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Rentrop v. Arch Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 29, 2017

JOHN C. RENTROP AND HIS WIFE, DAWN RENTROP
v.
ARCH INSURANCE COMPANY, PROGRESSIVE WASTE SOLUTIONS OF LA, INC. D/B/A SWDI, L.L.C. AND JERMAINE V. HARDING

         On Appeal from the Sixteenth Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of St. Mary State of Louisiana No. 126246 Div."E" The Honorable Keith R.J. Comeaux, Judge Presiding

          R. Scott Ramsey, Jr. Morgan City, LA Attorney for Plaintiffs/ Appellees John C. Rentrop and Dawn Rentrop

          John J. Rabalais Joshua B. Couvillion Covington, LA Attorneys for Intervenor St. Mary Parish School Board

          W. Evan Plauche Jam es H. Johnson Metairie, LA Attorneys for Defendants/ Appellants Arch Insurance Company, Progressive Waste Solutions of LA, Inc., d/b/a SWDI, L.L.C. and Jermaine V. Harding

          BEFORE: HIGGINBOTHAM, HOLDRIDGE, PENZATO, JJ.

          HOLDRIDGE, J.

         This personal injury suit arises out of an automobile accident. Defendants appeal a trial court judgment rendered in accordance with a jury verdict, awarding the plaintiffs $1, 852, 500.00 in damages. The defendants also appeal a judgment denying its Motion for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or alternatively, a Motion for New Trial. For the following reasons, we amend in part and affirm as amended.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 3, 2012, John C. Rentrop was driving his 1998 GMC Bluebird school bus traveling West on La. Highway 182 near Patterson, Louisiana. Mr. Rentrop had just begun his route and the school bus was full with children. It was Mr. Rentrop's policy for children not to sit in the last four rows of the bus for safety reasons. As Mr. Rentrop's bus came to a stop to let a child off, with the bus lights on and stop signs out, he was struck from behind by a 2007 Mack MR 668S garbage truck driven by Jermaine V. Harding. Mr. Harding failed to yield to the traffic ahead of him resulting in the collision. No children were injured as a result of the accident. Mr. Harding's garbage truck was owned and operated by his employer, Progressive Waste Solutions of Louisiana, Inc. d/b/a SWDI, L.L.C., and insured by Arch Insurance Company. As a result of the accident, both the school bus and the garbage truck were declared total losses.

         Following the accident, Mr. Rentrop was taken by ambulance to Teche Regional Medical Center. Mr. Rentrop complained of neck and back pain, but was discharged the same day. On October 8, 2012, Mr. Rentrop saw Dr. Lianter Albert who prescribed him a pain reliever and a muscle relaxer. Mr. Rentrop attended thirty-one sessions of physical therapy and received steroid injections, but his pain still did not recede. Although physical therapy made Mr. Rentrop more active, his pain worsened. Dr. Albert referred Mr. Rentrop to Dr. David Weir, a neurologist, for nerve conduction studies. Dr. Weir examined Mr. Rentrop and determined that he most likely needed surgical intervention because physical therapy did not have lasting benefits. Dr. Weir referred Mr. Rentrop to orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. George Raymond Williams in May of 2013 to determine if surgery was necessary for his neck and back. Dr. Williams examined Mr. Rentrop and determined that he had cervical degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, and a herniated disc.[1] Therefore, Dr. Williams recommended surgery due to Mr. Rentop's severe cervical pain. Mr. Rentrop had a cervical discectomy and fusion in July 2013. Following surgery, Mr. Rentrop's pain in his neck began to improve and his daily headaches receded.

         On July 18, 2013, Mr. Rentrop and his wife, Dawn Rentrop, filed a petition for damages against Arch Insurance, Progressive Waste Solutions, and Mr. Harding for the injuries he sustained in the accident. On August 30, 2013, St. Mary Parish School Board, Mr. Rentrop's employer, intervened in the matter, seeking reimbursement for all the workers' compensation indemnity and medical benefits it paid to Mr. Rentrop.[2] On April 4, 2014, the parties jointly stipulated that Mr. Harding's negligence was the sole cause of the accident. After multiple continuances were granted, this matter was set for trial on September 12, 2016.

