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Mouton v. AAA Cooper Transportation

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

July 18, 2018

LINDA MOUTON, ET AL
v.
AAA COOPER TRANSPORTATION, ET AL. CORY MOUTON V AAA COOPER TRANSPORTATION, ET AL.

          APPEAL FROM THE FIFTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF LAFAYETTE, NO. 2015-0463 C/W 2015-0466, DIV. F HONORABLE DAVID M. SMITH, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Derrick Earles David C. Laborde Jeff D. Easley Laborde Earles Law Firm, LLC COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS/APPELLEES: Linda Mouton and Cory Mouton

          S. Daniel Meeks Nicholas J. Lorusso Phyllis E. Glazer Kristen E. Meeks Meeks & Associates, L.L.C. COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS:

          Arthur Huguley, AAA Cooper Transportation, Inc. and ACE American Ins. Co.

          Court composed of Sylvia R. Cooks, Phyllis M. Keaty, and Van H. Kyzar, Judges.

          SYLVIA R. COOKS JUDGE

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This appeal arises out of a tragic accident which occurred on April 24, 2014, on Interstate 10, in Lafayette Parish. On that date, Arthur Huguley was operating a tractor-trailer rig in the course and scope of his employment with AAA Cooper Transportation, Inc. (AAA Cooper). The decedent, Curley Mouton, was driving in his Mack truck behind the AAA Cooper tractor-trailer.

         While driving his tractor-trailer eastbound on Interstate 10, between mile markers 96 and 97, Mr. Huguley testified he heard a "loud bang." Mr. Huguley continued driving on the interstate for approximately two miles after hearing the "loud bang." Fearing he might have a tire blowout, Mr. Huguley decided to engage in a "wiggle" maneuver. This maneuver is accomplished by intentionally swaying the trailer back and forth, which allows the driver to see his trailer tires in his side view mirrors to determine if he suffered a blowout. Mr. Huguley chose to perform this "wiggle" maneuver rather than pulling onto the shoulder and getting out and inspecting his tires. When the "wiggle" maneuver was initiated, this apparently caused the blown out tire to rapidly come apart, which resulted in pieces of the tire flying into the air. Mr. Huguley later testified he recognized his back trailer tire had blown, because he saw tire debris flying in the air behind his rig.

         Mr. Mouton was traveling behind the tractor-trailer as the debris began flying through the air. Shortly thereafter, the Mack truck being driven by Mr. Mouton left its lane of travel, struck and traveled through a guardrail on Interstate 10, flipped over, hit a tree, and landed upside down in a drainage ditch. Mr. Mouton died as a result of the crash.

         Plaintiffs, Linda Mouton (the surviving spouse of the decedent) and Cory Mouton (the major son of the decedent) filed separate wrongful death and survival actions against Defendants, Arthur Huguley, AAA Cooper, and Ace American Insurance Company (Ace). The suits were consolidated by the trial court.

         Following a trial by jury, a verdict was returned in favor of Plaintiffs. The jury apportioned ten percent (10%) fault to Mr. Huguley and ninety percent (90%) fault to AAA Cooper for placing a defective tire on its tractor-trailer. Curley Mouton was found to be free from fault. The jury awarded damages in the following amounts:

Survival Action Damages

Conscious Pain and Suffering, Mental and Physical

$ 50, 000.00

Past Medical Expenses

$ 1, 213.55

Funeral Expense

$ 16, 488.67

Wrongful Death Damages (sustained by Linda Mouton)

Loss of Financial Support

$100, 000.00

Loss of Services

$ 10, 000.00

Loss of Love and Affection

$150, 000.00

Past and Future Mental Anguish, Grief and Anxiety

$150, 000.00

Wrongful Death Damages (sustained by Cory Mouton)

Loss of Services

$ 10, 000.00

Loss of Love and Affection

$ 75, 000.00

Past and Future Mental Anguish, Grief and Anxiety

$ 75, 000.00

         In response to the jury verdict, Mr. Huguley and AAA Cooper separately filed Motions for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) and Motions for New Trial on Liability. The trial court denied these motions. Plaintiffs filed their own JNOV, seeking an increase in the survival action general damage award. The trial court granted the motion and increased the award for general damages in the survival action from $50, 000.00 to $150, 000.00. Costs were also taxed. In total, after the granting of the JNOV, the amount of damages awarded to both Plaintiffs was $737, 702.52, plus court costs.

         On February 8, 2017, the trial court signed a judgment which taxed costs for expert fees and increased the survival action general damage award to $150, 000.00. On March 1, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for suspensive appeal, obtained a signed order of appeal, and posted an appeal bond. The record was lodged in this court and briefs were filed. On review, this court determined the February 8, 2017, Final Judgment did not contain proper decretal language, including the names of the parties against whom judgment was rendered (with a specification of the percentages of fault as assessed by the jury) and a specification of the increase in the award of general damages in the survival action and other damages awarded by the jury. This court then issued a rule ordering Defendants to show cause, by brief only, why their appeal should not be dismissed as having been taken from the February 8, 2017 judgment that lacked proper decretal language, or, in the alternative, why the appeal should not be suspended pending the receipt of a judgment containing proper decretal language.

