Third Circuit Rejects Trial Court’s Apportionment of Fault in Lafayette Auto Accident

It is well settled in Louisiana jurisprudence that an appellate court’s review of a trial court’s apportionment of fault in a negligence action is subject to the manifest error standard. In other words, in order for an appellate court to overturn a trial court’s assessment of fault, it must conclude that no reasonable factual basis exists to support the trial court’s finding and that it is clearly wrong. The Third Circuit reached this conclusion in Thibodeaux v. Trahan, a recent case that was marked by witness testimony that was “externally conflicting and often internally inconsistent.”

On the afternoon of October 18, 2006, Melinda Trahan was driving a school bus owned by the Lafayette Parish School Board on Richfield Road in Duson. Harold Thibodeaux, driving an RV, pulled out from a side road in front of Trahan’s bus and made a quick left turn into the parking lot of Thib’s Corner, a grocery store. Trahan, who approached Thibodeaux’s RV from the rear, also turned her bus into Thib’s Corner, at which point the two vehicles collided. Thibodeaux suffered a knee injury in the collision and sued Trahan and the school board for damages. The trial court heard testimony from the parties as well as several witnesses and ultimately found both Trahan and Thibodeaux at fault for the accident. It awarded Thibodeaux damages for pain and suffering and medical expenses, but reduced the amount by 40 percent, the amount of his fault. Thibodeaux appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in finding him partially at fault for the accident. On appeal, the Third Circuit noted that “the trial court was left with numerous conflicting versions of how the accident occurred.” It did, however, make specific findings of fact. Specifically, the trial court found Thibodeaux at fault “for having pulled out in front of Ms. Trahan while driving an RV in the rain while she was driving a school bus.” It concluded Trahan was at fault because she should have maintained better control of her bus when she saw Thibodeaux’s RV pull out into her path. The Third Circuit reviewed the testimony from the record and arrived at a different explanation of how the collision occurred: it concluded that Thibodeaux did nothing wrong when he pulled onto Richfield Road from the side street, but that he “failed to ascertain that the left turn could be made with reasonable safety” and therefore breached his statutory duty to execute the turn properly. Still, the court concluded that “the majority of the fault in this instance should be allocated to Ms. Trahan,” as she “was in a better position, as the following vehicle, to prevent the accident from happening.” The court concluded that the accident would have been avoided if Trahan had stopped her bus “within the adequate stopping distance existing between her and the RV,” rather than being forced to take an evasive turn into the Thib’s Corner parking lot. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s apportionment and assessed 80 percent of the fault to Trahan and 20 percent to Thibodeaux.