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Washington v. Onebeacon America Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

November 2, 2018

KARONDA WASHINGTON, LATEISHA ATKINSON ON BEHALF OF HER MINOR CHILD, JA'MYAH BASS AND TASHELL JONES ON BEHALF OF HER MINOR CHILD, EZEKIEL BLAKES
v.
ONEBEACON AMERICA INSURANCE COMPANY, SID GAUTREAUX, EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH SHERIFF, TYLER COMEAUX, GOAUTO INSURANCE COMPANY AND SHANKEYSHIA JONES

          On Appeal from the Nineteenth Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Docket No. C631182 Honorable Wilson E. Fields, Judge Presiding

          Benjamin T. Lowe Spencer H. Calahan Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellee Karonda Washington

          Mary G. Erlingson Judson G. Banks Mary E. Colvin Lee J. Ledet Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Defendants/ Appellants Sid J. Gautreaux, III, in his capacity as sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish, Deputy Tyler Comeaux and Atlantic Specialty Insurace Company

          Chase Tettleton Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Defendants/ Appellees GoAuto Insurance Company and Shankeyshia Jones

          BEFORE: WHIPPLE, C.J., McCLENDON, AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.

          McCLENDON, J.

         Appellants seek review of a trial court judgment finding an officer grossly negligent in causing a motor vehicle accident when responding to an emergency. For the reasons that follow, we amend the judgment to assess fault comparatively and affirm the judgment as amended.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This matter arises out of a motor vehicle crash that occurred on March 15, 2014 at around 11:30 p.m. on Airline Highway in East Baton Rouge Parish. Plaintiff, Karonda Washington, was a passenger in a 2003 Mazda Tribute being operated by her daughter, Shankeyshia Jones.[1] Ms. Jones was traveling northbound in the right hand lane of Airline Highway, approaching its intersection with Jefferson Highway.

         At about the same time, Brad Manuel and Tyler Comeaux, both deputies with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, were traveling northbound in the left hand lane of Airline Highway, some unspecified distance behind Ms. Jones' vehicle. The two deputies were in separate police cruisers with their emergency lights and sirens on responding to a Code III call. A Code III call generally requires officers to move to the scene as quickly as possible with lights and sirens engaged. The officers were responding to a call regarding "a disturbance with a weapon ... with an individual inside of a home with a gun" along with screaming being heard in the background.

         At some point, Ms. Jones moved her vehicle into the left hand lane to make a left turn onto Jefferson Highway. Deputy Manuel stopped his police cruiser behind Ms. Jones' vehicle. Deputy Manuel, in an attempt to have Ms. Jones move her vehicle so that he could pass, changed the tone on his siren multiple times. After Ms. Jones had made sufficient room to allow Deputy Manuel to pass, Deputy Comeaux's cruiser rear-ended Deputy Manuel's cruiser and pushed it to the right. Thereafter, Deputy Comeaux's cruiser rear-ended Ms. Jones' vehicle. Ms. Washington was injured in the accident.

         On June 10, 2014, Ms. Washington filed suit against Deputy Comeaux; Sid Gautreaux in his capacity as the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff; the Sheriff's insurer, Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company (improperly identified as OneBeacon America Insurance Company in the petition); Ms. Jones; and Ms. Jones' insurer, GoAuto Insurance Company. Ms. Washington alleged that the accident was caused by the fault of Mr. Comeaux and/or Ms. Jones and sought recovery for injuries sustained in the accident.[2]

         Ms. Jones and GoAuto Insurance Company filed an answer, alleging that Deputy Comeaux was responsible for the accident, or alternatively, that fault should be apportioned between the two defendant drivers.

         Deputy Comeaux, the Sheriff, and Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company (sometimes referred to collectively as appellants) filed an answer, asserting that Ms. Jones was liable for the accident for, among other things, failing to comply with a motorist's duties under LSA-R.S. 32:125 upon approach of an emergency vehicle.

         Following a trial on the merits, the trial court found the appellants solely liable for the accident, reasoning as follows:

The court finds that the defendant, Sheriff Comeaux, ... was grossly negligent in the manner in which he operated his police unit on the night of the accident. From his own testimony he stated that he, and I'm paraphrasing, that he was blinded by the blue lights, either from his car or from another sheriff's deputy's car that was in front of him that did not allow him to see the braking of the vehicles in front of him. He was operating the vehicle based off the testimony, in the neighborhood going well over ninety something miles-per-hour. And the road condition of the night of the accident, it was wet. And so the court finds that he was grossly negligent in operating the vehicle at such a high rate of speed without being able to clearly see what was in front of him. He was not able to stop his vehicle from running in the back of his - another sheriff deputy's vehicle that he knocked off the road and then propelled into the vehicle in which the plaintiff was riding in.

         No reference was made by the trial court regarding the position of Ms. Jones' vehicle or Ms. Jones' failure to stay in the right lane of travel as the emergency vehicles approached. On November 6, 2017, the trial court signed a judgment in accord with its ruling in open court, holding the appellants solely liable for the accident and awarding damages in favor of Ms. Washington.

         In their appeal, appellants assign the following as error:

1. The trial court erred in finding that Plaintiff met her burden of proof that Deputy Comeaux was grossly negligent.
2. Alternatively, the trial court erred in finding that Deputy Comeaux was that sole cause of the subject accident and failing to assign any comparative fault to Shankeyshia Jones.

         DISCUSSION

         A reviewing court cannot disturb the factual findings of a trial court absent abuse of discretion or manifest error. Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840 (La. 1989). To reverse the trial court's factual findings, the appellate court must find from the record that no reasonable factual basis exists for the findings and must determine that the record establishes the findings as clearly wrong or manifestly erroneous. Stobart v. State through Dept. of Transp. and Dev., 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993). Thus, the inquiry is whether the factual findings are reasonable, not whether the trier of fact was right or wrong. Id. If, in light of the record in its entirety, the trial court's findings are reasonable, then the appellate court may not reverse, even if convinced it would have weighed the evidence differently sitting as the trier of fact. Sistler v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 558 So.2d 1106, 1112 (La. 1990).

         Appellants assert that Deputy Comeaux, because he was responding to a Code III emergency with lights and sirens activated, was immune from liability because the plaintiffs failed to show that he acted with reckless disregard or was grossly negligent. Specifically, LSA-R.S. 32:24 provides immunity from liability to drivers of emergency vehicles, under specific circumstances as follows:

A. The driver or rider of an authorized emergency vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, or when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to, but not upon returning from, a fire alarm, may exercise the privileges set ...

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