Second Circuit Court of Appeals Explores the Allocation of Fault

Car accidents occur every day, and the first question that is usually asked is who was at fault for the accident. This determination is not easy, however, a Louisiana second circuit court of appeal’s case explored fault in order to allocate liability to the parties respectively. In Gentry v. State Farm, the Court held that both parties were at fault, the defendants were found to be 75% at fault, while the plaintiff, Gentry, was 25% at fault. The court came to this conclusion after looking at both drivers duties while driving, analyzing whether the drivers breached their duties, looking into the rules of the road, determining whether the duties of the road were breached, and looking at the duties that were found to be breached by each driver in order to find the ultimate percentages of fault in order to allocate damages. Thus, it is not always an either/or situation (one party may not be wholly responsible for the car accident) but, rather, partially responsible, so the analysis takes on a more in depth review of the circumstances that existed at the time of the accident.

An appellate court must give great deference to the allocation of fault determined by the trier of fact. Consequently, the allocation of fault may be determined within an acceptable range and any allocation by the fact finder, or trial court within that range, cannot be clearly wrong. The only way an appellate court may disturb the trial court’s fault determination is if the apportionment of fault is clearly wrong, allowing the appellate court, only then, to disturb the trial court’s award. Here, both parties were seeking a finding of 100% fault for the opposing party, asking the appellate court to reverse the apportionment determination found by the trial court in order to dismiss the percentages of fault that were initially determined. If the trial court’s determination of fault is found to be clearly wrong, the appellate court is then permitted to adjust the award, but only to the extent of lowering or raising it to the highest or lowest point respectively which is reasonably within the trial court’s discretion.

After reviewing both party’s evidence put forward at the trial court level, the appellate court determined that manifest error existed in the record, and allowed for a reframing of liability findings, but only to the minimum extent to achieve reasonableness. So, it is not unheard of for appellate courts to find error of fault determinations held at the trial level, if the trier of fact proves to be clearly wrong, the appellate court may proceed to adjust accordingly.

In the instant case, each side requested the appellate court to assess the other party with 100% fault. But, after reviewing the facts, the appellate court determined they were each at fault at varying percentages. The car accident involved a son driving his father down the right lane of West Bern Kouns four lane highway. At the same time, leaving his plumber and pipefitter’s school, the plaintiff apparently came to a stop before entering the highway. It was at this point that the accident occurred, with the defendant’s vehicle crashing into the plaintiff’s. Here is where the facts become complicated; the defendants stated that the plaintiff pulled his vehicle out in front of them, causing the accident. However, the plaintiff states that as a result of his injuries incurred from the accident, he could not recall anything except stopping before the crash. The accident report assessed the plaintiff’s inattentiveness as a cause of the accident, although no one was formally cited with a violation. Also, a witness, who was behind the plaintiff when the accident occurred, stated that the defendant’s care traveling at 60-65 miles per hour, struck the plaintiff, and that he never saw the plaintiff’s brake lights go out before the crash. This would indicate that the plaintiff did not pull his vehicle out in front of the defendants as they maintained. However, the fact that the plaintiff could not recall any specifics in relation to the accident may have hurt his case. The defendants on the other hand, were determined to have had the right of way and high quality evidence, including:

– The father and son’s testimony,
– The accident report’s finding that the plaintiff’s inattentiveness was a cause of the accident, and
– the witnesses admission that he was unsure whether or not the plaintiff was intruding on the highway or not at the time of the crash.

The appellate court concluded that manifest error was in the record, and permitted them to reframe the liability findings, but only to the minimum extent to achieve reasonableness. The ultimate determination was the plaintiff at 75% fault, and the defendant to be 25% at fault, with costs of court to be assesses on the same basis. The strong evidential support the defendant’s offered outweighed and ultimately helped them reduce the fault determination initially made by the trial court.

Fault is not something that can be determined in an “all or nothing,” type fashion. Rather, it is a careful weighing of the facts in order to determine how each party may have added to the ultimate fault, the car accident. Both parties here put forth evidence to support their side; however, one the defendant’s evidence simply outweighed the plaintiff’s. Thus, the appellate court, after reviewing the record, determined that the initial fault determination was clearly wrong, and reallocated the fault percentages to better illustrate the evidentiary findings. Thus, fault is a step by step analysis that requires exploring each piece of the puzzle in order to accurately assess who is at fault, and for how much.