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Transportation Update: Drivers Beware, Dense Fog Ahead

On November 22, 2017, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal, in the case Stutes v. Greenwood Motor Lines, Inc., et al., affirmed a $30,000,000 judgment arising out of a collision between a tractor-trailer and a pickup truck in dense fog. This case illustrates the importance of defense counsel objecting to a special verdict form that contains separate line items for general damages that allow for duplication of awards.

A.  Background

On January 23, 2013, Gerald Pitre, an employee of Greenwood Motor Lines, Inc. d/b/a R&L Carriers ("R&L"), was driving a R&L tractor-trailer in dense fog. After exiting the interstate, Pitre drove south on Austria Road to its intersection with U.S. Highway 90, which was controlled by stop signs and flashing red signals for motorists on Austria Road and a flashing yellow signal for motorists on Highway 90.

Pitre stopped at the intersection and decided to cross Highway 90 before pulling over to check his truck. Roland Stutes ("Stutes"), who was driving to work on Highway 90, saw Pitre's truck crossing the highway as he approached the intersection. Stutes slammed on his brakes but was unable to avoid colliding with the rear wheel of the trailer. Stutes sustained serious injuries and is now a paraplegic.

B.  Discussion

Stutes and his wife sued Pitre, R&L and their insurers in state court. Before trial, Stutes entered into a partial settlement agreement with Petrie, R&L and Protective Insurance Company for less than $4,000,000. Plaintiffs reserved the right to proceed against R&L's excess insurers. The jury awarded Stutes $30,138,225 and his wife $300,000 for loss of consortium. Defendants appealed.On appeal, one argument the defendants made was that the jury award was grossly excessive. In Louisiana, a trier of fact has great discretion in assessing damages, and general damages are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. The jury returned a verdict for general damages as follows:

  • Physical pain and suffering (past, present and future) $4,000,000
  • Mental pain and suffering (past, present and future) $5,000,000
  • Diminished life expectancy $1,750,000
  • Loss of enjoyment of life $6,000,000
  • Permanent disability $4,000,000

The jury heard and considered extensive evidence of Stutes' injuries and the impact those injuries have had on him and will continue to have on him. The Court of Appeal concluded that the jury did not abuse its discretion.

C.  Why Is This Important?

  1. The general damage awarded in this case are more than two times greater than previous Louisiana general damage awards for similar injuries.
  2. The verdict form used in this case may have added substantially to the likelihood that the jury would award separate damages for essentially the same injury. Objecting to the verdict form at trial is a way a defendant can try to minimize the chance of receiving a general damage award of this magnitude.
  3. In closing argument, the plaintiffs' counsel used a strong "send a message/retribution statement" that should properly be directed only to punitive damages, which were not at issue. Objecting to plaintiffs' "send a message" plea to the jury is another way a defendant can try to avoid and/or reduce the likelihood of a significant general damage award like this one.

Attorneys

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