Faulty Jury Instructions in Iberville Parish Accident Result in De Novo Review by Appellate Court
On the afternoon of June 20, 2005, Jesse Brooks, an operating engineer who worked for Industrial Plant Maintenance in St. Gabriel, was driving a backhoe along the shoulder of La. Highway 30. Brooks was followed by his coworker, Steve Harris, in another vehicle. As Brooks approached a driveway that connected with the highway, the backhoe hit a depression and rolled over on its right side. Harris immediately approached the backhoe, where he found Brooks unconscious in the cab. Brooks died shortly thereafter. Brooks’s widow, Lola, filed a wrongful death action against the State of Louisiana through the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). At trial, the jury found the DOTD negligent in maintaining the shoulder of the highway, returned a verdict for Mrs. Brooks, and awarded her approximately $812,000 in damages.
The DOTD appealed, alleging several errors on the trial court’s part. Among them was an improper jury instruction. Under Louisiana law, the trial judge is required to instruct jurors on the law applicable to the issues submitted to them to decide. La. C.C.P. Art. 1792(B). The jury charge “must correctly state the law and be based on evidence adduced at trial… Adequate jury instructions are those which fairly and reasonably point out the issues and which provide correct principles of law for the jury to apply to those issues.” LeBlanc v. Landry, 21 So.3d 353, 358-359 (La. App. 1st Cir. 2009). If the trial judge “omits an applicable, essential legal principle, [the] instruction does not adequately set forth the law applicable to the issues to be decided by the jury and may constitute reversible error” which is remedied by a de novo review of the jury’s findings by the appellate court. Leblanc, 21 So.3d at 358-359; see also Picou v. Ferrara, 483 So.2d 915 (La. 1986).
In its appeal, the DOTD argued that the trial judge incorrectly instructed the jury on the DOTD’s duty to maintain and repair its roadways and shoulders and by citing La. R.S. 32:299(A)(2), a statute that permits the operation of farm vehicles on shoulders of public roads. The court agreed that this charge was erroneous, noting that no evidence presented during the trial established that the backhoe was being used as farm equipment. Instead, the court reasoned, the trial judge should have instructed the jury on two other statutes which provide that “a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway,” and that “a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” La. R.S. 32:71; La. R.S. 32:79. Since the jury was instructed on the wrong law, the court believed the inaccurate instructions misled the jury in evaluating Brooks’s own conduct leading up to the incident. The court found the instructions contained a “plain and fundamental error” that “probably contributed to the jury’s finding that Mr. Brooks was not negligent in the operation of the backhoe.”
Having reached this conclusion, the court conducted a de novo review of the issue of whether Brooks’s conduct amounted to contributory negligence. Because he “violated Louisiana law by traveling on the shoulder rather than within the travel lane of the roadway,” the court determined that Brooks’s conduct was negligent and assessed him 20 percent of the fault in the accident. The court amended the trial court’s judgment and reduced Mrs. Brooks’s damages award to approximately $650,000.
This case illustrates the critical importance of jury instructions. While in most cases an appellate court is entitled to disturb a trial court’s findings only in the case of the trial court’s abuse of discretion, a faulty jury charge like the one in the Brooks case can authorize the appellate court to review the evidence and decide the matter as if for the very first time. Although a trial judge is under no obligation to give any specific jury instructions favored by either party (see Leblanc, 21 So.3d at 358), an effective strategy for a plaintiff is to submit to the court suggested instructions as a way of guiding the judge’s proper selection of charges. Taking a proactive approach with jury instructions is one way that an experienced trial attorney can help a plaintiff recover the damages he or she deserves–and ensure that the award stands fast on appeal.