Appeal Necessary in Car Accident Case Where District Court’s Finding of Fact Strays

On a June night in 2006, Jeryd Zito was driving on a highway going through Plaquemines Parish when an ambulance appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Zito swerved to avoid it, but was not fast enough, hitting the left back corner and the left side of the ambulance. After the accident, Zito sued the owner of the Ambulance, Advanced Emergency Medical Services, Inc., and its insurer, to recover for the damage caused by the accident. While this may seem backwards, the person causing an accident suing, but the issue is much more complicated.

Zito claimed the accident was Advanced’s fault because the drivers were negligent in not taking the proper precautions to warn oncoming traffic that the ambulance was broken down on the side of the road. During the trial, the big issues were how far into the right lane, if at all, the ambulance was, and if there were any warnings on it, such as reflective tape, to signal to oncoming drivers there was something in the way. The rationale is that, while the vehicle was off to the side of the road, people are not expected to see in the dark or sense a blockage up ahead versus a general expectation of reasonable efforts being made to avoid accidents.

The trooper who investigated the accident testified that based on skid marks, the ambulance was parked five feet from the right lane, it was covered in reflective tape when he got there, Zito told him that he (Zito) was on his cell phone at the time of the accident and that there was no evidence that Zito tried to break before he hit the ambulance. The trooper issued Zito a citation for careless operation of a vehicle, which Zito paid without dispute.

When it came to facts relating to Zito, many items were unclear. Between various prescription medicines and a lack of clarity on the part of Zito as to what he was doing, if anything, with his phone at the time the accident occurred, a significant amount of clarity existed. Zito’s friend Gauthier testified that he was driving along the same road a little before Zito and the ambulance was out of the right lane of traffic enough for Gauthier to be able to stay inside the right lane and had reflectors on so he was able to see it from about 200 to 300 feet away.

Despite these facts, the district court found for Zito, awarding him $50,000 plus costs and interest. The court “found” that Gauthier had to swerve to avoid the ambulance and that the ambulance was blocking traffic with nothing to signal it was blocking the lane, thus holding Advanced accountable for being negligently parked in the roadway while Zito was not considered even partially at fault for the accident.

Advanced appealed up to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which reversed the ruling for Zito. The court can only reverse based on questions of fact, such as whether the ambulance had reflectors on, if they find the trial court was manifestly erroneous in its findings. Here, the district court was manifestly erroneous because its “findings” were contrary to the actual testimony. Gauthier did not say he had to swerve to avoid the ambulance, just that he moved over in his lane, but he did say that it had reflectors on and he could see it from at least 200 feet, which the trooper’s testimony backed. Even Zito’s testimony did not help his case, as he said he was on prescription drugs and he was inconsistent with his story about whether or not he was on the phone.

Louisiana’s Supreme Court reviewed the trial record and concluded the district court’s factual finding that the ambulance was not completely out of the lane of travel was not reasonable. The Supreme Court found there was nothing on the record that could support the trial court’s finding that Advanced’s negligence was the cause of the accident, and that it was Zito’s fault. This case helps explain why people who lose lawsuits appeal, regardless of role in the proceedings, because there are always the possibility that the lower court’s finding will be reversed. By hiring a qualified attorney, the original trial is navigated easier, but also allows for the appeal process to be managed by an expert in the field.

If you have been injured call the Berniard Law Firm today to speak with an attorney immediately.