The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently issued a decision in a multiple-vehicle automobile lawsuit involving issues of fault and damages. The court held that the trial court had erroneously allocated fault, and based on the evidence, the two individuals previously without fault were in fact negligent and partly responsible for the collision. Specifically, the court analyzed whether two individuals had breached a duty of care by agreeing to tow a vehicle at a high rate of speed.
In their discussion, the court stated that the fault issue centered on State Farm alleging that the 95% apportionment of fault to Ms. Decuir had been an error. State Farm asserted Mr. Jacobs should have been at least partially at fault, since he operated the towed truck. Additionally, State Farm contended that a larger percentage of fault should have been assigned to Mr. Sampson because he did not safely regulate his speed, as the driver of the lead truck.
The court stated Louisiana law provides that individuals are responsible for damage caused by their negligent conduct. Under the duty-risk analysis, fault will be imposed when an actor had a duty to act in a specific manner and failed to meet that standard, and this failure caused injuries and resulting damages. While determining whether a duty is owed is a question of law, a finding of whether a duty has been breached is a question of fact.
Regarding Mr. Jacobs as the following driver, Louisiana law requires drivers to not follow more closely than is reasonable. There is also a presumption of negligence when a following motorist rear-ends another vehicle. This is a rebuttable presumption.
In this case, the court stated that Mr. Jacobs’ vehicle had been tethered to Mr. Sampson’s, and therefore he had only limited control over the speed of his own, towed vehicle. While the trial court did not err in finding that he did not breach the duty provided in the statute concerning following vehicles, there was another consideration.
The towing venture that Mr. Sampson and Mr. Jacobs undertook left Mr. Jacobs steering but not in independent control of the speed of his own vehicle. Mr. Jacobs was subject to the speed of the lead vehicle. Mr. Jacobs had a duty to act reasonably in performing his towing operation. The appellate court stated that it was an error for the trial court to determine that Mr. Jacobs had not breached a duty.
Also, the court noted that the driver of a following vehicle can rebut a negligence presumption in a rear-end accident. But here, Mr. Jacobs could have anticipated the lead vehicle would travel at speeds beyond which he could safely stop. As a result, the appellate court stated that there must be an adjustment to the allocation of fault.
Turning to Louisiana law concerning comparative fault, the appeals court stated that an allocation of fault must consider whether the conduct was due to inadvertence, how great a risk was created by the conduct, the significance of what was sought by the conduct, and the capacities of the actors, among other factors. The court stated the trial court was wrong in its apportionment of 5% fault to Mr. Jacobs and 95% fault to Ms. Decuir.
The court stated that while Ms. Decuir was at fault in the accident, the record did not support a finding that she was responsible for the majority of fault. According to the court, she had been in a superior position to avoid the accident, since she turned onto a highway without yielding. But the injuries would not have taken place without the condition of the towed vehicle. In other words, the court stated that if Mr. Sampson had not been towing Mr. Jacobs in his vehicle at such a high rate of speed, there would not have been an accident. Accordingly ,the court stated Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Sampson must bear a greater percentage of fault. The appellate court attributed 30% fault to Mr. Sampson and 30% fault to Mr. Jacobs.
The court remanded to the trial court to amend the award of damages according to the new allocation of fault.
At Lavis Law, our car accident attorneys provide guidance and representation for Louisiana victims in their pursuit of damages following an accident, including multi-vehicle accidents. Our office provides a free consultation regarding your legal claim and can be reached by calling 866.558.9151.
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