         At trial, several witnesses testified as to Mr. Rentrop's medical condition including Mr. Rentrop and his wife. Mr. Rentrop testified that he had worked as a bus driver for over thirty-one years making approximately $30, 000.00 a year, and had not worked as a bus driver since the accident.[3] Mr. Rentrop explained to the jury the history of his medical condition, stating that the cervical discectomy and fusion resolved his arm pain and his neck pain decreased; however, he still had pain in his lower back. Mr. Rentrop testified that in December of 2014, Dr. Williams performed a lumbar discectomy and fusion to treat his back pain. Mr. Rentrop testified that the lumbar surgery helped alleviate his lower back pain.

         To further corroborate Mr. Rentrop's testimony, the video deposition of Dr. Williams was played for the jury at trial. Dr. Williams stated in his deposition that when he saw Mr. Rentrop for the first time, he was in severe pain, reporting a "10 out of 10." Dr. Williams stated that as of the date of trial, Mr. Rentrop had met his maximum medical improvement for his neck; however, his back was "not quite solid as of yet."

         The defendants presented medical expert, Dr. Walter Stanley Foster, an orthopedic surgeon, to testify regarding his independent medical examination of Mr. Rentrop. Dr. Foster examined Mr. Rentrop after both of his surgeries and reported that he was doing well and that there were no complications. Dr. Foster testified that he believed both surgeries were necessary and that as of the date of trial, Mr. Rentrop should have been at maximum medical improvement for both his neck and back. Dr. Foster further testified that he believed that all of Mr. Rentrop's treatment was related to the accident that occurred on October 3, 2012.

         After a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding damages as follows:

         JOHN RENTROP

A. Physical pain and suffering, past, present and future $450, 000.00
B. Mental pain and anguish, past, present and future $250, 000.00
C. Disability and disfigurement $125, 000.00
D. Inconvenience, loss of gratification of/or intellectual $200, 000.00 and/or physical enjoyment of life and loss of lifestyle
E. Medical expenses, past, present and future $400, 000.00
F. Loss of income, past, present and future $ 177, 500.00

         DAWN RENTROP

         A. Loss of consortium, love and affection, service and society of her husband $250, 000.00

         On October 11, 2016, the trial court signed a judgment in accordance with the jury verdict. On October 24, 2016, the defendants filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) or alternatively, a Motion for New Trial (MFNT). These motions were denied in a judgment signed on December 22, 2016. The notice of the signing of the judgment was sent to the parties on January 3, 2017. Thereafter, the defendants suspensively appealed.[4]

         APPLICABLE LAW

         The defendants pleaded a JNOV alternatively with a MFNT.[5] A JNOV should be granted only if the trial court, after considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposed to the motion, finds it points so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that reasonable persons could not arrive at a contrary verdict on that issue. Broussard v. Stack, 95-2508 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/27/96), 680 So.2d 771, 779-780. If there is evidence opposed to the motion that is of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions, the motion should be denied. Davis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2000-0445 (La. 11/28/00), 774 So.2d 84, 89. In making this determination, the court should not weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its judgment of the facts for that of the jury. Broussard, 680 So.2d at 780. The standard to be applied by the appellate courts in reviewing the denial of a JNOV is whether the trial court's findings in rendering the JNOV were manifestly erroneous. Id.

         In contrast to a JNOV, the MFNT requires a less stringent test than for a JNOV, as such a determination involves only a new trial and does not deprive the parties of their right to have all disputed issues resolved by a jury. Davis, 774 So.2d at 93. In considering a MFNT, the trial judge is free to evaluate the evidence without favoring either party; he may draw his own inferences and conclusions and may evaluate the credibility of the witnesses to determine if the jury has erred in giving too much credence to an unreliable witness. Broussard, 680 So.2d at 781. The trial court's discretion in ruling on a MFNT is great, and its decision will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion. Davis, 774 So.2d at 93. However, the fact that a determination on a MFNT involves judicial discretion does not imply that the trial court can freely interfere with any verdict with which it disagrees. Id. Fact-finding is the province of the jury, and the trial court must not overstep its duty in overseeing the administration of justice and unnecessarily usurp the jury's responsibility. Id. A ...


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