Staged Accident Evidence Gets $3,375,000 Trial Verdict Reversed

Only a few days ago, we reported that two individuals had been indicted for the murder of Cornelius Garrison, who was killed only days after being indicted as a ring leader in commercial vehicle staged accident conspiracies. Now, only a day after that murder indictment was made public, evidence that some Plaintiffs had been in contact with Garrison contemporaneously with their accident has garnered the reversal of a multi-million-dollar jury verdict in Orleans Parish. The case is Straughter v. Occidental Fire & Cas. Co. of N.C., 2023-CA-0480 cons. 2023-CA-0481 (La. App. 4 Cir. 05/08/2024).

Pre-trial Circumstances

The case revolved around a July 17, 2018, accident in which a 2008 Ford Mustang with three occupants was allegedly struck by an 18-wheeler. Early in 2023, Defendants did not oppose some motions filed by Plaintiffs, including summary judgment on liability. The matter was set for trial on March 27, 2023. On March 13, 2023, Defendants alleged they discovered evidence that Cornelius Garrison, the supposed staged accident ringleader, had been in contact with Plaintiffs multiple times on the date of the accident.

Defendants filed a Motion for Continuance of trial on March 21, 2023, along with a petition to annul the prior consent judgments. Pleadings alleged Plaintiffs had concealed telephone numbers from the Defense; that certain telephone numbers were discovered in medical records and the police report that were not the telephone numbers provided to the Defense by Plaintiffs; and that the numbers located in medical and police records were those found in the telephone records of Cornelius Garrison.

Plaintiffs countered that the discovery deadline had passed, Defendants knew of the possible fraud before March, and that Defendants had answered in discovery that the accident had similarities to other staged accidents. The trial court denied the motion to continue, relying on the fact that the discovery deadline had passed.

Trial proceeded, and the two Plaintiffs at trial were awarded a total of $3,375,000.

On Appeal

The trial was appealed on several grounds, but the majority of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal found the need only to address the Motion for Continuance. In short, they found the trial court had abused its discretion in not granting the continuance for the defense.

The opinion by Judge Karen Herman noted that judges are given broad discretion on whether or not to grant a continuance. They must weight several factors, including diligence, good faith, reasonable grounds, the right for an expeditious hearing, fairness, and the need for orderly administration of justice. Judge Herman also pointed out that the appellate courts should only interfere with a trial judge’s determination in these matters “with reluctance and in what are considered extreme cases,” citing to Wilkerson v. Darden Direct Distribution, Inc., 53,263, p. 13 (La. App. 2 Cir. 3/4/20), 293 So. 3d 146, 154.

Weighing all these factors and more, Judge Herman’s opinion stated:

We find that the possibility of fraud being perpetrated on the judicial system warrants this Court’s inference with the trial court’s discretion and constitutes good cause for a continuance under La. C.C.P. art. 1601. The record shows that Garrison was an indicted conspirator in 50 staged motor vehicle accidents with 18-wheelers and the telephone records show that Plaintiffs had placed or received approximately 30 calls to and from Garrison on the day of the accident, both before and after the collision. The evidence thus suggests the real possibility of fraud, similar to the cases investigated by U.S. Attorney’s Office. Nevertheless, the trial court permitted the trial to proceed and the jury ultimately rendered a verdict of over 3 million dollars in damages. We find the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to grant a continuance of the trial to allow Defendants to investigate the matter further.

Judge Brown dissented, largely on procedural grounds. The Defense filed pleadings related to fraud in the trial court, which were denied and has subsequently been appealed. Judge Brown found that the instant matter was moot, as there was a finding below that fraud had not occurred, and that matter would soon be before the Court. Judge Brown stated she otherwise would have stayed this appeal pending the appeal on the fraud ruling below.

Judge Jenkins wrote a separate dissent, focusing on Defendants’ failure to allege fraud as an affirmative defense, although they had alluded to such in prior discovery responses. Defendants also conceded to the early 2023 partial summary judgment on liability. She also noted Defendants had not introduced any evidence at the hearing on their Motion for Continuance. She would have upheld the trial court’s ruling.

The Results

Under the circumstances of this case, the appellate court decided that a continuance was justified given a fairly clear set of facts suggesting fraud. However, the devil is in the details. Had the evidence of alleged fraud not been so clear, and even perhaps had the jury verdict not been so large, the matter may have gone the other way. It would seem the totality of circumstances and potential large injustice in the eventual trial verdict likely were the most weighty factors swaying the majority.

It is also noteworthy that Judge Karen Herman is former prosecutor and was a long-time jurist on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court bench before making her way to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. It is unsurprising this opinion was written by her, given her experience.