The Plaintiff’s Burden in Proving Special Damages

Under Louisiana jurisprudence, special damages are the category of damages that can be “established to a reasonable mathematical certainty.” Myers v. Broussard. Special damages include awards for past and future lost earnings, since a plaintiff’s forgone income can be numerically calculated by the court. Given the relatively high level of precision, “when a trier of fact assesses special damages, the discretion is more limited or narrower than the discretion to assess general damages,” Eddy v. Litton, though the standard of review is still abuse of discretion. The plaintiff carries the burden to prove that he has suffered a loss of income to induce the court to award damages for lost wages in an amount that equals what the plaintiff would have likely earned if he had not been injured by the defendant and been able to work. In cases where there is “no basis for a precise mathematical calculation of the amount of lost earnings,” the trial court may award a “reasonable” amount of damages. However, “to allow a plaintiff to recover damages for lost wages in the absence of independent support is highly speculative.” Turner v. Cleveland Trust Co.

The Third Circuit recently considered an automobile collision case in which the plaintiff was awarded damages for lost wages by the trial court. Lori Johnson claimed that, due to the injuries she sustained when her car was struck from behind by David St. Romaine on Highway 1 in Marksville, she was unable to perform her part-time weekend work as a farrier (horse-shoer). The trial court awarded Johnson $7,200 for loss of income, which St. Romaine appealed. The Third Circuit reviewed the trial record containing Johnson’s testimony that she was unable support a horse’s weight on her injured shoulder and therefore could not install the shoes. She estimated that she typically earned between $400 and $750 per month, but was unsure of the exact amount because it was a cash business and she did not keep records. Johnson also admitted that she did not report her income from the farrier business to the IRS. The court concluded that, “[a]lthough the uncorroborated testimony of the plaintiff can support a lost wage award, based on the facts of this case, we find that Johnson’s testimony regarding the lost wage claim is insufficient.” In the court’s view, Johnson’s wage calculation was a mere “guesstimate” that could not support an award for foregone income. Thus, the court concluded that it was error for the trial court to award damages for lost wages based on only this speculative information, and reversed that part of the judgment.

This case reminds litigants that claims for special damages must be corroborated by some minimum amount proof. Although the court allows that a plaintiff’s testimony alone can in some cases support a special damages award, the facts of each situation will weigh heavily on the court’s decision process. Clearly, here, the Third Circuit did not approve of the trial court’s treatment of Johnson’s claim for wages, perhaps particularly because Johnson did not report her income as taxable.

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