Complicated Elements of Appeal Showcase Difficulties in Negligence Claim

A mother in Alexandria, Louisiana (“Williams”) recently sued AT&T on behalf of her three-year old due to an unfortunate accident in one of the phone giant’s stores. Johnathan Davis, then two and a half years old, was playing on the floor of an AT&T store as his mother was shopping. While playing under and around a sandwich board sign in the corner of the store, he knocked it closed against a window. When the boy leaned over to pick up something he had dropped, the sign fell towards him, striking his head and sending him to the ground. Since the accident, Johnathan has suffered at least two seizures, causing his doctors to diagnose him with post-traumatic epilepsy and some serious cognitive issues.

The jury ruled in favor of AT&T, finding that Johnathan’s mother (the plaintiff) had not shown any negligence by AT&T. Williams appealed the decision, questioning whether certain instructions and interrogatories should have been given to the jury on negligence law. Jury interrogatories are sub-questions that the jury will need to decide in order to conclude on the issue at hand. In this case, in order to prove negligence, the jury had to decide whether the accident was caused by an unreasonably dangerous condition in order to conclude whether negligence was present. Jury instructions, on the other hand, are a set of legal instructions given to the jury to aid them in coming to a verdict, such as “If you believe A, B, and C occurred, then you must find D.”

Johnathan’s mother first argued that the jury verdict form should have included an interrogatory on general negligence. She believed that the verdict form was too narrow, essentially turning her claim into a premises liability case (“Was there an unreasonably dangerous condition without which the accident would not have occurred?”). On this issue, the appellate court affirmed the trial court decision, finding that the case was indeed a premises liability case since the plaintiff had not shown any negligence by the AT&T employees. Without any evidence of negligent conduct by the employees, the trial court was not required to put questions of general negligence on the verdict form. While his mother argued that none of the employees stopped the sign from falling on the child, the court found no evidence that the employees had even seen the sign falling. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Then Williams argued that the negligence of the AT&T store manager should have been included on the jury verdict form. However, Williams showed no evidence of negligent conduct by the manager. Since the jury found that the failing sign was not an unreasonably dangerous condition that Johnathan should have been protected by, a claim of negligence is not supported so negligent conduct by the manager cannot be shown. Again, the appellate court supported the trial court’s decision.

Next Williams argued that the court erred in allowing the jury to apply different standards of fault to Williams and AT&T. The appellate court found this argument to be moot since the jury never even reached apportionment of fault. Once it found that no negligence occurred, it was not necessary for them to debate apportionment of fault for the accident. Therefore, this argument is unnecessary and this decision had no effect on the result of the case.

Lastly, Johnathan’s mother claimed that the trial court should have included a jury instruction on the causation presumption. The causation presumption states that “a claimant’s disability is presumed to have resulted from an accident if before the accident the injured person was in good health, but commencing with the accident the symptoms of the disabling condition appear and continuously manifest themselves afterwards, providing that the medical evidence shows there to be a reasonable possibility of causal connection between the accident and the disabling condition”. Houseley v. Cerise, 579 So.2d 973 (La.1991). In other words, since Johnathan did not have cognitive problems or epilepsy before the accident, the accident must have caused the conditions. In order to conclude that the causation presumption is appropriate, Williams had to show each element of the presumption to be true. Since the jury never decided that Johnathan’s accident was caused by an unreasonably dangerous condition in the store, whether or not Johnathan’s disabling condition was caused by the accident is immaterial. Since the accident was not caused by negligence, negligence cannot be attributed as the cause of Johnathan’s medical condition. As such, the appellate court found that the trial court did not err in refusing to include the causation presumption on the jury form. The court held that Johnathan’s accident was just that- an unfortunate accident – and that no active negligence took place on the part of AT&T and its employees.

If you believe you have a valid negligence claim and would like to pursue a case, please contact the Berniard Law Firm for assistance.