One Car Accident, Two Different Stories of How it Occurred, What Does a Court Do?

new-orleans-canal-st-1230688-1024x768There are two sides to every story — and to every lawsuit. In many lawsuits, each side’s story is plausible, and the trial court’s decision ultimately comes down to which story was more plausible. A recent car accident case in New Orleans illustrates this concept and highlights the need for effective lawyering on behalf of a client.

Brown v. Travelers Insurance Company, et al. arose from a car accident between vehicles driven by plaintiff, Aisha Brown, and defendant, Kevin Fogg, at the intersection of Elysian Fields Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans. Brown, individually on behalf of her minor children, and Nachelle Williams, on behalf of her minor child, filed a lawsuit (the minor children were passengers in Brown’s car). The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages to each of them. Fogg appealed this judgment. The only issue on appeal is that of Fogg’s liability: Did the trial court properly rule in favor of the plaintiff?

At trial, the defendant testified that he was traveling on the right lane of Elysian Fields Avenue and intended to proceed straight on the same road through its intersection with Gentilly Boulevard. As the defendant approached the Gentilly Boulevard intersection, he testified, the plaintiff driver attempted to turn right in front of him from the center lane of travel, causing a collision between the two vehicles. In contrast, the plaintiff testified as follows: plaintiff was traveling on Elysian Fields Avenue, and then she turned right onto Gentilly Boulevard. After merging into the left lane of travel, the defendant’s vehicle struck the plaintiff’s rear passenger door.

Having been presented with two “heartily disputed” versions of the accident in question, the trial court “had to make a credibility determination.” Ultimately, the trial court found that the accident occurred in the manner the plaintiff described.

On appeal, the defendant maintained that the trial court decision for the plaintiff should be overturned because the plaintiff’s version of events at trial differed slightly from the versions she provided before trial. Indeed, the plaintiff’s versions before trial, including her petition for damages, responses to interrogatories, and her pre-trial statement, are even inconsistent among themselves.  

However, appellate courts in Louisiana and elsewhere generally refuse to overturn the trial court decision in such cases unless the finding was “clearly wrong” or a “manifest error.” The Louisiana Supreme Court has established a two-part test to be applied by appellate courts in order to overturn a fact finder’s (that is, a judge in a bench trial or the jury in a jury trial) determination on appeal: [1] The appellate court must find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of the trial court; and [2] the appellate court must further determine that the record establishes that the finding is clearly wrong (manifestly erroneous).  Purvis v. Grant Par. Sch. Bd., 13-1424, p. 4 (La. 2/14/14), 144 So.3d 922, 926

Based on this test, the appeals court refused to overturn the trial court’s decision in favor of the plaintiff. Both the defendant’s version and the plaintiff’s version of the accident were credible, and, as such, a reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s finding does exist. Thus, the decision cannot be “manifestly erroneous.” To put it another way, the trial court’s decision was not against the weight of the evidence; there were two credible stories, and the trial court had to pick one. It’s also worth noting that the trial court’s decision was partly based on the defendant’s admission that he was unfamiliar with the area of the accident and the plaintiff’s testimony that, after the accident, she noticed an iPad on the defendant’s dashboard. The defendant never addressed the iPad at trial nor questioned the plaintiff about it, so the trial court could reasonably have believed that the defendant was distracted by the iPad while driving.

With respect to the inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s pre-trial versions of the event, the appeals court rejected defendant’s contention that these inconsistencies led to a “manifest error” by the trial court. The inconsistencies among the plaintiff’s versions of the event before trial should have served as notice to the defendant that further investigation may have been warranted in order to get the plaintiff’s story straight. See, e.g., Ashley v. Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., 321 So.2d 868, 873 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1975)  Nonetheless, the defendant did not depose the plaintiff. A deposition is essentially where attorneys ask questions of a witness, who must answer the questions under oath. In failing to depose Brown, Fogg’s attorneys lost the opportunity to impeach, or challenge the validity of, Brown’s pre-trial version(s) of the story.

Additional Sources: AISHA BROWN, ET AL. VERSUS TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL.

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Ira Perez

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Opposing Stories and Credible Witnesses: Decision of Livingston Parish Jury Reinstated in Multiple Car and Tractor Crash Lawsuit