Tractor Accident Leads to Question of Responsibility for Dead Tree Causing Incident

In 2009, a Louisiana man was driving a tractor/trailer in Caddo Parish when he suddenly hit a large pine tree that had fallen across the road. Despite having already made this same trip on the same road several times that day, since the last time he had made the pass, the tree had fallen in the road. Unfortunately, the man did not have enough time to see the tree and stop his vehicle before driving into it. As a result of the accident, the man suffered serious neck injuries.

In light of this injury, who was to blame and what action could be taken? The man sued the owners of the property from which the tree fell, State Farm and the Parish. The claims against the owners and State Farm were settled, but the claim against the Parish went to court. Ultimately the trial court ruled against the man in favor of the Parish.

Taking the case further, the man appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred in three main regards. These errors had to do with admissibility of evidence, knowledge of the hazardous condition, and corrective action.

First, the man argued that the trial court allowed inadmissible evidence into court. Specifically, the trial court looked at the policies and procedures of neighboring parishes when making their decision in the case. The Parish called two witnesses, parish workers from neighboring parishes, who discussed what kind of roadways they are responsible for maintaining. They also discussed what specific policies their departments have with regard to how and when to inspect a road. Despite this argument, the appellate court found that there was nothing inappropriate about the testimony of these two men. Their testimonies were used to compare the policies of Caddo Parish to those of similar parishes to show that the policies of the Parish in question were customary in the area. Furthermore, the trial court has broad discretion in evidentiary rulings such as this, and it did not abuse its discretion in this instance.

The man also argued that the trial court mistakenly found that the Parish did not have any constructive notice that the tree was dead before it fell on the road. According to the man, the tree was clearly dead and showed indicators such as lack of bark along the trunk and bright red needles at the crown of the tree that were clear indicators that the pine tree was dead. Because of this, the man argued that the Parish should have known that the tree was dead and posed a hazard, and that the Parish should have removed the tree prior to the accident in question.

However, in order for the appellate court to reverse the trial court’s finding, it must find that the trial court had no reasonable factual basis for ruling the way it did. In this case, in order to say that the Parish breached its duty, the court would need to find three things: 1) a hazardous condition existed; 2) the state had knowledge of that condition; 3) the state did not take proper corrective action. In this case, based on the facts presented at trial, the trial court found that the tree could not have been spotted by a drive-by inspection. Two conflicting testimonies were presented as to whether the tree was obviously dead, and it was the trial court’s prerogative to choose which testimony was the most believable. In this case, the trial court found that the tree was not obviously dead.

Finally, the man argued that the Parish did not have proper policies in place for when a road should be inspected and how such an inspection should be conducted. However, evidence was entered that clearly showed that the Parish does have appropriate policies in place. Based on the testimonies presented, there was no reason to overturn the trial court’s finding.

Overall, the appellate court agreed with the trial court’s findings on all three accounts, mainly because proper evidence was submitted, and the trial court had the right to choose which evidence was most persuasive given the circumstances.

If you have been involved in a personal injury case and want an attorney who will be committed to your case and present convincing, persuasive evidence in court, call Berniard Law Firm at (504) 521-6000.

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