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Sonnier v. State

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

June 6, 2018

GAYNELWYN SONNIER
v.
STATE OF LOUISIANA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND DEVELOPMENT MARILYN CLARK
v.
STATE OF LOUISIANA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND DEVELOPMENT, ET AL. ELWOOD SONNIER
v.
THE UNOPENED SUCCESSION OF LACY N. JOHNSON, ET AL.

          APPEAL FROM THE THIRTY-THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF ALLEN, NOS. C-2007-190, C-2007-186 & C-2007-188 HONORABLE ERROL DAVID DESHOTELS, JR., DISTRICT JUDGE

          Stacey Allen Moak Special Assistant Attorney General COUNSEL FOR: Defendant/Appellee - State of Louisiana, Department of Transportation and Development

          Dorwan G. Vizzier Broussard, Halcomb & Vizzier COUNSEL FOR: Plaintiff/Appellant - Gaynelwyn Sonnier

          Judi F. Abrusley COUNSEL FOR: Plaintiff/Appellee - Marilyn Clark

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Marc T. Amy, and Elizabeth A. Pickett, Judges.

          ULYSSES GENE THIBODEAUX CHIEF JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Gaynelwyn Sonnier, appeals interlocutory judgments limiting her experts' testimony, along with a final judgment memorializing the jury's verdict in favor of the defendant, State of Louisiana, Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), involving a single vehicle accident caused by an allegedly defective highway. Finding no abuse of discretion on the part of the trial judge and no manifest error on the part of the jury, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         I.

         ISSUES

         We must decide:

(1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in limiting the testimony of traffic experts Duaine Evans and Douglas Robert, precluding their opinions on "unreasonable risk of harm"; and
(2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in limiting the testimony of traffic experts Duaine Evans and Douglas Robert, precluding their opinions on whether a 1949 DOTD project was a "major construction"; and
(3) whether the jury manifestly erred in finding that the accident site did not have defects that created an unreasonable risk of harm.

         II.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case involves a tragic accident on Louisiana Highway 10 in Allen Parish near Oakdale. Two young women in their early twenties were killed when their vehicle failed to navigate a curve in the road, traveled across the opposing lane and its shoulder, and hit a tree stump in the ditch opposite their lane of travel. The driver of the vehicle was Lacy Johnson. Her passenger was Breann Sonnier. Breann Sonnier's mother, Gaynelwyn Sonnier, filed suit against the DOTD, alleging faulty construction and maintenance of the roadway and the ditch. Breann Sonnier's father, Elwood Sonnier, and Lacy Johnson's mother, Marilyn Clark, filed similar suits. The three suits were consolidated.[1] Prior to trial, the suits of Marilyn Clark and Elwood Sonnier were settled.

         Also prior to trial, the trial court made interlocutory rulings on various motions in limine, two of which precluded the plaintiff's traffic experts from giving opinions on whether a DOTD project was a "major reconstruction" and on whether the subject roadway created an "unreasonable risk of harm" for drivers. The court also ruled that a lab report would be admitted at trial showing that Lacy Johnson had a 0.10% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at the time of her death.

         Following an eight-day jury trial, the jury rendered a verdict finding that the roadway at issue did not contain defects creating an unreasonable risk of harm for drivers. The plaintiff, Gaynelwyn Sonnier, appeals the trial court's interlocutory judgments[2] limiting the testimony of her experts for trial, and she appeals the final judgment dismissing her suit based upon the jury verdict in favor of the DOTD. She asks this court to reverse those rulings, allocate fault between the driver and the DOTD, and award damages to her between $500, 000 and $3, 000, 000 for the loss of her daughter Breann.

         III.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A trial court has great discretion in evidentiary matters, and its decisions regarding motions in limine are reviewed using the abuse of discretion standard. See Scott v. Dauterive Hosp. Corp., 02-1364 (La.App. 3 Cir. 4/23/03), 851 So.2d 1152, writ denied, 03-2005 (La. 10/31/03), 857 So.2d 487; see also Heller v. Nobel Ins. Group, 00-261 (La. 2/2/00), 753 So.2d 841.

         The long-standing standard for appellate review of jury determinations of fact was set forth in Mart v. Hill, 505 So.2d 1120 (La.1987). There, the court established a two-part test for the reversal of a factfinder's determinations: (1) The appellate court must find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding of the trial court, and (2) determine that the record establishes that the trial court's finding is clearly wrong (manifestly erroneous). Id.

         "[T]he issue to be resolved by a reviewing court is not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong, but whether the factfinder's conclusion was a reasonable one." Stobart v. State through DOTD, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La.1993). Additionally, "the reviewing court must always keep in mind that 'if the trial court or jury's findings are reasonable in light of the record reviewed in its entirety, the court of appeal may not reverse, even if convinced that had it been sitting as the trier of fact, it would have weighed the evidence differently.'" Id. at 882-83 (quoting Housley v. Cerise, 579 So.2d 973, 976 (La.1991)).

         IV.

         LAW ...


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