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Stutes v. Greenwood Motor Lines, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

November 23, 2017

RONALD LEE STUTES, ET UX.
v.
GREENWOOD MOTOR LINES, INC., ET AL.

         APPEAL FROM THE FIFTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF LAFAYETTE, NO. C-20131119 HONORABLE DAVID MICHAEL SMITH, DISTRICT JUDGE

          H. Alston Johnson III Marshall M. Redmon Virginia Y. Dodd KevinW. Welsh Phelps Dunbar LLP II COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT-APPELLANT: American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Company

          Blake R. David Robert B. Brahan, Jr. Broussard & David COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES: Ronald Lee Stutes Carroll Lynn Stutes

          J. Marshall Montgomery Attorney COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES: Ronald Lee Stutes Carroll Lynn Stutes

          Jeff Landry Attorney General Laura L. Putnam Assistant Attorney General Louisiana Department of Justice COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT-APPELLEE: State of Louisiana, through the Department of Transportation & Development

          Court composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, John E. Conery, and Candyce G. Perret, Judges.

          ELIZABETH A. PICKETT, JUDGE.

         This matter arises from a collision that occurred between a pickup truck and an eighteen-wheeler tractor-trailer when the driver of the eighteen-wheeler drove across an intersection in dense fog that limited the vision of both drivers. The driver of the pickup truck suffered catastrophic injuries. He and his wife sued the driver of the eighteen-wheeler, his employer, and the employer's primary and excess insurers. After a jury trial, the jury found the driver of the eighteen-wheeler to be solely at fault and awarded the plaintiff damages exceeding $30 million. One excess insurer appeals the jury's verdict. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         DISCUSSION

         The facts of how the accident occurred are not at issue. In the early morning hours of January 23, 2013, Gerald Pitre, an employee of Greenwood Motor Lines, Inc. d/b/a R&L Carriers, was operating his R&L eighteen-wheeler on the outskirts of Lafayette, upon return to R&L Carriers' facility in nearby Scott from his regular overnight roundtrip to Houston, Texas. Mr. Pitre traveled to Houston and back to Lafayette on Interstate 10 between 9:00 p.m. on January 22 and 5:30 a.m. on January 23. According to Mr. Pitre, he had driven back from Houston in fog that he described as "heavier than ever, " and he could only see what was within the area illuminated by his headlights.

         Mr. Pitre exited Interstate 10 at Duson onto Austria Road and drove south to where Austria Road intersects with U.S. Highway 90 (the Intersection). The Intersection was controlled with stop signs and two red flashing signals for motorists on Austria Road and a yellow flashing signal for motorists on Highway 90. Mr. Pitre stopped when he reached the Intersection at which time he noticed a burning smell that he believed was coming from his trailer. He contacted the R&L dispatcher to report the burning smell and informed the dispatcher that he was going to drive to where he could safely stop and inspect the trailer to determine the cause of the burning smell.

         Mr. Pitre explained that he originally intended to turn left at the Intersection, but after speaking with the dispatcher, he decided to drive straight across Highway 90 to stop and inspect his trailer. He further explained that when he ended his conversation with the dispatcher, he looked at the Intersection, saw two cars pass through it, "waited a few seconds, " then drove through it. Mr. Pitre also testified that the fog at the Intersection was such that that although the vehicles traveling on Highway 90 had their headlights on, he could not see them until they "crossed right in front of my face."

         At the same time, Ronald Stutes was traveling to work on Highway 90. As he approached the Intersection, Mr. Stutes saw the eighteen-wheeler crossing the Intersection. He slammed on his brakes but was unable to stop or swerve to avoid the tractor-trailer, and he crashed into the rear wheel of the tractor-trailer. Mr. Stutes testified that although it was foggy, he could see the Intersection. As he crossed the Intersection, Mr. Pitre heard a crunching sound, but he was unaware that a vehicle had hit his trailer and continued traveling approximately 500 feet down Austria Road. Mr. Pitre testified that he never saw Mr. Stutes' vehicle before the accident.

