Jury Entitled to Favor Crash Victim’s Expert in Deciding Fault, But Statute Bars $1M Personal Injury Judgment

Personal injury cases can be complicated and difficult generally, and they are even more so when the entity you are suing is a governmental one. While the law does impose certain limitations, success is still attainable with a sufficiently strong case. A recent decision by the Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld a jury verdict against the Baton Rouge Police Department, highlighting that juries have wide discretion in assigning greater or lesser credibility to one expert witness as opposed to another. The family could not receive the full award, though, since Louisiana statutory law caps personal injury damages for cases where the accused wrongdoer is a governmental entity, such as the police.

Nelson Dakmak, Sr.’s tragic auto accident occurred in February 2008 while driving in Baton Rouge. Dakmak was attempting to execute a left-hand turn when a police cruiser driven by Officer Stephen Tibbetts slammed into his vehicle. Tibbetts was driving in excess of 90 mph at the time in pursuit of a possibly stolen vehicle, but he had not sounded his sirens or turned on the cruiser’s police lights.

The accident left Dakmak paralyzed from the waist down. He died three months later. The Dakmak family sued the Baton Rouge Police and Tibbetts for the officer’s alleged negligence in causing the accident and Dakmak’s injuries.

At trial, Dakmak’s expert testified that, even if Tibbetts had driven as fast as 70-80 mph, Dakmak would have already completed his turn, and no crash would have occurred. The police’s expert testified that if Dakmak had slammed on his brakes, he could have avoided the accident. The jury ruled for the family, finding Tibbetts 100% at fault and awarding $1 million for the damages Dakmak suffered, which led the police and the officer to appeal.

One aspect of the police’s appeal related to the jury’s refusal to assign any of the blame to Dakmak. Dakmak, they argued, failed to determine if the path was clear before making his turn, which led him to turn in front of Tibbetts’ oncoming vehicle, so he should have to bear some responsibility for the accident.

The appeals court was not persuaded on this point. While drivers who are involved in accidents while making left turns are often at fault, due to the generally dangerous nature of the maneuver and oncoming drivers’ right of way, left-turning drivers are not always at fault. If the oncoming driver’s driving was sufficiently substandard, he or she may be held responsible for the accident. This is true in several instances, including cases where the “sole proximate cause” of the accident can be attributed to the oncoming driver’s excessive speed.

The appeals court concluded that the jury apparently found that Tibbetts’ extremely excessive rate of speed was the sole cause for the accident. Based on the evidence the family presented, the jury had enough grounds for reaching that conclusion. Although the police’s expert offered testimony that Dakmak could have taken steps to avoid the accident, the jury was entitled to give more credence to Dakmak’s expert over the expert offered by the police.

The court also rejected the police’s argument that the wreck did not cause Dakmak’s death. The court pointed out that the family had offered at trial credible expert testimony that Dakmak’s death was attributable to his accident. In his case, his paraplegia, which was the direct result of the crash, caused him to develop severe ulcers that had eaten through his skin and muscle and down to his bone. These ulcers, along with complications from blood thinners he was taking as a result of the accident, killed him, according to the expert doctor.

Unfortunately for the family, however, the family could not recover the entire award the jury handed down. Since the family sued a governmental entity (the Baton Rouge Police), La. R.S. 13:5106(B) imposed a personal injury damages cap of $500,000.

Seeking recovery for damages can be a difficult process in the wake of a serious accident. One way to lessen the stress on your family is to put an experienced legal team on your side. Talk to the Louisiana personal injury attorneys at the Cardone Law Firm right away about your case. Our attorneys can help you analyze your case and get the compensation you deserve.

For your confidential consultation contact us online or phone Cardone at 504-522-3333.

More Blog Posts:

Church Lacked Sufficient Control to Be Liable for Injuries Caused by Unpaid Intern’s Auto Accident, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, July 28, 2014
Railroad Not Liable for Death of Deaf Woman Struck by Train, High Court Rules, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, April 26, 2014

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