successful plaintiff two types of damages. Special damages are intended to reimburse a plaintiff for the quantifiable costs and expenses he incurred as a result of his injuries. Medical expenses and car repair costs fall into this category. To recover special damages, the plaintiff is required to show the amounts he paid and show that they were the consequence of the accident. General damages, on the other hand,
“involve mental or physical pain and suffering, inconvenience, loss of intellectual or physical enjoyment, or other losses of lifestyle which cannot be measured exactly in monetary terms.” Robbins v. State ex rel. Dept. of Labor, 728 So. 2d 991 (La. App. 2d Cir. 1999).
Naturally, arriving at an amount for general damages is far less precise, and so Louisiana law leaves “much discretion … to the judge or jury” in setting the award amount. La. C.C.Art. 2324.1. In fact, in order for an appellate court to modify a general damages award, the trial record “must clearly reveal that the trial court abused its broad discretion in making the award, based on the facts and individual circumstances peculiar to the case under consideration.” Youn v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 623 So. 2d 1257 (La. 1993).
An appellate court’s deference to a trial court’s judgment on the amount of general damages was aptly shown in the case of Pittard v. Lewis, No. 45-412CA (La. App. 2d Cir. 2010). On March 15, 2007, Robert Pittard was driving his mother’s car on Interstate 220 in Bossier City. As he took the off-ramp to La. Highway 80, a car driven by Jonathan Lewis collided with Pittard’s vehicle. Pittard was transported to the Willis-Knighton Bossier Health Center where he received treatment for a concussion and a severe facial laceration. At the trial, Pittard put on evidence that, after the accident, he began experiencing back and neck pain. He visited the Spine Institute of Louisiana where he was diagnosed with a lumbar and cervical strain and underwent physical therapy. Pittard’s pain continued throughout the fall of 2007, at which time he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. He testified that he continued having problems with his middle and lower back, especially after long drives and while playing sports. The following summer, Pittard returned to the Spine Institute where he was diagnosed with mid back pain, thoracic facet dysfunction, upper lumbar pain, and mild L5-S1 spondylosis. Further physical therapy was recommended.
Lewis did not dispute his liability for the accident, so the only issue before the trial court was the quantum–or amount–of Pittard’s claim. At the close of the trial, the judge issued a written ruling that awarded Pittard $7,818.75 in special damages and $18,000 in general damages. In the order, the judge explained that he was “convinced that the back problems presently experienced by Pittard were directly caused by the automobile accident.” Lewis filed an appeal asserting that the general damages award was excessive.
The Second Circuit, in observing that an abuse of discretion would be required to overturn the trial court’s decision on damages, noted that a “finding of an abuse of discretion must be based on the particular injuries sustained and their effect on the particular injured person.” Montgomery v. Kedgy, 21 So. 3d 980 (La. App. 2d Cir. 2009). Accordingly, the court reviewed the record and focused on such evidence as Pittard’s testimony that he had been actively playing tennis and soccer since high school but that he had not experienced any of his current back pain prior to the accident. The court noted that Pittard explained that his back problems had gotten progressively worse after his initial release from the Spine Center. Additionally, the court considered the testimony of Pittard’s doctor, who offered the opinion that the accident was a contributing factor to Pittard’s continuing pain. The court concluded that “based upon the testimony and medical evidence contained in the record and considering the particular injuries sustained by Pittard and their effect on his physical condition and lifestyle, we cannot say the trial court’s award of $18,000 in general damages is beyond the amount reasonably within the fact-finder’s vast discretion,” and affirmed the trial court’s award.
The lesson of the Pittard case is that the plaintiff’s time to make a claim for general damages is during the trial. Had Pittard not substantiated his non-monetary damages during the trial with testimony and medical evidence, leading the trial court to award him the$18,000, he would not have been able to look to the Court of Appeal for a remedy. Likewise, as we saw here, a damages award by the trial court is extremely difficult to reduce or reverse on appeal, so it is essential that the plaintiff capitalize on the opportunity to present all evidence available on damages at trial.
If you have been injured in a car wreck, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help you make the most of the evidence and obtain the damages award you deserve.