Lafayette Car Wreck Leads Court to Explore the Role of Plaintiff’s Pre-Existing Condition in Assessing Damages

It is well settled in Louisiana law that “a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him and when a defendant’s tortious conduct aggravates a pre-existing condition, the defendant must compensate the victim for the full extent of the aggravation.” Lasha v. Olin Corp. In other words, when a person injures another, that person is responsible for all damages he caused the victim, even if the victim’s own unusual susceptibility contributed to the extent of the damages. This does not mean, however, that the injured plaintiff is relieved from the standard requirement of tying the damages he suffered to the defendant’s negligent action.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently explored this concept in the case of Downing v. Miller. On October 15, 2007, Carolann Downing was involved in a car accident with John Miller in Lafayette. The incident occurred when Miller pulled out of a restaurant parking lot onto Congress Street and crashed into Downing’s vehicle. Downing did not suffer any physical injuries, but the experience aggravated her pre-existing bi-polar anxiety and obsessive-compulsive mental disorders. At trial, the parties stipulated Miller’s liability for the accident; the only issue in dispute was the amount of damages. Downing testified that she experienced mania followed by depression after the accident. Her symptoms included loss of sleep, loss of appetite, racing thoughts, nervousness, agitation, and anger. Thereafter, she became depressed and was unable to care for herself: she did not leave the house but instead stayed in bed and slept most of the time. However, on cross examination, Downing acknowledged that during her life she commonly experienced “periods of ups and downs” and that the episode following the accident with Miller was consistent with other “down” periods she had suffered in the past. Downing offered the testimony of Dr. Bob Winston, her treating physician, who confirmed that the accident exacerbated her mental issues. Dr. Winston further offered a summary of the behaviors Downing exhibited in the five-month period following the wreck, which he attributed to the stress she experienced in the event. Essentially, however, Dr. Winston’s summary showed that Downing steadily improved over time. The trial court awarded Downing $7,500 in damages. Dowling appealed, arguing that the trial court’s award was so low as to be “clearly wrong.”

As we have covered previously on this blog, the trial court enjoys “great discretion” in setting damages awards, and an appellate court may disturb a trial court’s award only on the showing of a clear abuse of discretion. Wainwright v. Fontenot. Although Dowling argued that the trial court abused its discretion in not fully taking into account the accident’s role in exacerbating her mental disorders, the Third Circuit found sufficient evidence that the trial court’s decision was well-grounded on the evidence presented at trial. For example, the court noted that Dr. Winston observed an increase in symptoms when Dowling’s aunt passed away and also on an occasion when she was nervous about an upcoming visit with her son. The trial court determined that Dowling’s response to the accident was similar to other aggravations triggered by ordinary events in her life; therefore, the accident did not cause an unusual result for Dowling for which she was entitled to a higher amount of compensation. The Third Circuit agreed with this reasoning in light of the evidence of Dowling’s mental health history and affirmed the award.

The lesson from the Dowling case is that, although a negligent defendant is responsible for all damages he causes the plainitiff — even those damages that arise out of a unique condition — the defendant must demonstrate that any compensible consequence is directly linked the the defendant’s conduct. In this case, Dowling did obtain some level of damages for her mental suffering following the accident, but the evidence she presented did not demonstrate that the trial court erroneously arrived at the amount. By hiring a skilled attorney who can help work at presenting proper evidence, contact one of our expert attorneys today.

If you have been injured in a car accident, call the Berniard Law Firm today toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.