Court of Appeals Increases Judgment Amount in Slip-and-Fall Accident

A plaintiff from Acadia Parish had her award increased by over $10,000 by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals after slipping and falling on the curb of a dark parking lot at night.

In the case, Darbonne v. Bertrand Investments, Inc., No. 11-1224, the plaintiff had gone to pick up some friends from a bar after a night of drinking. The plaintiff, who was sober, led her friends out the back door of the bar toward her car. In the dark parking lot, the plaintiff tripped over a curb, breaking her foot. She later required two surgeries to repair the damage, and the foot was still swollen at the time of her trial.

The plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the owners of the convenience store next to the bar. She claimed that the owners’ failure to light their lot caused the darkness that led to her breaking her foot. She alleged that if the owners had kept their lot in a reasonably safe, lit condition, she would not have tripped over the curb.

After trial, the jury found that the plaintiff was 60 percent responsible for her injuries, and the owners of the convenience store only 40 percent responsible. The jury also found that the plaintiff was owed $100,000 in past medical expenses, $38,000 in lost wages, $50,000 in past, present, and future physical and mental pain and suffering, and $5,000 in loss of enjoyment of life. The jury awarded the plaintiff no damages for future medical expenses or future loss of wages or earning capacity. The total award, of $193,000, was reduced by 60 percent since the plaintiff was 60 percent at fault; the plaintiff was left with a total of $77,200.

The plaintiff appealed the jury’s decision on two grounds. First, the plaintiff claimed that the jury’s finding that she was 60 percent at fault for her own injuries was incorrect. Second, the plaintiff argued that the jury’s failure to award damages for future medical expenses or future loss of wages or earning capacity was not supported by the evidence, and that the awards for past, present, and future physical and mental pain and suffering, for loss of enjoyment of life, and for past lost wages were lower than they should have been.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the jury’s decision that the plaintiff was 60 percent at fault for her own injuries. Under Louisiana law, the jury’s decision as to the relative fault of the parties is called a finding of fact. The Court of Appeals can only overturn a jury’s finding of fact if the Court of Appeals finds that the finding is “manifest error,” or “clearly wrong and manifestly erroneous.” The finding would have to be unreasonable, based on the evidence presented to the jury.

Here, the Court of Appeals found that evidence was presented to the jury that could lead the jury to believe that the plaintiff was at least 60 percent at fault. The owners of the convenience store presented the testimony of one of the plaintiff’s friends, who said that, after the fall, the lighting conditions were fine and that she could see well. Furthermore, the owners showed that the plaintiff lived nearby the store and had visited there several times, and therefore likely was familiar with the parking lot. In light of this evidence, the Court of Appeals held that the jury’s finding that the plaintiff was 60 percent at fault was not so unreasonable as to be “clearly wrong and manifestly erroneous.” So the Court of Appeals upheld the apportionment of fault.

But the Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff in finding that the jury’s award of damages was too low. When an appellate court reviews a jury’s award of damages under Louisiana law, the court checks to see if the jury abused its discretion in making its decision.

The Court of Appeals had several sets of damages to consider. As to past, present, and future mental and physical pain and suffering, the jury initially awarded the plaintiff $50,000. But the Court of Appeals held that the jury abused its discretion, and should have awarded more. Considering that the plaintiff suffered from swelling from the date of her accident to the time of trial – a period of more than three-and-a-half years – and the lower back pain she suffered as a result of having to wear her walking boot, the Court of Appeals increased the plaintiff’s award for past, present, and future mental and physical pain and suffering from $50,000 to $75,000.

Another set of damages the Court of Appeals analyzed were those for loss of enjoyment of life. The jury awarded the plaintiff $5,000, but the Court of Appeals increased the amount of the award. The plaintiff had testified that she could no longer do the things she enjoyed after the accident – fishing, camping, four-wheeler riding, or attending LSU Tiger games. She could not play video poker as much after the accident because she no longer worked as close to the casino. Because of the loss of these activities, the Court of Appeals increased the plaintiff’s damages for loss of enjoyment of life from $5,000 to $20,000.

The plaintiff also appealed the jury’s failure to award any damages for future medical expenses. Her doctors had testified that she would need continuing care for her foot in the form of pain medication, doctor’s visits, and orthotics. The plaintiff argued that she would need money for future medical expenses for the duration of her life. The Court of Appeals noted, however, that evidence was presented to the jury that the plaintiff was exaggerating her medical problems – she had been videotaped walking without issue, and she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The Court of Appeals reviewed the jury’s decision not to award future medical expenses under the manifest error standard discussed above. The Court of Appeals decided to award a limited amount of damages for future medical expenses – not for the plaintiff’s entire life, but $5,000, to cover limited medical treatment.

Having examined these three areas of the damage award, and awarding the plaintiff $45,000 more in damages than the jury did, the Court of Appeals decided that the jury’s awards for loss of future earnings and earning capacity and for past wages were reasonable under the abuse of discretion standard. The Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s award of damages for those categories.

In all, the Court of Appeals raised the damages owed to the plaintiff from $193,000 to $238,000. Since the plaintiff was still held to be 60 percent at fault for her damages, her award was raised from $77,200 to $89,700.

Personal injury verdicts can be based on a variety of factors, ranging from pain and suffering to loss of future earning potential. If you or someone you know has been injured, it may take legal assistance to recover everything owed. Competent legal representation is needed in the case of appeals in order to get the proper results.