Driver in Auto Accident Responsible for Aggravating Pre-Existing Injuries

white-volvo-semi-truck-on-side-of-road-2199293-1024x684An occurrence such as a bad motor accident will almost likely aggravate any pre-existing injuries of an injured party. This, of course, depends on the seriousness of the accident in question. In this particular case, Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Nye were involved in a motor accident with a truck belonging to Sysco Food Services of New Orleans (“Sysco”), and driven by its employee, Mr. Spencer. This accident resulted in bodily injuries to Urquhart and Nye and further aggravated their already existing health challenges.

On May 9, 2012, along East Judge Perez Drive, Mr. Spencer collided with another vehicle containing two passengers, Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Nye. A witness to the accident, Mr. Straub, testified that both his vehicle and the vehicle containing Urquhart and Nye were in the right-hand lane when Mr. Spencer moved from the left lane of travel and collided with Urquhart and Nye’s vehicle. The difficulty in this lawsuit arises because  Urquhart and Nye had separately been involved in a series of accidents that left them with injuries still existing at the time of the May 2012 accident.

Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Nye filed an action in tort against Mr. Spencer, Sysco Food Services of New Orleans and Zurich American Insurance Company in January 2015 for this accident. Mr. Urquhart’s sons testified that he became a “couch potato” after the May 2012 accident and suffered on-going effects from the accident until his death. Mr. Nye’s sons also testified to his fitness and activities and stated that he had planned to go back to work prior to the accident. Mr. Nye’s neurosurgeon, a vocational rehabilitation expert, testified to the grievous effects the accident has on his health while his expert economist testified that his injuries and inability to return to work would result in his loss of wages and capacity to earn wages. Mr. Nye’s chiropractor also testified that the accident caused the most neurological damage to his lumbar spine.

The trial court found Mr. Spencer 100% at fault for the accident. The Court attributed 80% of Urquhart’s damages to the accident, and the Court awarded $30,000 in general damages and $8,000 in special damages. Mr. Nye was awarded $479,362.45 in damages. Both Mr. Urquhart’s estate and Mr. Nye appealed against the quantity of damages awarded as being abusively low while the Defendants appealed against the trial court’s finding of fault and award of damages.

The Court of Appeal divided the issues into two parts: allocation of fault and amount of damages. As a general principle, an appellate court will only disturb the factual findings of the trier of fact where the trier is clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. See Clement v. Fray, 666 So.2d 607 (La. 1996). The Court of Appeal will consider documents and objective evidence in reaching this conclusion. The Defendants were of the view that the trial court erred in allocating fault to them since the physical evidence supported Mr. Spencer’s version of the facts of the accident. Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Nye insisted that their testimonies and that of their witness remain consistent. The Court of Appeal noted that the trial court accepted the testimony of Mr. Urquhart, Mr. Nye, their accident eyewitness, and their expert witness, concluding that 100% fault was attributable to Mr. Spencer for the accident. The Court of Appeal could not conclude there was any manifest error in the trial court’s allocation of fault to the Defendants.

While the Defendants claim that damages awarded to Mr. Urquhart and Mr. Nye should be set aside for their inability to prove that their injuries were a result of the May 2012 accident, the test for determining the causal relationship between the accident and a subsequent injury is whether the plaintiff provided sufficient proof that more probable than not, the accident caused the subsequent injuries. See Frost v. Carter, 140 So.3d 59 (La. C. App. 2014). Where a defendant’s careless conduct aggravates a pre-existing condition, the defendant will have to compensate the victim to the full extent of the aggravation. See Lasha v. Olin Corp., 625 So.2d 1002 (La. 1993). The Plaintiff must also establish the connection between the defendant’s act and the aggravation of his pre-existing medical condition. See Logan v. Brink’s, Inc., 16 So.3d 530 (La. Ct. App. 2009). The Court of Appeal found that the trial court carefully weighed the Plaintiffs’ complete medical records, considered their pre-existing injuries, and evaluated the credibility of testimonies in arriving at its determination of damages.

The question that follows is whether the award of damages was abusively low. Under Louisiana law, the trial judge has great discretion in its assessment of the quantity of both general and special damages. See Guillory v. Lee, 16 So.3d 1104 (La. 2009). Hence, the Court of Appeal is left to consider whether there has been an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeal found that the trial court carefully considered the medical records of the Plaintiffs, the testimony, and weighed the credibility of the witnesses in assessing the quantity of damages applicable. Neither the general damages or special damages were abusively low to amount to an abuse of discretion by the trial court.

In bringing a tort claim, it is important to understand the extent of proof needed to establish a claim and the required evidence needed to succeed in a claim for general damages and special damages.

Additional Sources: Joseph W. Urquhart and. Larry Spencer et al. 

Written by: Tomi Babafemi

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