In Louisiana, district courts (the lower level trial courts) have great discretion in awarding costs to a party. These costs can include expert witness fees, deposition fees, exhibit costs, costs for the clerk of court, the cost of obtaining medical records and related expenses. See La. R.S. 13:3666, and La. C.C.P. art. 1920. Certain costs, such as clerk costs, sheriff’s costs, and the cost of taking a deposition are taxed by the court. La. R.S. 13:4533. Although La. R.S. 13:4533 defines the term “costs,” it does not discuss who is entitled to costs and under what circumstances. In a recent case, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal discusses the assignment of costs upon a party.
In a jury trial held February 2014 in Louisiana’s Twenty-Second Judicial District Court, plaintiff Yvonne Arnaud was found to be one-hundred percent at fault for a vehicle collision that occurred on U.S. Highway 11 in Millard, Mississippi. The defendant driver, Silas Sumner was found to be zero percent at fault. Following the trial, Mr. Sumner and his co-defendants C.O.B. Enterprises and its insurer, Scottsdale Insurance Company, filed a motion seeking $53,346 in costs from Ms. Arnaud. About twenty-one thousand dollars of this amount was for expert witness fees. The District Court charged Ms. Arnaud for $30,589.95 in litigation costs, a little over half the amount sought by the defendants.
Ms. Arnaud appealed to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal. She argued that most of the expert witness fees charged to her were for work done by unknown individuals outside the courtroom. She also argued that the $30,589.95 costs in total litigation were excessive and that the District Court abused its discretion in charging any costs to her because she was indigent.
In Louisiana, appellants bear a high burden of overturning a trial court’s award of costs to a party. A court of appeal in Louisiana will not modify a trial court’s award of costs unless that court abused its discretion. This means that the trial court judgment was obviously not supported by the evidence.
The Court of Appeal found that the District Court separated expert witness fees that were related to trial preparation from those that were not, and reduced the fees that were not trial-related by over ninety percent. The Court of Appeal held that the District Court was better able to make the assessment of trial-related work versus non-trial related work than an appellant court. It concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in charging Ms. Arnaud $21,197 in expert witness fees.
The deposition fees charged to Ms. Arnaud were for depositions of the only eyewitness at the scene of the accident and of an expert witness. La. R.S. 13:4533 regulates court costs associated with taking depositions and copies of acts used “on the trial.” The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the phrase “on the trial,” in this statute means depositions introduced and accepted as evidence. See Succession of Franz, 139 So.2d 216, 218-219 (La. 1962). In Ms. Arnaud’s case, the depositions were admitted into evidence. Thus, the Court of Appeal held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in charging $1,097.63 in deposition costs to Ms. Arnaud.
After examining invoices for medical records and itemized lists of court clerk fees, the Court of Appeal also held that there was no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s charging Ms. Arnaud $1,790.80 in medical records expenses and $6,504.52 for court clerk fees. The Court of Appeal noted that the District Court gave no explanation of why it reduced the amounts sought by the defendants for medical records and court clerk costs, but noted the great discretion given to district court judges in holding that there was no abuse of discretion.
Finally, the Court of Appeal found that because Ms. Arnaud had never attempted to represent herself or to appear before the court as an indigent party, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in charging costs to her. The Court of Appeal affirmed the District Court judgment on the amounts charged to Ms. Arnaud and also charged her for the costs of the appeal.
One further disadvantage of losing a lawsuit is the risk of being assigned court costs. District courts in Louisiana can assign costs as they consider equitable. Such costs can be significant. Thus in bringing your claim or defending against a lawsuit, it is critical to have a good lawyer on your side.
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