MBLB Attorneys Win Appeal, Overturning Partial Summary Judgment for Plaintiff

MBLB attorneys C. Michael Parks and J. Edward McAuliffe, III, recently won an appeal overturning the district judge’s granting of Plaintiff’s partial summary judgment on liability. In this commercial accident automobile case, the three-judge panel of Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal unanimously held that issues of fact regarding plaintiff’s comparative negligence, along with issues regarding the proof offered by plaintiff, precluded summary judgment on liability.  (This ruling is not yet final as of this posting)

The lawsuit arose from a two-vehicle motor vehicle accident, and Plaintiff claimed she was entitled to summary judgment of 100% negligence against the defendant delivery driver based on Plaintiff having the right of way. The parties did not contest that Plaintiff was on the favored roadway and that the defendant delivery driver had a stop sign. Plaintiff attached as evidence to her Motion an uncertified computer printout alleging that the defendant delivery driver paid the failure-to-yield traffic citation. Defendants objected to the introduction of this evidence as improper under La. C.C.P. art. 966—which allows only specific forms of evidence on a Motion for Summary Judgment.

The District Court granted the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, relying almost exclusively on the fact that the delivery driver had pled guilty to his traffic citation for failure to yield and paid the fine.

On appeal, Edward successfully argued that there was at least an issue of fact regarding whether Plaintiff had comparative fault for the accident. Indeed, Defendants submitted numerous facts in support that a jury could find that plaintiff’s negligence caused the accident. For example, Plaintiff was proceeding southbound in the inside lane of a four-lane boulevard, plus a U-turn lane ahead and to her left. Plaintiff admitted that she had no sight obstructions, and that she did not see the large delivery truck until after the front of her car had impacted its left side, behind its rear axle.  Defendants argued that by Plaintiff’s admission, she did not see the  delivery truck as it crossed the three travel lanes to her right and across her lane of travel, and therefore that she was not paying attention to the road in front of her. It was also uncontested that two other vehicles had stopped in the two travel lanes to plaintiff’s right to allow the large delivery truck to cross their travel lanes on the favored roadway and that the defendant driver believed Plaintiff was also allowing him to cross her lane. The delivery driver testified that he saw Plaintiff’s approaching vehicle when he stopped in the second travel lane and he thought she was slowing and would allow him to cross.

Defendants also submitted proof that plaintiff was using her cell phone at the time of the accident, and thus was driving while distracted. Defendants offered the delivery driver’s testimony and 911 call logs to establish the exact time that the accident occurred, and plaintiff’s cell phone records reflected her use of her phone during that time frame.

The Fifth Circuit looked further at the evidence offered by Defendants and found additional grounds which required reversal of Plaintiff’s summary judgment. Plaintiff was a minor at the time of the accident and had only a Learner’s Permit, and yet she was alone in her mother’s car, at her mother’s instruction, to pick up her brother from camp. Under Louisiana law, a driver with only a learner’s permit is required to be accompanied by with a licensed parent, guardian, or adult at least 21 years of age, or a licensed sibling at least 18 years of age or older. The Fifth Circuit panel accepted Edward’s argument that her violation of her Learner’s Permit requirements raised an issue of fact, because a licensed driver in the car with her may have helped Plaintiff from being distracted and thus to have stopped in time to avoid the accident.

The Fifth Circuit also concluded that the evidence of the delivery driver’s traffic citation payment was inappropriate and should not have been considered by the District Court. The Fifth Circuit further noted that even if proper documentation of the citation had been offered into evidence, the mere fact that a driver paid his traffic citation was inherently untrustworthy, drivers often pay their citation purely for expediency and convenience. The appellate court also ruled that even a plea on the traffic citation did not demonstrate 100% fault on the part of the defendant driver. Under Louisiana’s pure comparative fault regime, the traffic citation guilty plea does not equate to any percentage of negligence. The Fifth Circuit noted:

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court’s role is not to evaluate the weight of the evidence or determine the truth of the matter but instead to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact.

In terms of legal doctrines, liability based on a legal violation would be termed negligence per se—that is, the act itself is indisputably negligence. Louisiana does not follow the doctrine of negligence per se. While not stated directly in the Court’s opinion, this ruling is an acknowledgment of that bar.

The Fifth Circuit ruled there were genuine issues of material fact such that the defendant driver could not be found 100% negligent as a matter of law.

What Won the Day?

This case demonstrates the interplay of several legal precepts regarding evidentiary concerns; factual disputes and admissions; application of appropriate legal doctrines; and the need to anticipate what evidence may be needed to defend against a Motion for Summary Judgment.  In the end, a correct interpretation of legal precepts, coupled with prior anticipation of needed evidence to rebut the other party’s claims, won the day.