How Does Inaccurate Jury Instructions Impact Louisiana Liability Cases?

close-up-court-courthouse-534204-1024x569The jury trial is an infamously complicated process. From the trials of OJ Simpson to Paul Manafort, the jury’s role is to determine the truth behind the legal jargon, and to serve and protect justice. Juries rely on the information presented to them by experienced lawyers and judges to navigate the complexities of the courtroom. However, sometimes there are mistakes made. Despite some inaccurately presented technicalities, the Fifth Circuit Court has ruled to uphold the sanctity of the juror’s role as a fact-finder. 

On the afternoon of November 11, 2012, Mr. Vince, an operator at an aluminum plant in Gramercy, was travelling home on U.S. Highway 61 after his work shift. The road, known by locals as “Airline Highway,” stretched over a bridge which merged with an entrance ramp from a boat club in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Mr. Koontz, owner of a Denali and its attached yacht, stopped for several minutes at the ramp and decided to merge only when he felt that Mr. Vince’s car was at such a distance that it had not yet reached the bridge. He proceeded to merge onto the highway as Mr. Vince’s truck approached. As Mr. Vince drove onto the bridge, he looked down to check a fantasy football score on his phone. When he looked up, he was immediately confronted with the sight of a 27-foot yacht attached to a GMC Yukon XL Denali. The car collided with the boat, and Mr. Vince was knocked unconscious. 

Although the crash caused merely aesthetic damage to the car, Mr. Vince filed a lawsuit against State Farm Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”) claiming a loss of consortium. 

During the trial, the jury was presented with a definition for “proximate cause,” an essential part of the case. The court instructed that a proximate cause is a primary act which produces the incident in question. The court noted that this does not mean there can be only one proximate cause. This definition informed the crux of Mr. Vince’s appeals, as he argued that the jury was improperly instructed on the meaning of proximate cause, and the question became whether Mr. Koontz could be found negligent but not be a proximate cause of the accident. Mr. Vince claimed that the improper definition of “proximate cause” was the reason for an incorrect decision by the jury, and that since a jury found Mr. Koontz to be negligent, he must also be the proximate cause. The case rose through the court system to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, where the court was ultimately tasked with determining whether the jury had been improperly instructed, and, if so, whether the erroneous instructions obstructed justice and justified reversing the trial court’s findings. 

To win a case on a claim of negligence, the injured party must show five elements: (1) the defendant had a duty to conform his conduct to a specific standard; (2) the defendant’s actions failed to meet the appropriate standard of conduct; (3) the defendant’s substandard conduct actually caused the plaintiff’s injuries; (4) the defendant was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries (there are laws protecting the plaintiff from exactly this kind of conduct); (5) actual damages. Rando v. Anco Insulations Inc., 16 So.3d 1065 (La. 2009)

Both actual (cause-in-fact) and legal (proximate cause) elements are necessary for a finding of negligence. These two concepts are sometimes conflated, in part because Louisiana courts have used the two interchangeably in the past. Dixie Drive It Yourself Sys. New Orleans Co. v. Am. Beverage Co., 137 So.2d 298 (La. 1962). From a legal standpoint, however, the two elements require significantly different facts in order to receive a judgment in the injured party’s favor. 

The proximate cause element is a purely legal question and the court must consider whether or not the relevant law extends to protect a plaintiff from suffering a particular harm.  A plaintiff’s recovery, therefore, is based on the determination of proximate cause. On the other hand, the element of cause-in-fact is a factual question, and the jury must ask “did the defendant contribute to the plaintiff’s harm or is the defendant a cause of the plaintiff’s harm?” Roberts v. Benoit, 605 So.2d 1032, 1044-46 (La. 1991). In Roberts, the Louisiana Supreme Court explained that if the original wrong-doer could or should have anticipated that an accident may occur, he or she will be held accountable regardless of whether a new incident arises in between the original act and the harm. 

The Fifth Circuit found that the definition of proximate cause provided to the trial court jury was the definition of cause-in-fact rather than proximate cause. Thus, when the jury considered the issue using the definition provided to them, they actually found that Mr. Koontz’s negligence was not the cause-in-fact of the accident. Upon review of this issue, the Fifth Circuit also found that the jury was not provided all of the elements necessary to make a determination of negligence. The jury was given instructions that the plaintiff must only prove that the defendant’s actions were the cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injury. Despite this error by the trial court judge, Mr. Vince did not win at the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit also found that the erroneous instruction did not affect the jury’s ability to dispense justice, and refused to undermine the jury’s findings by overturning the jury verdict.  

Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit issued two significant decisions. First, the Fifth Circuit ruled that where incorrect jury instructions do not mislead the jury to a degree that obstructs a just outcome, there is no reason to overturn the jury’s decisions. Second, the Court made clear that a finding of negligence does not necessarily mean that the defendant was the proximate cause of an accident. In a case involving negligence, particularly where more than one party may have some liability, it is important than an experienced attorney on the case evaluates all of the elements of the claim. 

ADDITIONAL SOURCES: Vince v. Koont

ADDITIONAL BERNIARD LAW FIRM ARTICLES ON NEGLIGENCE AND JURY INSTRUCTIONS:

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