         On January 10, 2018, this court issued a ruling suspending the appeal and remanding the matter to the trial court with instructions to issue a judgment containing proper decretal language. Following remand and the issuance of a final judgment with proper decretal language, this consolidated appeal was lodged.

         In their appeal, Defendants have asserted the following assignments of error, which are summarized below:

1. The jury erred in assessing no fault to Mr. Mouton.
2. The jury erred in assessing ten percent (10%) fault to Mr. Huguley.
3. The trial court erred in allowing Plaintiffs to argue various theories of how the accident occurred without supporting evidence.
4. The trial court erred by allowing Mr. Gillen to testify as an expert in the "rules of the road" governing commercial truck drivers.
5. The testimony of Mr. Gillen was so prejudicial that the appellate court should conduct a de novo review of the jury's findings of fact.
6. The trial court committed legal error when it allowed the Plaintiffs to argue to the jury that AAA Cooper was liable under La.Civ.Code arts. 2317 and 2317.1.
7. The Plaintiffs failed to plead a cause of action upon which relief could be granted against AAA Cooper under La.Civ.Code arts. 2317 and 2317.1, and therefore, that cause of action should not have been argued to the jury or included in the jury instructions.
8. The jury committed manifest error by apportioning any fault directly to AAA Cooper under La.Civ.Code arts. 2317 and 2317.1 when the Plaintiffs failed to prove every essential element of that claim.
9. The trial court erred in disregarding the jury's vast discretion and granting the JNOV increasing the award of general damages in the survival action; and, in the alternative, the award was abusively high and should be reduced.
10.The trial court erred by awarding certain fees to Plaintiffs for Mr. Gillen's services.

         ANALYSIS

         I. The Jury's Findings of Fault.

         Several of Defendants' assignments of errors contend the jury erred in its apportionment of fault. The appellate standard of review when examining a jury's findings of fault are well settled. An appellate court must give the jury's apportionment of fault great deference on review and must affirm that apportionment of fault unless it is manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong. Dupree v. City of New Orleans, 99-3651 (La. 8/31/00), 765 So.2d 1002. Thus, we review the facts of the case only to determine if the jury's fault assessments were manifestly erroneous. Where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be manifestly erroneous. Stobart v. State, Dep't of Transp. and Dev., 617 So.2d 880 (La.1993). Further, where the findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, the manifest error standard demands great deference to the findings of fact. Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840 (La.1989).

         a. Fault of Curley Mouton.

         Defendants first argue the jury erred in finding Curley Mouton free from fault in causing the accident. On review, we find the jury's determination that Mr. Mouton was free from fault was reasonable based on the evidence presented at trial.

          Todd Dauphinet, who was driving behind both Mr. Huguley's tractor-trailer and Mr. Mouton's truck when the accident happened, witnessed the accident, and gave the following statement at the scene:

There was a 18-wheeler with a trailer in the left lane and a TK Stanley truck [Mr. Mouton's vehicle] was behind them. The front truck blew a tire going into the right lane together. But she[1] [Mr. Mouton] had no room to go and was pushed over to the right lane. Last I seen truck was in the air.

         In his testimony, Mr. Dauphinet expressed his opinion that Mr. Mouton did nothing wrong in his driving. He stated he was approximately "three vehicles behind" Mr. Mouton's truck. He testified at the time Mr. Mouton's vehicle left the road, the air was full of thick, white smoke and he "could see [Mr. Mouton's] truck veering to the right towards the center line and then it worked back to the left side and then all of a sudden it took an immediate right and it just hit the hand rail."

         Susie Wilridge was driving her vehicle behind Mr. Mouton's truck at the time of the accident, and testified she saw "smoke and debris, tire debris." She stated the debris "was coming at me." Ms. Wilridge further testified as follows concerning the events immediately precipitating Mr. Mouton's vehicle leaving the road:

Q. What about the Mouton vehicle? Did you see whether it braked or not?
A. It broke hard and then moved suddenly to the right. And then moved over like he was trying to get out of the way. Because the 18-wheeler was right there within a car or two lengths.
Q. Did you say you saw some smoke as well?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. This debris that you saw on the roadway, rolling towards to you, how big was the debris?
A. As large as approximately two feet and then variable sizes.
Q. Was there a lot of it?
A. Yes.
Q. What did the Mouton vehicle do then?
A. I don't know at that time. I just saw it veered off and hit the railing and flip because I was driving, I broke hard, saw what was going on, looked and just kept trying to remain in control of my vehicle.
. . . .
Q. How would you describe his departure from the roadway?
A. I would say it was fast. It wasn't like immediately but he was moving over like trying to get out of the way of hitting someone.
Q. What did you see the Mouton vehicle do once it left the roadway? Or did you see it?
A. All I saw was he hit the guard rail and then it was moving - -flipped over. I couldn't look anymore than that because I had to look where I was going.

         Valerie Wilridge was riding with her mother and testified she found "nothing out of the ordinary" with Mr. Mouton's driving. She stated as follows:

A. We were driving behind him [Mr. Mouton].
Q. Okay. At any time was he driving erratically or speeding?
A. No.
Q. Was he driving ...

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