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Bouchon v. Walkenford

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

April 20, 2017

ROBERTA BOUCHON, WIFE OF/AND WAYNE BOUCHON
v.
JENNIFER AND JON WALKENFORD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS LEGAL GUARDIANS OF JEREMY WALKENFORD, USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, AND STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY

         On Appeal from The 22nd Judicial District Court, Parish of St. Tammany, State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 2014-12717 The Honorable Peter J. Garcia, Judge Presiding

          Jack E. Truitt Pamela S. Chehardy Croft Amber L. Mitchell Peter M. Gahagan Covington, Louisiana Attorneys for Plaintiffs/ Appellants, Roberta Bouchon, wife of/and Wayne Bouchon

          Adrianne L. Baumgartner Samuel P. Baumgartner Covington, Louisiana Attorneys for Defendants/ Appellees, Jennifer and Jon Walkenford, Individually and as Legal Guardians for Jeremy Walkenford, and United Services Automobile Association

          BEFORE: WELCH, CRAIN, AND HOLDRIDGE, JJ.

          CRAIN, J.

         The plaintiffs, Wayne and Roberta Bouchon, appeal a judgment of the trial court awarding $5, 000 in damages for injuries sustained by Wayne in an automobile accident. We affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The accident giving rise to this litigation occurred on June 21, 2013. The Bouchons were traveling in "stop and go" traffic around lunchtime on Highway 22 near Mandeville when, after stopping for a red light, their vehicle was struck in the rear by a vehicle operated by Jeremy Walkenford. The Bouchons exited their vehicle and told Walkenford, and later the responding police officer, they were not hurt. When the scene investigation was finished, the Bouchons continued on their way to a restaurant for lunch. At the restaurant, Wayne noticed some stiffness in his back and, later that evening, began experiencing low back pain that radiated into his right leg. Although he claims in this proceeding the pain continued and even worsened during the ensuing weeks and months, Wayne did not seek medical treatment until almost twelve months after the accident.

         Shortly after Wayne began his medical treatment, the Bouchons filed suit against Walkenford, his parents, and their automobile liability insurer, United Services Automobile Association, seeking damages for the injuries allegedly sustained by Wayne in the accident, and for Roberta's alleged loss of consortium. The defendants stipulated the accident was caused by the fault of Walkenford, but reserved the right to contest causation and the degree and extent of any injuries. The Bouchons stipulated their recovery did not exceed $50, 000, and the matter proceeded to a bench trial.

         The evidence at trial included testimony from Wayne and Roberta; the trial deposition of Dr. John Logan, an orthopedist who treated Wayne; and medical records reflecting Wayne's treatment for low back pain both before and after the 2013 automobile accident. The pre-accident treatment was for an incident that occurred in 2009 when Wayne injured his low back while lifting a heavy box. He was diagnosed with a herniated disc at the L5-S1 level and underwent a lumbar microdiscectomy in 2010, performed by Dr. Lucien Miranne, Jr., a neurosurgeon. Wayne was released from Dr. Miranne's care in August, 2010, and did not receive further treatment for back pain prior to the 2013 automobile accident.

         At the time of the automobile accident, Wayne was unemployed and, according to his trial testimony, did not immediately seek medical treatment because he could not afford to be "laid up." In April, 2014, about ten months after the accident, he was hired by Office Depot as a sales representative and cashier, a job requiring him to stand for extended periods of time and sometimes pick up furniture. Wayne said the physical demands of the job were "tough" on him, and on one occasion he helped pick up a chair and noticed "it was causing stress" in his back.

         His first treatment after the automobile accident was on June 10, 2014, when he presented to Dr. Miranne's nurse practitioner with a history of worsening back pain since the automobile accident. The pain, according to the history, worsens "the longer he stands." The nurse practitioner prescribed pain medication and ordered an MRI. Wayne did not treat again at Dr. Miranne's clinic.

         Wayne began treating with Dr. Logan on June 26, 2014, after the Bouchons filed suit. In his history to Dr. Logan, Wayne reported that after the accident he immediately felt low back pain and numbness in his right foot and toes, which steadily increased after the accident. He also stated the symptoms worsened over the previous two to three months, adding that his job at Office Depot required prolonged standing. Wayne underwent a lumbar MRI that showed degenerative disc disease at the site of the previous surgery, a finding Dr. Logan confirmed was "nothing new."

