On the day after Thanksgiving in 2003, plaintiff Nicol Hannie’s vehicle was struck by another vehicle driven by defendant Ray Guidry in LaFayette, Louisiana. Due to the holiday shopping sales offered that day, traffic was very heavy. Hannie, who had just finished eating at a restaurant, attempted to make a left hand turn onto a five lane roadway. The middle lane of the roadway was a turning lane. Because traffic was completely backed up in the two travel lanes immediately closest to Hannie, several cars in those lanes graciously created a space for Hannie to traverse and waved him through. As Hannie cautiously passed through the space created in the immediate two lanes, he inched onto the turning lane to complete his left hand turn. However, as soon as he began to pass through the turning lane in order to merge onto the distant travel lanes, he was struck by Guidry, who was allegedly using the turning lane as a passing lane and also traveling at a high rate of speed.
At trial, the district court agreed that Guidry was impermissibly using the turning lane as a passing lane. They reached this conclusion by noting that Guidry’s intended turn-off was nearly 700 feet away from the scene of the collision, and he could have stayed in the inside travel lane several hundred feet further before entering the turning lane. Furthermore, the high rate of speed Guidry was driving, as witnessed by others, tended to show that Guidry may have been impatient and did not want to remain in the travel lanes before commencing his left handed turn in the turn lane. Accordingly, the district court held Guidry to be 100% at fault for Hannie’s resulting injuries.
Dissatisfied with the verdict, Guidry appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals of Louisiana. Guidry denied all fault and contended the Court of Appeals should review the district court’s finding under a de novo standard of review.
De Novo is a Latin expression that means “anew.” When a litigant asks an appellate court to review a district court’s findings de novo, that litigant is asking the appellate court to completely disregard the district court’s legal conclusions, and to instead apply its own findings based on the record before it. Because the district court is the fact-finding court, the appellate court typically must defer to the district court’s evidentiary and testimonial findings, unless those factual findings were clearly wrong. However, an appellate court does not have to defer to the district court on questions of law.
In Louisiana, an appellate court may review a lower court’s legal conclusions de novo only if the district court’s legal error was prejudicial. A legal error is prejudicial if it “materially affects the outcome of the trial court’s fact finding process and deprives a party of substantial rights.”
In the instant case, Guidry argued that the district court applied an impermissible legal standard by enunciating a two-car-length rule for the execution of a left turn in a center turn lane. Guidry argued that this two-car standard was not based on any existing legal standard and was created out of whole cloth by the district court.
While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the two-car standard was a misstatement of law insomuch as no such brightline rule previously existed, it concluded the underlying general idea that a car should only travel a limited distance in a turning lane to be legally sound. Moreover, the reviewing court found that even if the two-car standard constituted legal error, it still would not have prejudiced Guidry. Witnesses reported Guidry operating his vehicle in an “erratic” manner, at speeds “way too fast for the turning lane.” Consequently, Guidry was nevertheless operating his vehicle in a negligent manner at the time of the collision, supplying an alternative basis for the district court’s conclusion that he was 100% at fault. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the verdict in favor of Hannie.
As Hannie v. Guidry shows, a case is never fully resolved until an appellate court has denied a request for or reviewed an appeal. It is thus important to be aware of which review standards an appellate court must apply.
The attorneys at Berniard Law Firm are knowledgeable of the legal standards courts must apply when reviewing a case. Through both legal practice and continuing legal education, the Berniard attorneys are constantly keeping themselves abreast of the guidelines appellate courts set for litigants. If you have experienced an injury and are interested in knowing your legal rights, contact The Berniard Law Firm today.