Improper Jury Instruction Leads to Damages for Car Accident Victim on Appeal

blur-car-caution-dash-163945-1024x683Sometimes, there are situations that appear to have an obvious result. Person A causes injury to Person B and B sues A. All the evidence points to A being at fault and B being hurt and in need of recovery.  However, what if in the middle of the case, the court held that B was not hurt at all and therefore did not need to recover? How does a result like this even come about? What does B do? This situation is illustrated in a case arising from a New Orleans motor vehicle accident from 2014.

On January 7, 2014, Michael Mirandy (“Mirandy”) was driving down Interstate 10 in New Orleans on his way home from a doctor’s appointment where he had been treated for injuries from a car accident the previous year. Unfortunately for Mirandy, he was rear ended by a car driven by Gary Walters, Jr (“Walters”). Three days after the accident, Mirandy returned to his physician, Dr. Chad Domangue (“Domangue”) with complaints of pain in his neck and back. Domangue ordered an MRI that month and compared it to previous MRI Mirandy underwent on July 13, 2013. When he compared the two MRIs, it was clear that many discs and vertebrae that had been normal in 2013 were now injured, and those that were already inflamed or displaced in 2013 were now in worse shape.

Mirandy and his wife then sued Walters for damages in the Civil District Court for Orleans Parish. Both Domangue and Mirandy’s orthopedic surgeon testified that many of Mirandy’s injuries were not present before the 2014 accident and because of that accident, he needed surgery. During the jury charge conference, one of the jury charges suggested that the accident was a “minimal or minor collision.” Mirandy’s counsel objected to this language and the court agreed to modify it. However, the charge was not modified and after four days of trial, the jury held that while Walters was at fault for causing the accident, Mirandy was not injured. As a result of this judgment, Mirandy did not received damages. He appealed to the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the unmodified jury charge improperly instructed the jury, and that the District Court erred when it found that he was not injured in the car accident.

In Louisiana, the court has to inform all the parties about written requests for jury charges and also inform the parties of the instructions it plans to give the jury. La. C.C.P art. 1793. If the court fails to do this, it could be prejudicial for one or both of the parties. Wooley v. Lucksinger, 61 So.3d 507 (La. 2011). For example, without the instructions ahead of time, counsel would be unable to modify closing arguments to fit with the jury instructions. Another example of prejudice would be that if a litigant does not have knowledge of the jury instructions, then counsel would not be able to object the absence of certain instructions. A similar third example is that counsel would not be able to object to mistakes in the instructions before the jury heard them.

In this case, Mirandy’s counsel objected during the charge conference and after all parties and the court agreed to modify the instruction, it ended up using the original prejudicial instruction. Without knowledge that the unmodified charge had been instructed to the jury, Mirandy’s counsel was unable to give a closing argument tailored to the jury instructions. Moreover, Mirandy’s counsel was not allowed to object to the court’s use of the unmodified charge or object to the instruction before it was given to the jury. All of this prejudiced Mirandy by suggesting that the car accident was minimal. With this finding of prejudice, the Court of Appeal held that the District Court erroneously instructed the jury.

Because the District Court committed legal error that affected the verdict, the Court of Appeal was required to set the verdict aside and review the next issue: whether the District Court properly determined Mirandy was not injured and not entitled to damages. Wiltz v. Bros. Petroleum, L.L.C., 140 So. 3d 758 (La. App. 2014). The Court of Appeal reviewed the evidence and testimony and concluded that while Mirandy had injuries from his 2013 accident and the 2014 accident was not a major collision, this did not mean that the 2014 accident left Mirandy injury-free. Rather, the evidence and testimony clearly showed that the 2014 accident increased and aggravated Mirandy’s pre-existing injuries and symptoms. As a result, he was entitled to $2,500 in damages for his injuries.

This case shows that in a case, just one error, such as a jury instruction, can lead to a completely unexpected result. With a good attorney, these kinds of issues can be addressed on appeal so that people like Mirandy can get the recovery they expected and deserved. 

Additional Sources: Michael Wesley Mirandy And His Wife Sherry D. Mirandy Versus Gary Waters, Jr., His Employer, Variety Wholesale Inc., And Their Insurer North Carolina Insurance

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Sadie Gibson

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