Court Explores Standard of Review in Baton Rouge Car Wreck Case

On August 7, 2002, James Wilson was driving his car southbound on Essen Lane in Baton Rouge. When he attempted to make a left turn onto the on-ramp for I-10, Wilson pulled into the path of an oncoming car driven by Barbara White northbound on Essen. The crash left Wilson with serious injuries. Following the incident, Wilson filed suit against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (“DOTD”). His complaint alleged that the DOTD negligently installed lane delineators on Essen Lane at the intersection with I-10; Wilson’s negligence theory was based on his assertion that the lane delineators blocked drivers’ view of oncoming traffic. Wilson asserted that the DOTD’s negligence caused his accident because he couldn’t see White’s car when he attempted to turn onto I-10. After a trial the jury returned a verdict in favor of the DOTD. It found that the DOTD was not negligent and that its installation of lane delineators did not cause the accident. Wilson filed a motion requesting a JNOV which was denied by the trial court. Wilson then appealed on the basis that the jury’s verdict was not supported by the evidence.

The First Circuit began it analysis with a recitation of the standard of review for a challenge based on the jury’s alleged manifest error. Because the determination of negligence is a factual one, an appellate court must apply a two part test to reverse the jury’s finding. Part one involves the appellate court’s deciding that a “reasonable factual basis” does not exist in the record for the jury’s finding; part two requires the appellate court to determine that the record establishes that the jury’s finding is “clearly wrong.” Additionally, when
factual findings are based upon the jury’s weighing of witness credibility, “great deference” must be given its decision. The rule of thumb is that where there are two or more permissible views of the evidence, the jury’s choice between them cannot be manifestly erroneous.

The court, in reviewing the record, discovered that conflicting witness testimony was presented at trial. The most significant point of divergence between the witnesses’ testimony concerned the presence of traffic in the northbound left-turn lane of Essen Lane which would have blocked Wilson’s view of oncoming northbound traffic regardless of the lane delineators. Wilson himself testified that there were no cars in the northbound turn lane. However, an eyewitness to the accident testified that there were several cars in the lane, a fact he was certain of because he had to navigate around them when he entered the intersection to assist Wilson and White following the crash. There was also some dispute among the witnesses’ testimony about whether the lane delineators’ location obstructed the view of traffic. White asserted that she had no trouble seeing southbound traffic over the delineators, but the police officer who responded to the scene testified that, based on his experience with other crashes at the same location, he considered the lane delineators a hazard and the intersection unreasonably dangerous.

The court, after a “careful review of the evidence contained in the record,” found that a “reasonable factual basis for the jury finding that DOTD was not negligent” did in fact exist in the record. Further, the court could not conclude that the jury was clearly wrong: “The jury was faced with conflicting views of the evidence regarding whether a person sitting in a vehicle in the southbound left turn lane could see … cars in the northbound lanes and clearly chose to believe the testimony that either [Wilson’s] view was not obstructed or was obstructed by cars in the northbound left turn lane.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and assessed costs to Wilson.

The particularly high obstacle to overturning a jury’s fact-findings on appeal reflects the preference for factual disputes to be settled at the trial level rather than by an appellate court. Arguably, the jury has the best opportunity to consider all the evidence, including witness temperament and appearance, when resolving factual disputes. It is essential for a party who encounters an unfavorable jury verdict to retain experienced counsel before filing an appeal that is premised on a jury’s commitment of manifest error, given the high level of deference afforded the jury.

If you have been injured by someone’s negligence, contact the Berniard Law Firm today at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a strategic advisor who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.