Can a Passenger in a Car Accident Not be a Passenger?

car accident lawyer louisianaUsually, in a dispute concerning a car accident, the issue surrounds fault or the extent of injuries. Occasionally though, the argument is whether a passenger in one of the vehicles was even a passenger. Evidence that one was a passenger and present during the accident would seem helpful but does not guarantee recovery, as one plaintiff learned after a 2011 car accident in Jefferson Parish.

In 2012, Cindy Perez filed a lawsuit in the Jefferson Parish Twenty-Fourth Judicial District Court against Mary B. Gaudin and LM General Insurance Company. Perez alleged that in 2011, she and her mother, Edis Molina were passengers in a car driven by Reinaldo Martinez-Perez. Perez claimed that she was sitting in the backseat when Gaudin rear-ended the car with her own vehicle, causing a propane tank to hit Perez’s arm. The case went to trial on July 20, 2016, with the sole issue being whether Perez was actually a passenger in the vehicle when the accident occurred.

Deputy Zlatko Brujic of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office was the officer who investigated the 2011 accident. Though he could not testify at trial in person, he gave a deposition that was admitted as evidence. In his testimony, Deputy Brujic stated that according to the accident report, Reinaldo Martinez-Perez’s car only had one passenger: Edis Molina. He noted that another woman was at the scene after he arrived, but this woman’s description did not match that of Perez’s.

Edis Molina then testified and claimed that not only was Perez, a passenger, but she helped translate her limited English to the Deputy. When Perez testified, she stated that she stayed in the car until the police arrived and then translated her mother’s Spanish to English for Deputy Brujic. Gaudin also testified but said that she only saw two occupants: the driver and the front passenger; she did not see anyone who met Perez’s description. The District Court held in favor of Gaudin and LM Insurance Company and dismissed the lawsuit. Perez appealed to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, claiming that Gaudin’s testimony and the Deputy’s deposition were insufficient to refute the testimony supporting that she was a passenger.

In Louisiana, a court of appeal cannot reverse a trial court’s decision unless it is clearly erroneous. See Ross v. City of New Orleans (La. Ct. App. 2001). This means that even if the appellate court would have held differently if it found that the District Court’s determinations were reasonable in light of all the evidence, the court of appeal cannot reverse. See Grimes v. Patterson Ins. Co. (La. Ct. App. 2002). In a situation similar to Perez, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal dealt with a plaintiff who sued a train operator, claiming that the operator’s train hit his car. Like Perez, the accident report and the investigating officer did not list the plaintiff as the occupant of the struck car, but the plaintiff’s brother testified that the plaintiff was in the car when it was hit. The trial court held that the plaintiff was not a passenger when the vehicle was struck, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the plaintiff could not prove that, more likely than not, he was in the car at the time of the accident. See Hasney v. Allstate Ins. Co. (La Ct. App. 2001).

Relying on Hasney and other similar cases, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal determined that the District Court’s credibility findings needed great deference. Since a reasonable factfinder could have found Deputy Brujic’s deposition and Gaudin’s testimony credible, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court’s judgment was not clearly erroneous and affirmed the dismissal of Perez’s case.

For some disputes, the issues may seem simple and obvious. However, as this case demonstrates, it is possible to have an entire case dismissed over whether you were even at the scene where you were injured. With the help of a great attorney, unexpected issues can be analyzed, prepared for, and dealt with to move the case forward and get you on the right path to recovery. 

Additional Sources: Cindy Perez, Through her Natural Tutrix and Administratrix of her Estate, Edis Molina versus Mary B. Gaudin and LM General Insurance Company

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Sadie Gibson

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Car Accidents: Lafayette Case Explores When a Passenger Could Be Liable In An Automobile Accident

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