When apportioning fault between two or more parties in a negligence action, the finder of fact is given great deference on review. An appellate court may not set aside a trial court’s finding unless there is “manifest error” or it is “clearly wrong.” Cole v. Dept. of Public Safety & Corrections. In order
to reverse the trial court’s apportionment of fault, the appellate court must “find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of the trial court and that the record establishes that the finding is clearly wrong.” The Louisiana Supreme Court has provided extensive guidance on the trial court’s responsibility for allocating fault. The court is “bound to consider the nature of each party’s wrongful conduct and the extent of the causal relationship between that conduct and the damages claimed.” Watson v. State Farm. Furthermore, in assessing fault, the trial court can consider several factors related to a party’s conduct, including:
“(1) whether the conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved an awareness of the danger, (2) how great a risk was created by the conduct, (3) the significance of what was sought by the conduct, (4) the capacities of the actor, whether superior or inferior, and (5) any extenuating circumstances which might require the actor to proceed in haste, without proper thought.”Watson
Although the allocation of fault is “not an exact science,” and it is fairly rare for a trial court to commit reversible error in the process, it does happen. One example is the recent case of Burdine v. Robertson, in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeal modified the trial court’s apportionment of fault in an auto accident.
Late in the evening on October 24, 2006, Garold Burdine, then 19, was driving his Ford Ranger pickup truck south on Woolworth Road in Caddo Parish. The road had no street lighting. At the same time, L.C. Robertson was driving a very large and heavily loaded log truck on a side road approaching Woolworth Road. When Robertson attempted to turn out into the southbound lane of Woolworth, he realized he was unable to complete the turn without backing up. As he began to make this maneuver, Burdine’s truck struck Robertson’s log truck. Burdine was injured in the crash, and Robertson was cited by the local policy for failure to yield while entering the roadway. In October of 2007, Burdine filed suit against Robertson and his employer, Bedsole Wood Corp., the owner of the log truck. The defendants responded that Burdine caused the collision and, at the very least, failed to mitigate damages. The trial court assessed 85 percent of the fault to Burdine and 15 percent to Robertson; Burdine’s award of $37,985.71, therefore, was reduced by 85 percent. From this judgment, Burdine appealed.
The Second Circuit, mindful of its obligation of deference to the trial court, reviewed the record and performed its own analysis of the Watson factors. The court noted that Robertson “had an awareness of the danger caused by his actions in obstructing the entire road.” The length of the log truck and the width of the road “required him to perform a complicated maneuver to enter the roadway.” The risk created by this maneuver was “great, especially considering the diminished visibility” given the late hour of the day. In addition, the court found that, relative to Burdine, Robertson’s “capacity was certainly superior,” and that there were no extenuating circumstances requiring [Robertson] to proceed hastily and without thought.” The court reasoned that Robertson could have made use of a safer procedure for entering Woolworth Road (he made “no attempt to warn motorists that he was blocking both lanes of traffic”) and, accordingly, it found that “a greater degree of fault must be attributed to Robertson, a professional driver.” The court did not relieve Burdine of all fault, though; it concluded that Burdine “failed to exercise sufficient caution and vigilance” when he realized there was “some activity” involving another vehicle in the roadway ahead. In the court’s view, Burdine would have been in a better position to avoid the collision entirely if he had braked earlier. The court concluded that “the trial court was manifestly erroneous in its allocation of fault.” Thus, it adjusted the percentages of fault by raising Robertson’s responsibility to 60 percent and reducing Burdine’s to 40 percent.
This case shows, once again, the importance of establishing a solid record of evidence in the trial court. An appellate court can rely only on the trial record when determining whether the trial judge committed error in apportioning fauly. For this reason, a skilled attorney will ensure that all relevant evidence is presented at trial.
If you have been injured in a car accident, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.