         Mr. Stutes suffered very serious injuries and is now a paraplegic with paralysis from his chest down; he is unable to care for himself. His injuries include thoracic spine fractures at T4, T5, and T6 that required fixation with screws and rods from T2-8; a cervical spine injury at C7; a transverse process fracture with cervical spine injury; contusions in his cervical and thoracic spine; collapsed lungs; a cerebral concussion; a brain injury; a comminuted humerus/ neck fracture; and numerous other injuries. The evidence indicates that Mr. Stutes' limbs and most of his internal organs were damaged or impaired in some way in the accident or as a result of his injuries. Additionally, after the accident, Mr. Stutes developed diabetes.

         Mr. Stutes and his wife, Carroll, [1] filed suit against Mr. Pitre; R&L Carriers; Greenwood Motor Lines, Inc.; R&L Carriers, Inc.; R&L Carriers Shared Services, LLC; R&L Transfer, Inc.; Protective Insurance Company; Lexington Insurance Company; Zurich American Insurance Company; and American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Company (AGLIC). In their answers, the defendants asserted affirmative defenses including fault of Mr. Stutes and fault of a third party, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). The Stuteses then added DOTD as a defendant.

         Prior to trial, DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the claims asserted against them on the basis that neither the Stuteses nor the defendants could carry their burden of proving liability against them. The Stuteses also filed a motion for summary judgment in which they sought the dismissal of DOTD on that same basis. After a hearing, the trial court granted the motions for summary judgment and dismissed DOTD from this suit.

         Prior to trial, Mr. Stutes entered into a Partial Settlement Agreement with Mr. Pitre, the R&L entities, and Protective Insurance Company in which those defendants tendered a sum of money less than $4 million dollars in exchange for being dismissed from the litigation. Pursuant to the Agreement, the Stuteses reserved their rights to proceed against R&L's excess insurers, Zurich and AGLIC, as authorized in Futch v Fidelity & Casualty Co. of New York, 246 La. 688, 166 So.2d 274 (1964) and Gasquet v. Commercial Union Insurance Co., 391 So.2d 466 (La.App. 4 Cir. 1980), writs denied, 396 So.2d 921, 922 (La.1981). Pursuant to the Agreement, Zurich and AGLIC received a credit of $4 million against any judgment obtained against them.

         After a jury trial, the jury awarded Mr. Stutes damages totaling $30, 138, 225 and awarded Mrs. Stutes $300, 000 for loss of consortium. On November 3, 2016, the trial court signed a judgment memorializing the jury's verdict. Thereafter, Lexington filed a motion for new trial and alternative motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and AGLIC filed a motion for new trial and alternatively for remittitur and alternative motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court denied the motions. Lexington and AGLIC each appealed; Lexington dismissed its appeal before filing an appellate brief.

         ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         AGLIC assigns the following errors with the trial court proceeding:

1. The trial judge erred in granting the pre-trial motions of the plaintiffs and [] DOTD for summary judgment, resulting in the omission from the jury verdict form of any possibility for the jury to assign a percentage of fault to [] DOTD.
2. The trial judge erred in permitting the jury to consider a life care plan based on the life expectancy of a person without the serious injuries that Stutes had, and erred in denying post-judgment relief on this basis.
3. The jury erred in awarding grossly excessive general damages to Ronald Stutes for his injuries, and the trial judge erred in denying the post-judgment relief sought by appellant to reduce those damages

         Summary Judgment

         AGLIC first assigns error with the trial court's grant of DOTD's and the Stuteses' motions for summary judgment which prevented AGLIC from arguing to the jury that the Intersection was unreasonably dangerous and prevented the jury from assigning a percentage of fault to DOTD. The Stuteses named DOTD as a defendant because the R&L defendants pleaded the affirmative defense of fault of a third party, alleging that DOTD was negligent for failing to install a three-phase signal[2] at the Intersection and that its negligence contributed to the accident. DOTD filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that a three-phase signal was not required at the Intersection and that it was ...


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