New Orleans Hit-and-Run Case Turns on Witness Testimony

As most motorists are aware, Louisiana law requires that the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident must stop the vehicle at the scene, give his or her identity, and provide reasonable aid to anyone who may be injured as a result of the crash. La. R.S. 14:100. The failure to do so is often called a “hit and run” accident, and in many cases the accident victim has no way to track down the fleeing driver.

In Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. v. Hayden, No. 2010-CA-0015 (La. App. 4th Cir. 2010), the witness to a hit-and-run collision played a critical role in the resolution of the case. On February 18, 2007, William Dunham was driving his car in New Orleans near the intersection of Howard Avenue and Loyola Avenue. A silver Ford Taurus ran the red light at the intersection and hit Dunham’s car broadside. The driver of the Taurus continued on and fled the scene. Orelia Jones, who was riding in her sister’s car, happened to see the collision. Jones and her sister followed the Taurus until Jones was able to write down the car’s license plate number. She then returned to the scene of the accident and shared her information with the police.

The police traced the license plate number provided by Jones to a 2003 Ford Taurus owned by Amy Lips Hayden of Mandeville. Dunham’s insurance company, Louisiana Farm Bureau, sued Hayden for the damage to Dunham’s car in the accident.

At trial, Jones testified about the events that followed the crash. She said that she was one or two car-lengths away at the time she wrote down the fleeing car’s license plate number, but she could not identify the driver of the car. She also testified that she did not know the make and model of the vehicle, stating “I’m not good at make and models of cars.” When shown photographs of the Taurus and asked if it was the vehicle involved in the accident, Jones stated that it was.

Hayden testified that she was not in New Orleans on the date of the accident. She explained that she would have been at home in Mandeville because she did not come to New Orleans very often, especially during Mardi Gras. When asked if anyone else could have been driving her car, she testified that she would have known if her son or her boyfriend had borrowed the car, but they had not. When asked about the scuffs on the Taurus’s front bumper and cracked grill that were evident from photographs taken several months after the accident, Hayden claimed they were already on the car when she purchased it, used, about six months before the incident. The trial court concluded that Hayden’s vehicle was the one involved in the accident, that it caused the accident, and that its driver fled the scene. The court awarded Dunham $11,318 in damages, and Hayden appealed.

The Court of Appeals reviewed Louisiana’s “manifest error” standard of review for factual determinations made by the trial court. This means that a trial court’s factual findings cannot be reversed on appeal unless the appellate court finds that the trial court’s determination was “manifestly erroneous” or “clearly wrong.” Detraz v. Lee, 950 So.2d 557, 561 (La. 2007). When findings are based on the trial court’s evaluation of witness credibility, the manifest error standard of review

“demands great deference to the trier of fact’s findings because only the factfinder can be aware of the variations in demeanor and tone of voice that bear so heavily on the listener’s understanding and belief in what is said.” Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La. 1989).

In applying these principles, the court held that the record provided a reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s findings, and that there was no reason to conclude that the trial court was clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous in giving more weight to Jones’s testimony than to Hayden’s. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

The Hayden case demonstrates how the outcome of a trial can turn not only on the content of a witness’s testimony, but also on the credibility afforded that testimony by the judge or jury. For this reason, it is essential that an accident victim retain competent counsel with substantial trial experience. Doing so can make sure that witnesses are asked the proper questions that avoids any sort of deceit or guessing in court and, instead, sticks to the facts that cannot be disputed.

If you have been injured or have suffered property damage as a result of a car accident, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an experienced trial attorney who can help.

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