         Dr. Logan diagnosed Wayne with low back pain radiating into his right lower extremity, which he treated with prescription medications, and, over the course of the next several months, three selective nerve root injections. Based upon Wayne's history, Dr. Logan opined that the automobile accident caused his low back pain. However, Dr. Logan acknowledged that patients with Wayne's preexisting back condition can become symptomatic for a variety of reasons, even without a traumatic event, and the condition can be aggravated by prolonged standing. Dr. Logan also testified there was a "correlation" between Wayne's work at Office Depot and the increase in his symptoms.

         After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court issued written reasons finding the Bouchons failed to satisfy their burden of proving the automobile accident caused Wayne's back and leg pain that prompted the treatment beginning in June, 2014. The trial court noted the accident did not involve a significant impact and Wayne did not seek medical treatment until June, 2014, almost one year after the accident and two months after he started working at Office Depot. The trial court was not persuaded by the Bouchons' assertion that Wayne did not seek medical treatment because of his job search. Citing Dr. Logan's testimony that activity changes can increase symptomology, the trial court explained:

While the Court understands plaintiffs desire to find a better job, the plaintiff clearly did not need treatment until [one occasion when] he could not get out of [a] chair and was shaking from pain. This occurred after he began working at Office Depot, and supports a finding that the change in the physical demands of plaintiffs employment led to the need for treatment, not the accident approximately 50 weeks earlier.[1]

         The trial court awarded $5, 000 for the "minimal pain and suffering" experienced by Wayne before he started working at Office Depot. Denying the claims for lost wages and loss of consortium, the trial court found Wayne did not miss work for medical reasons, and changes in the Bouchons' marital relationship were due to the termination of Wayne's previous employment in medical sales and the resultant loss of income. A judgment was signed in accordance with those reasons. The Bouchons appeal and assign as error the trial court's finding that they did not prove medical causation with regard to Wayne's back injury.

         DISCUSSION

         In a personal injury suit, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the causal connection between an accident and the resulting injuries. Tate v. Kenny, 14-0265 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/23/15), 186 So.3d 119, 127. A tortfeasor is liable only for damages caused by his negligent act, not damages caused by separate, independent, or intervening causes. Richardson v. Bridgefield Casualty Insurance Company, 14-1587 (La.App. 1 Cir. 8/10/15), 181 So.3d 61, 64; Kelley v. General Insurance Company of America, 14-0180 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/23/14), 168 So.3d 528, 543, writs denied, 15-0157, 15-0165 (La. 4/10/15), 163 So.3d 814, 816. The plaintiff must prove his injuries were not the result of separate, independent, and intervening causes. Richardson, 181 So.3d at 64; Kelley, 168 So.3d at 543-44. The test for determining the causal relationship between the accident and injury is whether the plaintiff proved through medical testimony that, more probably than not, his injuries were caused by the accident. Maranto v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 94-2603 (La. 2/20/95), 650 So.2d 757, 759.

         Causation is a factual finding that should not be reversed on appeal absent manifest error. Detraz v. Lee, 05-1263 (La, 1/17/07), 950 So.2d 557, 561. Under the manifest error standard of review, a reviewing court may not merely decide if it would have found the facts of the case differently, Hayes Fund for First United Methodist Church of Welsh, LLC v. Kerr-McGee Rocky Mountain, LLC, 14-2592, (La. 12/8/15), 193 So.3d 1110, 1115; see also Hall v. Folger Coffee Company, 03-1734 (La. 4/14/04), 874 So.2d 90, 98. Rather, to reverse a trial court's factual conclusion, the appellate court must satisfy a two-step process based on the record as a whole: there must be no reasonable factual basis for the trial court's conclusion, and the finding must be clearly wrong. Hayes, 193 So.3d at 1115-16; Stobart v. State through Department of Transportation and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993). Reasonable evaluations of credibility and inferences of fact should not be disturbed, even if the appellate court feels that its own evaluations and inferences are as reasonable. Hayes, 193 So.3d at 1116; Richardson, 181 So.3d at 65.

         The Bouchons argue that their testimony describing the onset and duration of Wayne's symptoms was not impeached, and that Dr. Logan confirmed the automobile accident caused the symptoms necessitating the treatment beginning in 2014. They also point out the defendants "did not call a single witness or introduce a shred of evidence bearing on the medical causation or damages issue." Given the absence of contrary evidence, the Bouchons maintain the trial court was not presented with two permissible views of the evidence; therefore, the causation finding must be manifestly erroneous.

         While the Bouchons are correct that the defendants did not call any medical witnesses, as plaintiffs, they had the burden of proving causation; the defendants were not required to disprove causation. See Tate, 186 So.3d at 127; Richardson, 181 So.3d at ...


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