In a recent case before the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, the court addressed allegations of fraud on behalf of the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit. Louisiana law holds that a judgment obtained by fraud may be annulled, or set aside. The court examined whether there had been a deprivation of a legal right, requiring the court to set aside the judgment.
Plaintiff Christopher Ezzell sued Dr. Lucien Sidney Miranne, Jr. for personal injuries. Dr. Miranne allegedly punched him in the head in a bar in 2009. A jury verdict was rendered against Dr. Miranne in favor of Mr. Ezzell. Mr. Ezzell was awarded $435,513.69 in damages. This represented $130,513.69 in past medical expenses, $25,000.00 for past pain and suffering, two years of future lost earning capacity at $140,000.00, and two years of past lost wages for $140,000.00.
Dr. Miranne appealed and argued that Mr. Ezzell was a malinger and fraud because he exaggerated his injuries. The trial court affirmed the judgment against Dr. Miranne and amended it to include $75,000.00 for two years of future pain and suffering. Dr. Miranne did not further appeal.
Dr. Miranne filed a petition for nullity of judgment, on the grounds that the jury verdict was procured by fraud or ill practices. Dr. Miranne had hired a private investigator, who took a video of Mr. Ezzell working as a mule-drawn buggy tour guide in the New Orleans French Quarter. Dr. Miranne contended that Mr. Ezzell had claimed he was incapable of returning to any employment and supported his petition with the private investigator’s video. Dr. Miranne alleged that the video showed Mr. Ezzell lied about his ability to return to work and presented perjured testimony concerning this ability to work. Dr. Miranne requested the judgment based on the jury verdict be annulled.
The appellate court set forth Louisiana law concerning relative nullity, which holds that any final judgment obtained by fraud or ill practices may be annulled. The purpose of an action for nullity is to prevent injustice. However, a petition for nullity is not a substitute for an appeal or a second chance to prove a claim that was previously denied for failure of proof.
The court reviewed whether the trial court’s conclusions were reasonable. The test for nullity is whether circumstances showed a deprivation of the legal rights of the litigant seeking relief, and whether enforcing the judgment would be unconscionable. A deprivation of a legal right is the right to appear and assert a defense, and the right to a fair trial.
In this case, Dr. Miranne alleged that at trial, Mr. Ezzell stated he was not capable of returning to employment. His treating doctors confirmed this testimony but after viewing the 2012 video “clarified” their opinion. Mr. Ezzell could not return to work in his previous capacity as a marine insurance adjuster but could work in some other future employment. Dr. Miranne contended that if the jury had heard this clarification, the result at trial would have been different.
The court held that Dr. Miranne failed to show he was deprived of a legal right or defense at trial. At the principal trial, Dr. Miranne’s defense theory – that Mr. Ezzell had made up his symptoms and was malingering – was fully litigated. The court stated that the fact that Mr. Ezzell’s functional capability allowed him to have “sporadic and negligible” part-time work was not inconsistent with the medical opinions presented at the principal trial. At the time of the trial, there was no evidence Mr. Ezzell had the capacity for even this kind of employment. It is not clear that he lied about his condition at the principal trial simply because he later made functional improvements. There was no evidence of fraud simply because Mr. Ezzell was working as a part-time buggy driver nearly two years after the trial.
Regarding the second part of the test, the court stated it would not be unconscionable or inequitable to enforce the jury verdict. In fact, the court stated that the jury believed Mr. Ezzell was capable of some future employment, and their award of two years of future lost earning capacity reflected this.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Mr. Ezzell against Dr. Miranne.
At Lavis Law, our accident attorneys help Louisiana victims seek compensation following their injuries. We offer personal and diligent representation, and we provide a free consultation. Our office can be reached by calling 866.558.9151.
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